PORTLAND, Ore. — Road wins are a must in order for a team to be in contention to win the Big Sky Conference championship.
No team has performed better on the road in league play over the last three seasons than the Montana Grizzlies. Despite their problems winning away from home during the nonconference season — or maybe because of them — the Griz have won 15 of 20 Big Sky road games under third-year coach Travis DeCuire.
Montana will have the opportunity to improve on its 2-0 road start when it faces Portland State on Thursday and Sacramento State on Saturday.
“A lot of it is our nonconference schedule,” DeCuire said in explaining the success on the road. “A lot of it is our approach. We try to do the same thing on the road that we do at home in terms of our practice schedule, our meals and things like that. We have a team that’s accustomed to being on the road, not sleeping in their own bed. I think it carries over into January and February.”
So while Montana’s 2-7 record away from home during the nonconference schedule might have been hard for the players and coaches to stomach, it’s been a source of nutrition come Big Sky play.
“I think Travis set our nonconference schedule like that on purpose, playing in big arenas, in hostile environments against great teams,” senior guard Walter Wright said. “It prepares us to play against guys on our level. A lot of those teams we played out of conference were (from conferences) a lot higher than us. We understand that if we can compete against those guys, it should be no problem going into these gyms and doing what we have to do.”
The Grizzlies’ road record is a source of pride for the players.
“We love road sweeps,” Wright said. “We love getting a win in someone else’s house. It feels good, almost better than getting a win in front of our own fans just because we went into someone else’s house and made it our own, in a way.”
Montana has won in its last two trips to Portland State’s Stott Center, and has beaten the Vikings in 13 of the last 15 meetings. But this Portland State team is no pushover.
The Vikings rank first in the league in scoring (87.9 ppg), field goal percentage (.503), assists (18.0) and steals (10.5). In fact, the Vikings are third in the nation in thefts, which leads to high-percentage shots, which leads to bushels of points.
“One of the stats that jump out at me recently is the 51 points they scored off of 26 turnovers against North Dakota, a team that has two good ballhandlers,” DeCuire said. “You wouldn’t expect to see 26 turnovers from a team like that. They’re really in the passing lanes and they do a lot of things that you wouldn’t be used to in a structured basketball game and it’s to their advantage.
“Portland State gets so many transition shots off of their steals. Once you get them in the half court they’ll slow down and run on-ball motions. There’s a little more patience than meets the eye. If we can get them in a late clock that means we’re doing our job.”
The Vikings are led by senior guard Calaen Robinson, an Arizona State transfer who ranks 12th in the league in scoring at 13.9 ppg.
“As talented as any guard in our league,” DeCuire said. “Shoots the ball very well. He’s playing the point where as in the past he’s been off the ball a lot more, so I think he’s more aggressive with the ball in his hands and can be a little more patient with the shots he takes. He’ll be as aggressive as anyone we’ve played. … As he goes, the team goes.”
But the Vikings have other threats as well. Forward De’Sean Parsons adds 12.4 ppg, guard Deontae North is at 11.9 ppg, 3-point specialist Bryce Canda adds 11.3 ppg, and center Traylin Farris checks in at 10.5 ppg.
“The No. 1 key is transition defense,” DeCuire said. “Part of that is taking care of the ball and getting a shot. The other part is getting back whenever you shoot. If we do those two things we should be able to slow them down.”