MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies men's basketball team is 8-2 at the halfway point of the Big Sky Conference season, and 15-6 overall.
The Grizzlies' growth from last year to this year has been the storyline of the season, and sophomore Josh Bannan has been at the center of that change.
Thrown into the fire as a freshman last year, Bannan showcased his potential with heavy minutes at 24.7 per game, but growing pains were still present. Now this year, he's evolved into one of top men's players in the conference.
"Personally, last year when I was a freshman, I wouldn't say daunting, but Robby, Brandon and I get thrown into a lot of big moments. Freshmen, first go-around. But I think the work we put in in the off-season sort of allowed us to get a lot more confidence like we've done this before, we sort of know what's going to happen," Bannan said. "Just great older guys, like Mack (Anderson) is awesome and energy he brings to the team. Coach (Travis DeCuire) puts a lot of confidence in everyone so I think just the combination of all of that, we're really confident down the stretch in games and we've got guys who can make big shots."
Bannan, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, has seen his minutes increase even more to 28.7 per game, and is averaging 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per contest, with eight double-doubles under his belt. He's shooting the ball at a 48.9% rate from the field and 35.2% from 3-point range. Those numbers are up from 45.3% and 23.5%, respectively, from his freshman year. His free throw percentage is just over 80%.
Defensively, the 6-foot-9 forward has also made an impact with 19 steals and nine blocks, and his teammates say Bannan makes their life easier because of his work on the court.
"It's always nice because I know where he's going to be on the floor," senior guard Cameron Parker said. "We're two left-handed guys so that's kind of cool too. He rolls really well, he pops really well and he's always super reliable. You never not know what you're going to get from him every game so he's really stepped it up his sophomore year for sure."
"I think my rebounding has improved a fair bit. I was a good rebounder last year but I think I've been a bit better this year and there's still a way to go," Bannan added. "My shooting definitely improved generally around the rim. Coach Anderson Clarke and I have put in a tremendous amount of time. Coach Travis, the whole staff, (Jay) Flores, (Chris) Cobb, coach (Zach) Payne, we put in a bunch of work, as did everyone, and I think that's really reaping the benefits."
Bannan was talented as a freshman, but has grown leaps and bounds as Montana finds itself as one of the top teams in the conference at the halfway point. The Grizzlies have a big upcoming road-trip this week with conference-leading Weber State (17-5, 10-1 Big Sky Conference) on Thursday followed by Idaho State (3-16, 1-9) on Saturday.
Getting used to the speed of college basketball has helped those improvements, along with some of the new normal things that come with college basketball that weren't there in his first year, which was much more restricted due to COVID-19.
"It was definitely great. You get out in the community, you start to meet some more people. Meet people who support the Griz," Bannan said. "It's just that personal experience, that really makes it for you. Getting to know people and people who come every week, and the support they put in, it's awesome to be able to try and put a smile on their face and get a win for them."