Griz player Aanen Moody drives the ball during a game against Sacramento State on Feb. 25. The Griz finished with a 74-72 win.

The University of Montana men’s basketball team is on fire at the right time, winning seven of its eight games before it heads down to Boise, Idaho, for the Big Sky Conference Tournament. 

“We are together right now,” UM head coach Travis DeCuire said. “No one cares who shoots it, no one cares who gets credit, they just want to win.” 

Montana started out conference play shaky, going 3-6, before starting a five game win streak. 

After the team lost in the first round last year, what are UM’s strengths and weaknesses heading into this year’s conference tournament? 

Bright Spots 

Montana, under coach DeCuire, has hinged upon its defense. When the Griz play nasty defense and avoid foul trouble, it is winning games. 

“The biggest thing right now is they trust one another to make plays,” DeCuire said. 

If Montana gets to 67 points before its opponents, it usually wins. In fact, UM has won 10 of its 11 games where it beat its opponent to 67 points. 

When Montana gets hot, it is one of the best teams in the league. Just ask senior guard Aanen Moody, whose strong shooting helped UM go on a five game win streak . 

“We’re sitting in the fourth seed (place) right now and I don’t think that tells the whole story,” Moody said. “We’re just as good as those teams above us.” 

UM ranks number one in the conference 3-point field goal percentage. When the Griz are shooting a lot of open threes, the squad is winning. 

The Griz also have a veteran core that many teams in the conference lack. Senior Mack Anderson is in his fifth year with the Griz while fellow senior Josh Vazquez has spent four years with the squad. 

Juniors Josh Bannan and Brandon Whitney have both played in two conference tournaments with the Grizzlies. 

Moody, while only being in his first year with the Griz, has scored over 1,000 total college points in his stints with North Dakota, Southern Utah and UM. Moody also has experience in the Big Sky Tournament as North Dakota and Southern Utah were both in the conference when he played for them. 

UM is also stellar at the free throw line. The squad has broken its regular season free throw percentage record in back-to-back seasons and has a good chance to do it again. UM is shooting 78.1% from line this season, so if the Griz rack up fouls in Boise, don’t count the team out.  

Troublesome Trends  

Because UM is a defensive minded team, offense can be hard to find at times, leading to long scoring droughts. The Griz also do not use a lot of pace and usually slow down fast breaks to run set plays, which can sometimes take potential points off the board. 

When the Griz go on scoring droughts, especially in the second half, opponents have been known to creep back into and win games. 

“There’s areas where we’ve been good and there’s areas where we still need to improve and be more consistent,” DeCuire said. “If we can go into the (tournament) field like a consistent basketball team on both sides of the ball, we got a shot (at winning it).” 

UM is ranked eighth out of 10 teams in the conference for points per game and ranks dead last for rebounds per game.

When Montana isn’t scoring on offense, other teams have taken advantage of that. Because the Griz shoot so well from beyond the arc, it’s important the teams get a lot of good 3-pointer attempts. 

Sometimes, UM turns the ball over too much and doesn’t shoot 3-pointers. UM ranks in the bottom half of the conference for turnover margin.

In a game against Weber State this year, the Griz turned the ball over with just seconds to go and the Wildcats hit a game-winning shot. UM also nearly lost a road game to Northern Colorado where it led by double digits because of some late game turnovers. 

Another focus for the Griz is staying out of foul trouble. Anderson is regarded by DeCuire as UM’s most athletic defender and is an asset on the floor, but oftentimes, he finds himself in foul trouble. Anderson fouled out of eight or more games in the last two seasons. This year he has hit the foul limit in three games. 

“We have to do a better job of not fouling, not getting teams into the bonus,” Moody said. “Not making games into a free throw match.” 

Bannan and fellow forward Dischon Thomas are also instrumental parts of UM’s identity. When they get into foul trouble, the Griz falter. 

Heading to Idaho

The Griz have a bye that is awarded to the top six teams in the Big Sky Conference after finishing out the conference slate 10-7, after beating Idaho 68-53 on Feb. 27.

“I would say we’re in a really good position,” Moody said. “I know nobody wants to play us in the  tournament.” 

UM will play Idaho State in the first round of the tournament. The team is ranked fourth in the conference, and Idaho State is ranked fifth. The game will tip off at 5:30 p.m. Mountain time on March 6.