MISSOULA — Travis DeCuire isn’t afraid to take on challenges, especially when it comes to putting together the men’s basketball schedule.
Among several priorities for the Griz head coach is scheduling top-tier teams. Montana has played nine Power 5 teams in his first three seasons and will play five more this season.
The Griz get their first taste of that competition this week when their schedule goes from zero to 100 in a hurry. Days after opening the season with a 72-60 home win against NCAA Division III Whitworth, they will take on an ACC and a Big Ten team over the course of 50 hours.
Montana (1-0) will face the Pitt Panthers (0-1) 5 p.m. Monday in Pittsburgh for their first of four consecutive games away from Missoula. It’s the start of the eight-team, four-game Legends Classic, which includes a meeting with Penn State on Wednesday.
“When we do our schedule … it’s play a challenging schedule that springboards you into conference with no fear,” DeCuire told 406mtsports.com during preseason practice. “I want my team to look across the board and look at Idaho and look at North Dakota and look at Weber and anyone else in our conference and say, ‘OK, we’ve beaten a better basketball team or a more talented basketball team or we’ve played well against a team that’s perceived better than them so why shouldn’t we go into this game confident and feel like we should perform.’”
To do that means bringing up to speed a group of six true freshmen and two transfers during non-conference play. It also requires overcoming the loss of Washington transfer Donaven Dorsey to a season-ending injury, and wings Bobby Moorehead and Sayeed Pridgett stepped up in that aspect during the opener. Guard Trever Spoja also showed flashes off the bench.
Timmy Falls and Karl Nicholas saw the most action from the group of freshmen against Whitworth. DeCuire said Falls is further along than the other freshmen on the defensive side of the ball, and he added Nicholas’ defensive deficiencies — he picked up four fouls in eight minutes — are masked by his activity around the rim to get rebounds and blocks.
The main area for improvement DeCuire highlighted after Friday's win is finishing better. On defense, that's getting the rebound after forcing a stop, and not fouling late in the shot clock. On offense, it's making an extra pass or two to get a higher-percentage shot instead of settling for a lesser shot.
“We’ve got a young squad, so we might have some growing pains at the start,” senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “By the time conference comes around, I really expect the team to be firing on all cylinders by having the young guys mature a bit with Division I basketball and know what’s expected of them.
“We have a core group of guys who know exactly what we need to do, what we need to bring every night. We have to do a good job leading them. Especially at the start when these guys aren’t exposed to playing at this level, we have to help them through that and bring some steadiness.”
The Griz have come close to pulling a major upset but are 0-9 against Power 5 teams under DeCuire. They lost by two points against Cal and five against Ole Miss. They also had a three-point loss to Gonzaga, which isn’t a Power 5 team but was ranked No. 17 in the country at the time and made the Sweet Sixteen that season.
Montana may have its best chance to pick up a Power 5 win when it takes on the unknown quantity that is Pitt. Led by second-year head coach Kevin Stallings, Pitt was selected to finish 15th out of 15 teams in the ACC preseason poll.
The Panthers lost all five starters from a team that went 16-17 last season. They have just three returners, and their 11 new scholarship players and seven freshmen are both NCAA highs.
They also lack experienced bigs inside. Three of their five players who are 6-foot-7 or taller are true freshmen, and one is a first-year junior-college transfer.
Pitt is coming off a season-opening 71-62 loss to Navy on Friday. Junior-college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame led Pitt with 20 points on the wing. Senior forward Ryan Luther, Pitt’s leading returner in points (5.7) and rebounds (3.7), added 14 points and eight rebounds. Star freshman guard Marcus Carr chipped in 12 points off the bench.
The Panthers also added transfers Malik Ellison from St. John’s and Monty Boykins from Lafayette.
NOTES: This is the first-ever meeting between Montana and Pitt. … The Griz are 1-6 all-time against current ACC teams, beating Florida State in 1966. … Montana’s last win against a Power 5 team was a 71-66 victory over Oregon State in 2010. … The Griz have lost 14 games in a row against Power 5 competition. … Montana is 0-3 in its first road game of the season under DeCuire.