If Brandon Whitney could have looked at the camera during the fourth quarter of Montana’s Feb. 7 home game against Southern Utah and winked.
Zero registration. Pause.
I bet you are wondering how I got here.
“Here” in his case was about three feet off the ground, parallel to the polished wooden floor of Dahlberg Arena and fully extended like a running back heading for the pylon.
The question of how he got there has two different answers. The short version is that, seconds before, SUU’s John Knight III had picked it clean, snatching Whitney’s crossover and heading to the races.
Little stops Knight, the muscular, crimson-haired point guard of the Thunderbirds, even in the clutter and mud of the half-court. With nothing but the outdoors in front of him, it was free money – barbecue chicken, as Shaq would say – until Whitney dove from behind, pushing the ball out of bounds.
Poof. Southern Utah’s near-guaranteed two points evaporated into nothing. The Thunderbirds failed to score on the ensuing possession, and Cam Parker followed with a lay-up for the Griz, pushing the hosts’ lead to nine points with less than four minutes remaining and all but a victory of crucial rebound for Montana.
“I just put my heart and everything into the game,” Whitney said. “I am proud to do this. Yeah, I had to get that back.
It capped off a frustrating game for Knight. After dribbling the ball with his foot out of bounds under suffocating pressure from Whitney in the first half, Knight responded with a hard kick to Whitney’s forearms after a defensive rebound 90 feet from the basket.
With Knight’s typical headers carried off by Whitney’s quick feet, Southern Utah turned to more offensive sets to try and get their star goaltender forward – getting him off the ball, kicking him researching on post-ups, even taking it out of screens. like Reggie Miller.
None of this worked. In Montana’s 78-67 victory, Knight shot 2 of 9 from the field for nine points, and his five assists were nullified by five turnovers.
It was just one piece of a chain of reputation defensive performances from Whitney, who in late January and early February captured the attention of the Montana media by establishing himself as one of the league’s top perimeter defensemen.
On January 22, he held Jalen Cone, Virginia Tech’s transfer from Northern Arizona, to 12 points on 3 of 12 shooting. Five days later, Idaho’s Mikey Dixon came to Dahlberg Arena as the Big Sky’s leading scorer and was left scoreless. Two days later, the Eastern Washington Steele Venters, averaging over 16 points per game, went five of 2 for 9 shooting.
“Brandon Whitney is a very good basketball player and defense is in your heart,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said after Whitney held off Venters. “When he plays like that in defense, our effort is contagious from guys in different areas.
“It’s the most advanced defense I’ve ever been on with any sophomore on the field. Usually it’s juniors and seniors on the court…and Whitney’s perimeter defense is a big part of that.
After losses to Weber State and Idaho State, Whitney then locked Knight in to help the Grizzlies stop their mini-slip.
Count it all up, and his save list was four of the conference’s top 10 scorers, held to a total of 26 points on 7 of 36 shots, all in the span of two weeks.
Venters and Cone are two of the best 3-point shooters in the conference, with Venters shooting just under 45 percent from deep and Cone second in the league with 88 3-pointers. Dixon is a versatile scorer, north-south slasher, and nifty finisher who also shoots over 40% from deep. Knight, the chiseled transfer from Jackson, Mississippi, with previous stops at Southwest Mississippi CC and Utah State, is basically an alien, averaging more than 14 points per game and shooting more than 50% from the field despite barely the threatens with a 3-point shot – he’s made seven all year.
He’s an off-ball shooter, on-ball shooter, slasher/finisher, and unicorn — in NBA terms, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Russell Westbrook.
It’s not all about Whitney, of course. Defense is a team game, Montana’s schemes require all five players, and his teammates help him out in a million ways: calling screens, dropping into traffic lanes, assisting at the rim, switching, and backtracking. But running that gauntlet points to the longer answer on how Whitney ended up as the perimeter defender with the best reputation and the biggest target on his back in the Big Sky conference.
He’s got all the physical tools – quick feet to stay ahead and change direction, long arms that fan out to bother a drive or get into passing lanes or shut down on a shot.
But Whitney and her head coach will tell you that’s not even half of her success.
Whitney’s missions begin long before the whistleblower. Before matches, he watches clips of his match, reels cut from every bucket they scored, looking for trends – left or right, shooter or slasher, pull-up or spin move.
“You have to know the staff,” Whitney said. “I’m scouting forward, because I know who I’m going to keep this game, and I just see what their tendencies are, what they like to do. Obviously, Venters likes to shoot, so I’m going to take his space away from him to that he can’t shoot, and Knight likes to post you, so you have to keep that.
Then there is his will to do it in the first place; the defense is tough. Whitney has already mentioned her heart once. It sounds cliche, sure, but it takes a lot to chase Venters around screens, or stand up and take a shoulder to the chest of a driving John Knight. And sometimes you take the brunt of it, like Whitney did as Daylen Kountz lit up Montana for 29 points in a 75-66 win over Northern Colorado last week in Missoula.
This fits perfectly with the Griz’s Grit and Grind philosophy. With three sophomores — Whitney, Josh Bannan and Robby Beasley III — leading the team, the offense can be inconsistent and Montana is prone to long scoreless streaks.
DeCuire, always a defense-focused coach, adopted a philosophy of limiting possessions, forcing the other team to play slow and keep scores low. DeCuire’s system wants to get teams out of their early offense and through all of their offensive moves before then having to go head-to-head late in the shot clock.
DeCuire spoke about the importance of keeping the opponent’s field goal percentage in the 40s, and preferably below. Montana had the best regular-season defense in the conference, giving up 66.7 points per game, which kept the Griz with a top-three goal margin despite attacking in the bottom half.
“It can be really exhausting at times,” Bannan said. “Before I came here I always hated defense, I didn’t play defense much back home in Australia. In the last two years defense has become a lot more fun for me. The idea of five guys, you’re just imposing your will on the other team if you don’t let them score. It’s so frustrating for them, and to see that frustration, a bunch of guys coming together and doing that, it’s just super fun.
So far, Whitney has been the main source of this frustration. Just ask some of the best offensive guards in the league.
“I know I’m going to get this assignment before every game,” Whitney said. “So I think about it, I scout the player and I’m just proud of my defence. Like I’ve always said before, if you have a heart to protect, I think you can protect anyone. so is what I think, and I go into every game with that mindset.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All rights reserved.