MISSOULA — In its second year of playing NCAA Division I men's basketball, the UC San Diego Tritons have made quite a splash.
The Big West team, coached by Eric Olen, was a regular fixture in the D-II NCAA Tournament with four straight appearances from 2016 through 2019 with a pair of Sweet 16 finishes in '16 and '17.
They Tritons have made the 2020 edition after winning the California Collegiate Athletic Association's conference tournament but the pandemic nixed the Big Dance.
Now, after years of recent dominance at the D-II level, the Tritons are off to a 4-0 start this season after finishing a modest 7-10 — just four D-I wins and three non-Division-I victories — in their first year as a D-I team in 2020-21.
The Montana Grizzlies (2-2) open their Zootown Classic at Dahlberg Arena on Wednesday with the upstart Tritons, a team that can't be overlooked by fans despite the D-I youth on paper.
Not a bad team to open the first multi-team men's college basketball event in quite some time in Missoula.
"You recruit to it," Grizzlies coach Travis DeCuire said Saturday following a win over Nebraska Omaha. " ... A lot of these teams are older than they had been in the past. ... They are very fundamentally sound, they got a good coach and they shoot the ball. Teams like that are going to be hard to beat."
The Tritons opened the season with a 13-point road win at Pac-12 bottom dweller California — which needed double overtime to beat Southern Utah on Thursday. The Tritons then made quick work of a struggling George Washington (1-4) team out of the Atlantic 10, routed NAIA San Diego Christian by 37 and most recently handed Sacramento State (2-2) a double-digit loss in Sacramento, California.
Because of NCAA rules, the Tritons are not tournament eligible until 2024-25. It seems silly given how well they have played, as they look like other recent D-I newbies who hit the ground running at the top level of the NCAA. Cal Baptist did in its second season in 2020-21, going 21-10 in the WAC. Grand Canyon, also in the WAC, went 27-7 in its third D-I season in 2015-16, That was good for third in the conference regular season but the team was not allowed at the WAC postseason tourney.
The Tritons are excelling in some of the key categories a basketball team wants to succeed in. They are shooting the 3-ball at a 44.8% clip, which would rank ninth in the NCAA but the league's official stats do not include the Tritons. They are hitting field goals at a 49.3% clip, which would be 50th.
Defensively the Tritons are holding teams to 37.7% from the field, 58th in the NCAA, and 22.9% clip from 3-point range, which would be 14th among all D-I teams.
Toni Rocak, a 6-foot-9 forward, leads the Tritons in scoring at 18 points per game while shooting a 59% clip from the field. He scored a season-high 27 against Cal and 23 against Sac State. He has hauled in at least seven boards in each game.
Montana has never faced any of the teams featured in the Zootown Classic, setting up a week of firsts.
Rest of the field
Southern Mississippi comes in with one D-I win, beating Lamar last time out. The Golden Eagles have lost to Louisiana and Texas Christian, both by double digits. Southern Miss is shooting just 40.3% from the field and 27.4% from deep but has played tough defense, keeping teams to 41.2% from the field.
Trae Hardy, a 6-3 junior guard, is scoring 21.3 points per contest, good for 24th in the nation, on 52.6% from the field, 37.5% from deep and 84.2% from the charity stripe. He is also snagging 2.5 steals per game.
UNC Wilmington has gone 3-2 to start, with two straight wins. The Seahawks have one non-D-I win and have lost to Illinois State and Pittsburgh. Three players are averaging over 9.8 points per game. Shykeim Philips is at 9.8, while Mike Okauru and Jaylen Sims are at 10.6 points per game.
As a team the Seahawks are hitting just 36.7% from the field and 30.1% from deep. Defensively teams are hitting 40.1% from the field and 31.1%, so while the offense has stalled, the defense keeps things close.
"Anytime we can get three opponents in our facility on back-to-back days it is very difficult to do," DeCuire said. "I don't know when the last time that happened but we will try and do it again. But we can't promise that. It will be exciting, especially if we can get some fans in here."
The last time was actually 12 years ago that Montana hosted an MTE. The Grizzlies hosted Loyola Marymount, North Dakota and Boise State in the Karl Tyler Chevrolet Tournament. Montana beat all four teams.
The last time Montana lost in a true home tournament was 1999.
Wilmington and Southern Miss will get the event started Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena before the Griz take on the Tritons.