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After falling short of Big Sky championship, Montana Grizzlies look toward the future

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Posted at 6:21 PM, Mar 16, 2023

MISSOULA — The basketball season came to a close last week in Boise, Idaho, for the Montana Grizzlies, as UM made the semifinal round of the Big Sky Conference tournament, but fell to Northern Arizona.

It was a disappointing end for the Griz (17-14) who were beginning to peak in the month of February through March.

"This is my third year now and each time it's gotten harder," Griz junior forward Josh Bannan said. "I think we did get better towards the end of the year and that is possibly a positive to take, but right now it's pretty hard to look at it like that because there was a lot of belief in that locker room that we could go and get this done.

"Right now, anything other than going and winning a championship feels like a failure."

Montana's 2022-23 season was another roller-coaster. UM had a bumpy run in a tough non-conference slate before finishing strong heading into conference play.

From there, Big Sky play also started rocky at 3-6, before the Griz won seven of their final eight league games.

"A ton of growth, moreso mental," UM head coach Travis DeCuire said. "In my opinion, there's a growth that takes place in athletics that the fans and the media never see, from the first meeting with the group in the summer in June to the last meeting we just had in that locker room, there's a lot of conversations that take place that they take with them in life and that's really what college athletics is about.

"But there's been a ton of growth with this group and that's why we played as well as we did from (February) to now and so there's some opportunity for us to take this another step."

The Griz bid farewell to their lone senior in Mack Anderson, a player whose impact at UM was exemplified by his passion for the program throughout his career. That impact was on full display after UM lost to NAU, as Bannan was emotional speaking about what his teammate meant to the Griz.

"His pride in this program means something, and he doesn't care about his name, and I think for me, I wanted that championship for him so badly," Bannan said through tears. "He's given his all to the program, and people don't know but he's been hurt all year. He's been hurt, like fighting through stuff, like people don't see that but there's days he can barely walk let alone play, and he walks up on gameday and he toughs it out and he finds a way to play for us because this means something."

Already there's been movement with the Griz roster, as starting guard Lonnell Martin Jr. announced his entry into the transfer portal earlier this week. Junior forward Trey Lawrence also announced he's stepping away from basketball.

But, the Griz are set to return breakout star Aanen Moody next year as well the likes of program staples Bannan and Brandon Whitney as well as Dischon Thomas who transferred to UM from Colorado State this season and was one of the team's best shooters from deep. Reserve forward Laolu Oke also began to find his stride down the stretch, so returning all of those players should give them depth and experience should they not get hit too hard by transfers.

Senior Josh Vazquez also has one year left due to the COVID-19 waiver, and his return could also bolster the Grizzlies. Plus, there's Jaxon Nap who saw time as a true freshman, while redshirts Rhett Reynolds, Caden Bateman, Isaiah Kerr and Dorell Thomas will all be in the mix next season as well as junior guard Jonathan Brown, who saw minutes sparingly this season.

Plus, the Griz have three current incoming freshmen signed in guard Money Williams from Oakland, California, guard Chase Henderson of Des, Moines, Iowa, and forward Zack Davidson from Mission Viejo, California.

"Just keep growing. We're going to have some hard conversations when this thing ends in terms of areas of growth and what we can do to get better to make sure this doesn't happen next year, and the guys that commit to that are the ones that are going to help us be successful," DeCuire said. "The hardest thing for an athlete is to look in the mirror and challenge himself when he can identify his weaknesses and attack them, so we all do that as coaches and players, we're going to have these hard conversations and we're going to do what we have to do to become a better basketball team. Keep taking steps forward."

Expectations are always high for any UM program, and the Grizzlies haven't been to a Big Sky championship game since 2019, and they were also swept by the Montana State Bobcats for the first time since 2010.

"I think we could definitely use this as fuel for the offseason," Whitney said. "We kind of ended off the year positive except this one game, but yeah we could definitely use this for fuel."

DeCuire just completed his ninth season as Montana's head coach, and his program has tasted plenty of success before, and for them, it's about getting back to that mountaintop.

"You define success different with every group you ever have, and so for the University of Montana there's an expectation that comes with football, basketball, women's basketball, right?" DeCuire said. "And you want to compete for championships and so did we do that? Yeah. We were in the semifinals playing for an opportunity to be in the final game of conference to go to the NCAA Tournament, so winning seasons continued with 17 wins, and opportunities to add to that potentially. So there's a level of success we've had this year that we can always hang our hat on in comparison to some other programs.

"Do we want more? Yes. Do we set our goals higher? Yes. And that's what's special about being at the University of Montana as opposed to some other places is that there's teams that may get one postseason win and they feel that they've arrived and for us, it's trying to get to that final night, and we've been there quite a few times, more than anyone else in the conference in our nine years. Our plan is to continue to get there so we're going to have to buckle down and figure out how to get there next year."