MISSOULA — Redshirt junior Ahmaad Rorie is a well-known commodity heading into the season.
At this time last year, Rorie had yet to play in a basketball game for the Griz. He was simply known as a transfer guard from Oregon who had redshirted the previous year and was said to have potential.
So when he got to play, he displayed the talents that earned him a scholarship to the Pac-12. He picked up team MVP honors and was named to the All-Big Sky Conference second team as he led the Griz in points per game (17.6), total assists (97), field goals (192) and 3-pointers (63).
Heading into this season, he was one of six players named to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team.
While he acknowledges his success wouldn’t be possible without his teammates, the results he's produced and the awards he’s garnered make him a face of the team, if not the face of the team. And he’s not shying away from the challenge that comes with that.
“I definitely like the pressure of that,” Rorie said. “I feel like I work out a lot and prepare myself to be that. There’s other guys, too. My guys believe in me. My coaches believe in me.
"I want everybody to look to me. I even want my teammates to feel like they could follow me and I can lead them. That’s what I would like for sure.”
Rorie and the Griz will open the 2017-18 season when they host Whitworth at 7 p.m. Friday at Dahlberg Arena. The Pirates are an NCAA Division III team from Spokane.
The Griz are coming off an up-and-down season that featured a 16-16 overall record and 11-7 conference record. Their season ended in the Big Sky tournament quarterfinals.
As Montana looks to bounce back from the disappointing season, Rorie feels he’s in a great spot, even as he has the new responsibility of being one of the team's leaders.
“I feel like I’ve got my rhythm back from my first year of college,” Rorie said. “I feel my basketball game does the speaking for itself. Just being a leader and a coach on the floor, I feel that’s the biggest jump I’ve made.”
This year’s team features more depth, height and 3-point shooting. It’s a versatile young squad with six returners and eight newcomers.
Even with the loss of Donaven Dorsey to season-ending injuries, the Griz have the pieces on paper to contend for a conference title. They were picked to finish third in preseason conference poll by both the coaches and the media.
The veteran backcourt of Rorie and junior Mike Oguine could be the focal point of the offense early in the season. Oguine brings scoring, and Rorie can create his own shot and facilitate for others as well.
"He's the guy we want with the ball in his hands at half court to make plays," senior Fabijan Krslovic said of Rorie. "We back him 100 percent. We know what we're going to get out of him. He's going to bring it every night and is going to be aggressive."
Head coach Travis DeCuire is hoping to have an eight- or nine-player rotation with 10th and 11th situational players. It may be a few games before he finalizes that and any redshirts, he said.
Krslovic expects to be taking on a facilitator role since the Griz have added size down low. They have seven players listed at 6-foot-7 or taller after just three such players last season.
Jamar Akoh, a 6-foot-8 transfer, highlights that group of big men. He averaged 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds as a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton.
"He holds his spot," DeCuire said of Akoh. "He's easy to get (the ball) in there to. He draws a lot of fouls. He's hard to guard. He's a great compliment to Ahmaad and Mike. I'm excited about what he brings to the table for us."
On the wings, Bobby Moorehead and Sayeed Pridgett should be competing for the starting spot. Moorehead brings 3-point shooting, and Pridgett can create for others as well as bring the ball up the court.
Athletic freshman forward Karl Nicholas has been active in grabbing rebounds and blocking shots, and could provide a spark off the bench. Against Saskatchewan, DeCuire was impressed with his ability to switch ball screens and contain guards.
In the paint, 7-foot freshman Admir Besovic and 6-foot-10 freshman Kelby Kramer could be competing for playing time as the backup center.
Freshmen guards Timmy Falls and Lars Espe could provide outside shooting and passing off the bench.
North Idaho transfer Niko Bevens will try to carry over his precision 3-point shooting.
Walk-ons Trever Spoja, a redshirt sophomore, and Peter Jones, a freshman, round out the roster.
Montana will play Whitworth for the fourth consecutive season, and it’s no coincidence the Pirates have become a regular addition to the Grizzlies’ schedule.
DeCuire and Whitworth coach Matt Logie have a relationship that goes back over a quarter of a century.
Before coming to Missoula, DeCuire played basketball at Mercer Island High School in Seattle. Logie was a ball boy there, and Logie’s grandfather, Ed Pepple, was the head coach.
After playing for the Griz, DeCuire returned to Mercer Island as an assistant coach for teams that included Logie as a player. He then got his first head coaching job at rival Sammamish High School and coached against Mercer Island when Logie was a senior.
They’ve stayed in touch over the years as they’ve crisscrossed the country in different coaching roles.
This is the first time the game is a regular-season contest instead of an exhibition for the Griz. DeCuire said he planned on the game being an exhibition when he was scheduling games, but the Griz couldn't get a Div. I team to come to Missoula on Friday, and he didn't want to open the season away from home with road trips the next two weeks.
“When you’re at a place like Montana that has that sort of tradition and fan base, you want to play good teams and challenge yourself,” Logie said. “For him to have that respect for our program (to make it a regular-season game), it means a lot.”
The Griz are 3-0 against Whitworth under DeCuire. They won 94-79 in 2014, 83-64 in 2015 and 90-80 last season.
Whitworth hasn’t beaten a Division I team since Eastern Washington in 1994-95, and Logie would be excited to end that streak against his mentor.
“We joke about if that were to happen, the series might get discontinued,” Logie said with a laugh. “… It’s a friendly rivalry until it gets real.”
Whitworth is in a year of transition after losing four seniors from a team that went 23-5 and advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament.
The Pirates are paced by junior guard Kyle Roach, the team’s leading returning scorer at 15.9 points per game. He ranked first on the team in rebounds (5.2) and steals (1.3) and was second in assists (2.1).
Ben Bishop, a 6-foot-8 junior, takes over at center after serving as the backup the past two seasons. Whitworth added point guard Jordan Lester, a transfer from Division I Robert Morris, and power forward Jared Christy, a transfer and second-team all-conference player from Pacific Lutheran University, which plays in the same conference as Whitworth.
"They're always a very skilled team with three, four 3-point shooters on the floor at a time that can spread you out," DeCuire said. "When you play your normal rules defensively, you're leaving someone open, and they're very good at making you pay. In the past, it's been a defensive struggle for us, but it's a growing experience we need."
The game will count as an exhibition for the Pirates.