By NIC HALLISEY
Griz fans will have their first opportunity to watch the 2019-20 Montana men’s basketball team on Tuesday, as the team holds its annual Maroon & Silver Scrimmage, along with the Lady Griz. The women will scrimmage at 5:30 p.m., before the men take the floor at 7. New this year, in between the scrimmages, both teams will take part in a three-point competition. The scrimmage is free.
Below are 10 storylines to watch for on Tuesday:
1. Pridgett is the guy
Throughout the summer and fall, Travis DeCuire continues to rave about Sayeed Pridgett. It’s hard to fly under the radar, considering Pridgett was a first-team All-Big Sky selection in 2019 and last week was picked as one of the league’s top six preseason players. But DeCuire thinks Pridgett is better than ever, and a lot of that has to do with his versatility.
Sayeed Pridgett. Photo by Todd Goodrich for Grizzly Athletics.
“He’s done a good job of always being ready, and now that he’s a senior, I think we’ll have the opportunity to see just how talented he is,” DeCuire said. “Sayeed is the most versatile player I’ve ever coached, and we’re going to need him to play all five positions for us this year.”
A season ago, Pridgett was splitting shots with all-time greats Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, in addition to Jamar Akoh for part of the season. All three of those players have graduated, leaving Pridgett as the guy to handle the bulk of the offense. Even with so much talent surrounding him, Pridgett ranked in the top 15 in the Big Sky last year for scoring, field-goal percentage, steals, assists and blocks. In March, he became the 34th member of Montana’s 1,000-point scoring club.
2. Versatility will be key
Pridgett is far from the only player capable of spreading things out. In fact, DeCuire is asking several of his players to take on multiple roles and cover a handful of positions – a characteristic that he and his staff have begun recruiting to.
It’s one of the things that has made October practices such a growing pain, but will also add important depth once the season begins.
“Length – when you’re talking wings, posts and maybe guards who are strong and athletic enough to guard bigger guys – is important to our depth,” DeCuire said “I like recruiting guys who play more than one position, because it leads to a lot more positive chemistry when guys aren’t relying on someone else’s failure for minutes.”
Look for newcomers like Derrick Carter-Hollinger and Kyle Owens to play multiple spots.
3. Three-point shooting should again be a strength
While Montana graduated the majority of its production from last year’s championship team, three-point shooting is an area where the Griz bring back plenty of talent. Sure, Montana still lost nearly two-thirds of its made three-pointers from a season ago, but it’s the players who are back that will be key.
Senior Kendal Manuel drained 57 treys on .422 shooting during his first season in Missoula and will again lead the charge. Also back is junior Timmy Falls, who has 48 makes across two seasons, and Pridgett, who added range to his game in 2019, including four made treys at Creighton.
Throw in Freddy Brown III (a player with ‘Downtown’ in his nickname) and a handful of freshmen who can shoot from range, and it becomes a promising statistic for the Griz.
“It all comes down to the right guys taking the shots,” DeCuire said. “Each year we’ve started slow from three, as I let guys take their shots, and then we’ve figured out who should be shooting them and our percentages have gone up drastically.
In addition to Manuel, Falls and Pridgett, DeCuire noted a few others to watch for from deep.
“Eddy (Egun) and Josh (Vazquez) are guys who should shoot for percentage from three. Kyle (Owens) is a guy who can be a high-percentage guy.”
In 2017-18, Montana shot .339 from deep (236th nationally) while making just 5.5 triples per game (331st). Last year, the Griz ranked 30th nationally with a .380 shooting percentage, and averaged nearly three more makes per contest.
4. Injuries have slowed the Griz, which has created more reps
Griz fans will notice several players not suited up on Tuesday. Montana has been practicing without Falls (hand), Peter Jones (foot) and Jared Samuelson (knee). All three are close to returning, but have been limited in practice this month.
While injuries are unfortunate, they have opened up even more opportunities for the team’s seven newcomers to get reps in practice.
“I think a lot of times, freshmen are subbing in or watching, but with our lack of depth, our freshmen are on the floor,” DeCuire said. “They’re getting plenty of reps, which I think will expedite their growth. It also puts a lot of pressure on them.”
5. High-major talent on the court
The Griz coaching staff is excited about what transfers Naseem Gaskin (Utah) and Michael Steadman (San Jose State) can do on the basketball court, as well as Yagizhan Selcuk, a midyear transfer from Towson. Unfortunately, both Gaskin and Steadman will likely have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, while Selcuk won’t be able to play until grades have posted following the fall semester.
