The Montana Grizzlies (20-7) hold down the top spot in the Big Sky Conference and former point guard turned head coach Travis DeCuire is on the verge of leading the Grizzlies to consecutive March Madness appearances.
The University of Montana, located in Missoula, might be most known because of their most famous alum. Jeff Ament, musician and basketball lover, dropped out of Montana in the early 1980s to start his music career in Seattle. Ament would go on to form the legendary band Pearl Jam with Eddie Vedder. These days, Ament has a home in Montana and can often be found sitting courtside in Missoula.
The basketball team in Missoula these days is no joke. As a #12 seed a decade ago in March Madness, the Montana Grizzlies picked off #5 Nevada and advanced to the Round of 32.
The Grizzlies won the Big Sky last season, but had an unfortunate opening-round match up against #3 Michigan. The Wolverines would go onto to the Final Four and eventually lose in the national championship game to Villanova.
🚨 Celebrity Sighting 🚨
— Montana Griz BB (@MontanaGrizBB) February 26, 2019
Travis DeCuire is a former member of the Montana Grizzlies. The standout high school hoopster from Mercer Island, Seattle played point guard for the Grizzlies in the early 1990s. DeCuire set the single-season record and career record for assists in Missoula.
In 2014, Montana hired their former point guard to become their new head coach. DeCuire has a 103-56 record in five seasons with the Grizzlies. He finally won a Big Sky title last season, but has higher hopes this season. DeCuire and the Griz are on a mission to win a couple of games in March Madness this time around.
Montana relies on a guard-heavy offense with two players churning out 15.5 points per game each. Ahmaad Rorie, a 6-foot-1 senior guard averages 15.5 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists per game. He’s the emotional leader of the squad.
Jamar Akoh, a 6-foot-8 swingman, averages 15.5 points per game for the Grizzlies. The SoCal player transferred two years ago from Cal State Fullerton. Akoh hits 58.7 percent of his shots and adds 8.7 rebounds per game.
The highly-efficient Sayeed Pridgett, a 6-foot-5 junior, is the Grizzlies third-leading scorer with 14.2 points per game on 59.7 percent shooting.
Big Sky Hoops: Lillard and Kilborn
With the decline of the Pac-12, the Big Sky should not be overlooked as a hotbed for basketball in the Western United States.
Montana State is most known as the alma mater of former talk show host and actor Craig Kilborn. He played hoops for Montana State in the early 1980s.
Damian Lillard is probably the most popular former Big Sky player in the NBA. Lillard first made a name for himself at Weber State. He averaged 24.5 points as a redshirt junior before leaving school early for the 2012 NBA Draft. Lillard ended his stint at Weber State as the school’s leading scorer and second all-time scoring in the Big Sky. He’s since dropped to sixth overall.
Missoula Coaching Hub
Several notables coaches cut their teeth with Montana. Jud Heathcote is most known as Magic Johnson’s head coach at Michigan State. Before he took over the job in East Lansing, Heathcote coached the Grizzlies in the early 1970s.
Heathcote coached the greatest team in Montana history. He took the Grizzlies all the way to the Sweet 16 in 1975 before losing to UCLA. In five seasons, Heathcote went 80-53.
Mike Montgomery won 155 games in eight seasons in Missoula. Although he never had any success in March Madness, he would go on to coach Stanford and Cal in the Pac-12. He also had a stint as head coach of the Golden State Warriors in the 2000s.
Larry Krystkowiak played for Montana in the early 1980s. He set the school record for points and rebounds. He’s also the only player to be named a three-time Big Sky Player of the year. Krystkowiak was a journeyman in the NBA before he pivoted to coaching. He coached Montana for two seasons in the mid-2000s. The Other Coach K was the last Montana coach to win a game in March Madness in 2006. Since he left Missoula, Krystkowiak coached the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA and these days, he is the head coach for the Utah Utes.
On Deck: Four More
Montana recently had a ten-game winning streak snapped by Northern Colorado. NoCo moved into second place in the Big Sky, trailing Montana by one game.
Montana has four games remaining in the regular season and only one of their opponents has a winning record. They have two home games upcoming against Southern Utah (14-12) and Northern Arizona (9-18). They close out the season on the road with games against Portland State (13-14) and Sacramento State (12-13).
The Big Sky might not impress you like the ACC or SEC would, but Montana can hold their own against the best teams located west of the Rocky Mountains. The Pac-12 is no longer a dominant conference and on the verge of sending only one team to March Madness this year. The Washington Huskies are the sole Pac-12 team in the latest AP Poll Top 25.
The #12 Nevada Wolfpack (25-2) is fighting to return into the Top 10. The Wolfpack are expected to win the Mountain West tournament again this year. Gonzaga is the best team in the West and returned to the #1 ranking this week after Duke slipped to #3 after losing Zion Williamson to a freak sneaker injury.