The Southern Utah University men’s basketball team begins Big Sky Conference play on Thursday and Saturday with consecutive contests against the University of Montana at the America First Events Center.
For the first time ever, SUU head coach Todd Simon will challenge the same conference opponent in consecutive games after Big Sky officials revamped the schedule to cut down on travel and the potential spread of COVID-19 among opposing teams before the season.
“No question this is a huge weekend,” Simon said in the postgame press conference after SUU’s 95-47 win against St. Katherine on Nov. 28. “They’ve been picked in the first couple spots in the league for an eternity.
The Griz have finished in the top three spots of the conference standings in five of the last six seasons under coach Todd DeCuire. DeCuire’s 127-71 overall record is the best of any team in the conference since he took over in 2014. Montana claimed the Big Sky’s spot in the NCAA tournament for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
“We’re trying to crack into that level where we get the respect of a Montana, and we have to earn that,” Simon said. “We have to get over that hump to where we’re winning conference championships, and they’re one of the teams that that road goes through.”
Montana Scouting Report:
The Griz are coming off a successful season where they finished 18-13 overall and 14-6 in conference play, good for third place in the Big Sky. The squad was not able to prove itself in the conference tournament before it was shutdown due to COVID-19, and will have to work to replace the production of All-Big Sky First Team performer Sayeed Pridgett (19.8 PPG and 7.2 RPG in 2019-20) and All-Big Sky Second Team player Kendal Manuel (15.1 PPG and 3.5 RPG).
The last time Montana visited Cedar City on Jan. 2, 2020, the Griz took home a 60-58 victory behind 54 combined points from Pridgett, Manuel and Jared Samuelson, who also graduated at the end of last season.
The last time the teams met though, was the last game of the 2019-20 regular season, where the Thunderbirds secured a 85-80 overtime victory in Missoula. That win cost Montana a share of the regular season Big Sky conference championship, and was SUU’s first against the Griz since joining the Big Sky in 2012.
Montana lost its first game of the season 76-62 on Nov. 28 to the University of Southern California. Freshman guard Branden Whitney led all scorers in the contest, with 17 off the bench for the Griz.
Preseason All-Big Sky selection F/C Michael Steadman is expected to be DeCuire’s main man after transferring from San Jose State University and sitting out per NCAA transfer rules last season. Steadman is a bruising fifth year senior who stands at 6’10”. He’s a dominant presence inside, and he led SJSU in scoring with 13.2 PPG during the 2018-19 season.
Fellow transfers Cameron Parker (from Sacred Heart University) and Cameron Satterwaite (Northern Arizona University) will help lead the charge for the Griz.
Parker is a junior guard who averaged 7.8 assists per game in 2019-20, but is coming off a season ending ankle injury he suffered in January.
Satterwaite started his college career at Loyola University Chicago, where he was a role player on the team that made the Final Four in 2018, before spending two seasons at NAU and graduate transferring to Montana.
Returning Big Sky Freshman of the Year Derrick Carter-Hollinger will see an increased role after averaging 6.7 PPG and 4.9 RPG last season.
DeCuire added a talented batch of freshman in the offseason, including the free-scoring Parker and 6’9″ Australian forward Josh Bannon, who played at UC Lake Ginninderra, the same institution where SUU women’s basketball player Pyper Thornberry studied.
Sophomores Kyle Owens (6’9″, 4.6 PPG in 2019-20) , sophomore Josh Vazquez (6’3″, 5.1 PPG), redshirt sophomore Eddy Egun (6’4″, 2.0 ppg) and junior Mack Anderson (6’9″, 3.3 PPG) round out the rotation.
Keys to the game:
1. Defending the Paint
Montana struggled to make shots against USC. The Griz shot 21 of 62 (34%) from the field and 4 of 17 (24%) from behind the 3-point line. Even against a Pac-12 opponent on an ice-cold shooting night, Montana managed 26 points in the paint, just six less than USC.
Steadman struggled to get things going against the Trojans. He played only 22 minutes because of foul trouble and finished with seven points and two rebounds. Expect DeCuire to turn to his star transfer as his main scoring option against SUU.
This puts pressure on T-Bird big men Ivan Madunic and Courtese Cooper to defend without fouling in both contests. If Madunic, Cooper, or any of SUU’s slashers can get Steadman in foul trouble of his own, it will make life a lot easier defensively for SUU.
Steadman isn’t Montana’s only interior presence though. Even if SUU can slow him down, the T-Birds will still have their work cut for them in preventing Carter-Hollinger, Bannon, Owens and Anderson from getting easy baskets underneath. Montana will likely crash the offensive boards and look for second chance opportunities as well, and SUU will have to show toughness on the defensive glass in order to win.
2. Protecting the Rock
Montana scored 16 points off of 16 USC turnovers last week, and the Griz had the fifth best scoring defense in the conference last season. If the shooting struggles that surfaced during the USC game return, then Montana will grind the game out and try to capitalize off of SUU’s mistakes in order to win. When the Griz won at the AFEC last year, they did it on 41% FG and 16 points off of 15 SUU giveaways.
Last season only three teams in the Big Sky turned the ball over more than SUU did (12.6 TOPG), and against Loyola Marymount University last week the T-Birds coughed it up 16 times.
Empty possessions could keep Montana in the game if they struggle offensively. Misguided passes, offensive fouls and lapses in focus need to be eliminated if SUU is going to take the victory against the Griz.
3. The Coaching Battle
This will be something to keep an eye out for all season long, but the new schedule where teams play each other twice in one weekend presents a unique challenge for coaches.
Instead of having a few weeks of conference play to mull over adjustments before reengaging with an opponents, Simon, DeCuire and their staffs will have one day to review film from game one before implementing what they learned in game two.
This means that securing two wins in a row will be especially difficult, and the coaches who are most well-equipped to adapt on their rotations on the fly will make a big difference in their team’s place in the standings.
Both teams have deep rosters with plenty of trustworthy players available to close out games. The coach who is savvy enough to counter the opponent’s lineup at the right moment will likely emerge as the victor. These games are going to be a fascinating technical battle from two of the conference’s brightest offensive minds. Who will win the chess match?
Thursday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. and Saturday’s begins at 12 p.m. No in-person fan attendance is allowed, but the games will be broadcast on PlutoTV Channel 1,055 and www.WatchBigSky.com.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics.