The Missoulian's Kyle Sample was kind of enough to join bigskybball.com to answer 5 Questions about Montana basketball as the Grizzlies head south for two huge games against Idaho State (Thursday) and Weber State (Saturday).
1) Senior forward Martin Breunig’s numbers are up across the board. He’s averaging more points (19.2 vs 16.7), rebounds (8.8 vs 7.3) and blocks (1.08 vs .8) per game. His efficiency numbers a better, too. Breunig is 11th in the country with an effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent.
So, Kyle, how has Breunig improved after a fantastic junior season? Is it just natural maturity? Or did Breunig target anything in the offseason specifically to refine?
The biggest difference for Martin is that he is more aggressive this year and much more aware of where he is on the court and what the defense is trying to do to him. He is so smart against double-teams. If they chase him off the block, he's aware of where they are coming from and has been really smart — and willing — finding the open guy. But in the case where teams dig in on the block and then back away, he's been really good at feeling that and remaining patient.
He's also getting himself in better position to score. Unless teams run him off the block with a double, it's not often that they're able to force him out of the low post. Once he gets it on the block he's so explosive and has such great touch that, more often than not, he's either scoring or getting fouled.
2) I think because Weber State’s Joel Bolomboy is basically a walking double-double and has NBA scouts docked courtside at his games, Breunig’s play has gone a little unnoticed (outside of Missoula). If the Grizzlies beat the Wildcats this week and go on to win the regular season, is Breunig your pick for Big Sky player of the year? Why or why not?
There are a lot of good candidates for that award, but he would be my choice if Montana wins. We thought we were going to see Breunig and Bolomboy go one-on-one this weekend in Ogden, but now it seems doubtful that is going to happen. Martin is playing with a lot of good weapons, probably more than the coaching staff thought available when the season started, but he doesn't have another player who can score like Jeremy Senglin so he’s shouldering a lot of the load offensively. Also, the attention he demands when he is on the floor, even on a bad shooting night, is so great that it allows so much room for others to pick up the slack on those rare occasions.
3) Kyle, you wrote a long profile on Montana head coach Travis DeCuire last week that I’d encourage any Big Sky fan to check out. As you’ve gotten to know DeCuire over the past two seasons, what are his strengths as a head coach? And from your perspective, what has DeCuire learned about coaching in the Big Sky that he’s incorporating in Year No. 2?
I don't want to say he's learned this, because he showed it last season with a roster that didn't exactly have the pieces to run the team the way he wanted, but he's really adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of this team.
As a product of the Montana coaching tree and former player at UM, he came with a dizzying array of half-court sets. The plan was to employ those throughout the season and then add in some sets that would spread the floor. But when foul trouble and some early issues grasping those ideas caused the offense some issues, he switched things up to take advantage of the skills Walter Wright and Michael Oguine brought to the team. It helped space the floor for Breunig and allowed the team to get in a rhythm as conference play opened.
4) It’s a big week for Montana Grizzlies basketball with road games at Idaho State and Weber State. But since the regular-season champion no longer hosts the postseason tournament,* it’s not like the Grizzlies are fighting for anything other than the No. 1 seed in Reno. How much of an emphasis is Montana placing on postseason seeding? Do you think DeCuire really cares whether his team is the 1 or 2 seed in a few weeks? And just to add on to that, how would you gauge how Montana Grizzly basketball fans feel about the move to Reno?
I don't think Travis cares if they are a 1 or a 2 seed, but he does care about winning the regular-season title. He wants that ring and he wants to hang a banner from the Dahlberg Arena rafters. Montana graduates just one senior and I think he wants to teach some of the guys who will be here in the future — five graduate next season — what it takes to run the table and close out the regular season. So in that respect it's important to the program, and if they don't do that these next four games will be seen as a disappointment.
The feeling I get from Griz fans is they really, really don't like this new set up. They were pretty content with watching the Griz host the tournament and many won't be able to take a week of work off to travel to Reno. So I think there is some real resentment in Missoula.
5) Montana wins a Big Sky championship and reaches the NCAA tournament for the fourth time this decade if … ?
This is going to sound really insightful so prepare: The win if they stay healthy and the frontcourt stays out of foul trouble. With Mario Dunn's wrist slowly getting better, the backcourt has depth, but the front court doesn't have a lot. If Breunig and Fabijan Krslovic are on the bench for long periods, Montana doesn't have much experience to turn to. Jack Lopez has been a revelation this season, but he can't play the 5 and is really best as a 3 unless the Griz go to a three-guard lineup and then he's a really good stretch 4. But they don't want to play that lineup for long stretches, so they need to be smart defensively. If that can happen, I think they're the odds-on favorite.