It's been awhile since we've been on the blog-front, and for that I apologize. But with football season, comes no free time…or really anytime to think. With that in mind, I couldn't stay away from my sports ramblings for much longer.
It's hard for me to fully comprehend that basketball season is here, as we are in the midst of a tremendous college football season. But with that said, in a few short weeks, our focus will turn from the grid-iron to the hardwood, and I thought I might as well write about Grizzly Hoops.
The University of Montana's success on the basketball court is well documented, and easy to understand. They've been to the NCAA tournament three out of the last four years, and with that, have been the Big Sky Conference champs.
Just like last year, the Griz have some unanswered questions. However, unlike last year, they haven't been picked as pre-season favorites, and there is a reason for that.
The faces on this Grizzly team are much different than just a year ago, with Will Cherry and Mathias Ward graduated, Spencer Coleman and Kevin Henderson dismissed from the team, and Jake Wylie deciding to forego college hoops, in favor of trying his hand on the football team.
We'll start out with the good: Montana returns one of the best back-courts in the conference. Kareem Jamar is the reigning Big Sky Conference MVP, and he scores consistently. Whether it's from the perimeter, in the post, or with a mid-range jumper, Jamar finds a way to score, and he'll do that again this year. In addition to Kareem, two junior guards in Keron DeShields and Jordan Gregory also return after both seeing plenty of minutes and starting the majority of last year. Each of them look improved. Gregory is a pure shooter, who moves smoothly on the court. He's also a pesky defender, who should provide solid coverage of any perimeter player the opponent has. DeShields looks improved as well. In the short time I've watched practice/the scrimmage, he seems more confident with the ball in his hand. He also was fairly effective in driving to the basket and creating his own shots. If he can handle the ball effectively, and maintain a quality assist to turnover ratio, and throw in a lot of driving and dishing, DeShields is posed for a break-out season.
The post-play is always a concern in the Big Sky conference, with very few teams having true post players. The Griz were expecting Wylie to contribute a lot of minutes this season, and he put in the work in the off-season to bulk up. His departure could prove to be costly, and other players will need to step up, and stay out of foul trouble. JUCO transfer Chris Kemp looked like a star in the Maroon and Silver scrimmage, hustling for rebounds, playing tough defense, and shooting all high percentage shots. Returner Eric Hutchison also looked solid in the scrimmage. He seemed tougher, and battled harder on the boards, and finished with contact. Something that wasn't consistent in his play last season. My pick last year to be the ‘X-factor' was Andy Martin. The lanky 7 foot center has a year under his belt, but as a sophomore, it's hard to gauge how much he'll contribute. Martin has a strong mid-range shot, and has moves in the post. But he gets pushed away from the basket by stronger defenders, and is always in danger of racking up fouls on the defensive end. Mike Weisner will see a lot of time at the 4, but he's more of a small forward, who spends time on the perimeter. A quality shooter, he'll provide a deep-threat.
But then there's the bad: As I previously said, the Griz aren't exactly brimming with post depth. If Kemp/Hutch get in foul trouble, counting on Martin/Weisner to defend a bigger quality post without fouling themselves is a little much to ask. If any of those posts get injured, there is no one on the roster taller than 6' 5", and having true freshman Jack Lopez, or Columbia Falls native Nick Emerson guard someone like Kyle Tresnek or Joel Bolomboy (Weber State) is a matchup nightmare for Montana. While the Griz have some depth in the guard spots, they are rail thin on the interior.
The Unkown: the newcomers. Freshman Mario Dunn came in with high accolades, and many have compared his game to where Grizzly great Will Cherry was as a freshman. Dunn will need to improve his shooting mechanics, but has quickness, and on-court demeanor to be a great perimeter defender, with the ability to create his own shot at the bucket, and rack up assists. However, at the most generous listing of 6'0 tall I've ever seen (there's no way he's anywhere close to that) it's hard to say how much playing time he'll actually see with Gregory, DeShields, and Jamar running the show. Corvallis native Riley Bradshaw transferred last season after just one exhibition game at Utah State, and will be eligible in the middle of the year. He's got a tremendous feel for the game, and is a very smooth player. He can create for himself, and has a good shot. From what I've seen, he appears to be a pass-first sort of guard…but when you have a shot like his, he'll need to be more aggressive looking for his points if he is to see consistent time. However there were flashes in the scrimmage that showed when he does look for his shot, there is good reason he was highly recruited by consistently nationally ranked programs.
Brandon Gfeller could be the sleeper of the freshman class, coming from small town Colfax, Washington, coach Wayne Tinkle has said he expects Gfeller to surprise a lot of people. From what I've seen, he's already got great shooting mechanics, and if given a spot-up shooter spot, will knock down plenty of threes, but he made freshman mistakes, and I think the more he dribbles, the more trouble he'll get into. I'd expect him to redshirt, but if they need someone to play ten minutes and shoot a lot from downtown, he could see 5-10 minutes.
MY SLEEPER: as a disclaimer, I expected huge things from Andy Martin last year…and while he wasn't a disappointment, my lofty expectations would have been tough for any freshman post to reach. But this year, my sleeper is Jack Lopez. The Aussie was a last minute addition to the recruiting class when a scholarship opened up after Spencer Coleman being dismissed from the team. From my brief viewing, he plays like someone who's been on a college team for a while. Many international players have that feel about them, and he looks confident and capable on the court. At no point did I think ‘that's a freshman out there,' he had a beautiful drive through the lane, with several defenders on him, that ended in a picturesque finger roll. He may have been the last one added to recruiting class, but Lopez is my pick for sleeper of the year…which basically means anytime the Griz are losing, I'll proclaim to those around me ‘It's Lopez' time.
As a whole, at worst, the Griz are still a top 3-4 team in the conference. I picked them at second behind Weber in my pre-season poll. However North Dakota also has a tremendous team, and Troy Huff is neck and neck with Kareem for the best player in the conference, in my mind. But even though I picked Weber as first on my ballot, the Griz always seem to find a way to win, no matter the obstacles thrown at them. When you have quality guard play, and a good coach in the Big Sky, you're never out of it. Until next time,