That makes Tuesday a rare sneak peek for fans to see them in action.
Gaskin was a three-star recruit by both ESPN and 247Sports and was rated as the 37th-best prospect in the state of California coming out of high school. After averaging 14.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game while helping Bishop O’Dowd to the CIF state tournament, Gaskin redshirted during his lone season at Utah.
Steadman was the best player on the floor each of the past two seasons at San Jose State, leading the Spartans for scoring (13.2 points per game) and rebounding (8.5 per game) while starting 29 games as a junior in 2019. He ranked third in the Mountain West for shooting (.483) and in the top 15 for both scoring and rebounding.
6. Egun’s turn to shine
The biggest takeaway from last season’s scrimmage was the exciting play of Eddy Egun. The guard from California wowed fans with his speed and leaping ability, giving them an idea of what was in store. They then had to wait, as Egun redshirted through the 2018-19 season.
On Tuesday, he again will suit up for the scrimmage, before taking on an expected large role for the Griz this season.
“Eddy has grown a lot,” DeCuire said. “The biggest question mark for him was how hard he was willing to play, but I don’t know that anyone has grown as much as he has in that regard. He competes hard and every day brings energy. His ability to put the ball in the basket is another area we could use from him. Hopefully when the lights come on he makes shots the way he has in practice.”
7. Anderson will have a presence down low
Mack Anderson wasn’t supposed to play a season ago. He was expected to redshirt, but needing depth and a change in mid-November, DeCuire threw Anderson into the fire. DeCuire wishes he still had four years with Anderson, but the lessons he learned a season ago, while in action, will be invaluable during his sophomore campaign.
Anderson played in 28 games, including the final 15, averaging 8.5 minutes per contest. He averaged 4.7 points and 1.6 rebounds per game while shooting .659 from the floor. While DeCuire noted Anderson still might be a year away from where the staff would eventually like him to be, expect more growth and contributions from the Bozeman product.
“We’ve changed his shot a little bit, but strength is the biggest thing. Mack is a lot stronger,” DeCuire said. “He didn’t play as much as we’d like for a freshman who doesn’t redshirt, but I think he made up for a lot of that over the summer. He had the best summer of all of our down-low guys, so we have high expectations for him.”
8. What will the rotation look like?
It’s the question every fan always wants to know. After Montana graduated nearly 75 percent of its minutes played and lost five of its six most-used starters, there are spots up for grabs.
It’s hard to say for sure who DeCuire will throw out on the court once the season officially tips on Nov. 6 at Stanford, but after graduating so much talent, expect to see opportunities for players to make immediate impacts.
“We’re wide open right now,” DeCuire said. “This will be one of those teams where the lineup changes from game to game.”
Fans know Pridgett will be on the floor – where that is, on the other hand, is still a question (see No. 1) – as will Manuel. DeCuire also expects Anderson to see plenty of time down low. The rest, though, could be trial and error.
For a young group, DeCuire noted that a variety of factors can influence the rotation, including matchups, who has confidence and even the idea that some guys perform better coming off of the bench.
In addition to the trio listed above, Falls is Montana’s other returning rotation member from last season. The Grizzlies also return Brown, a sophomore, and Egun, a redshirt freshman, while welcoming in five players who can see the court this fall. Among that group is a trio of highly talented freshmen from California – Carter-Hollinger, Owens and Vazquez – who all scored 1,000 points through their illustrious prep careers.
“We’re messing with it and we’ll see how it works,” DeCuire said. “Hopefully by January we’ll have something solid figured out.”
9. The thing that has stood out so far is the offense
Montana has held two intrasquad scrimmages this month, and will have two upcoming against fellow Division-I teams.
Through two intrasquad scrimmages thus far, the biggest thing DeCuire has noticed is where the offense is at.
“Right now, the offense is ahead of the defense, which typically happens about this time,” the sixth-year head coach said. “You work on all of these defensive concepts, and then you put your offense in and it’s built to take advantage of defensive rules and structure. Right now, we’re scoring the ball and we’re getting good shots. We need to get better defensively, and hopefully we’ll see that on Tuesday.”
10. Make the most of Tuesday
Montana won’t hold an exhibition contest this season – a rarity in college basketball – and for the first time in three years will open the season on the road. That means Tuesday is fans’ only opportunity to catch the Griz in action in Missoula until Nov. 10.
“I hope fans come out and enjoy the product we put out,” DeCuire said. “With a young group and a small senior class, it’s going to be impossible for us to be consistent right now. For us, these next few months are about trying to grow as quickly as we can and being the best basketball team we can be in the last week of December.”
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