FRANK GOGOLA Missoulian
MISSOULA—Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky. Gonzaga’s Drew Timme. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson. Armando Bacot from North Carolina. Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis.
These players are widely regarded as the best big men in college basketball this year. However, neither of them are doing what Montana’s Josh Bannan is doing for the first three weeks of the season. In fact, nobody is.
Bannan, a 6-foot-10 forward, averages 14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists in six games. He is the only player in NCAA Division I men’s basketball to average 15/10/5 (rounded up) this season while playing in more than two games.
All five of the aforementioned players average 16 or more points and 7.8 or more rebounds per game. Bannan splits in the assists department as none of those five are dishing out more than 2.5 per game.
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“Last year he wanted to score. Now he’s trying to make the right play,” said Montana coach Travis DeCuire. “That’s why I let him handle the ball a lot more than I did a year ago. He definitely put a lot of time into his development. He lives in the gym. Guys who work as hard as he does, you guys are going to give him those opportunities.”
Bannan worked to become a better passer this offseason after averaging just 1.6 assists as a sophomore last year. He’s had four or more assists in all six games this season when he’s been dropping those dimes with passes over defenders, bouncing passes on the lane and abandoning drives.
He wasn’t much of a liability handling the ball more often. Last year, he had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.0 on 50 over 32 games. This year he has 30 total assists versus 14 turnovers, a ratio of 2.1.
Bannan had a career-high six assists without conceding a turnover in UM’s first win of the season, 78-59 against St. Thomas on November 17. He did so while also racking up 23 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
“I invest a lot of time in my shooting. Always have. But I’ve definitely focused on that, especially this off-season,” he said. “Lately I’ve been concentrating on a more rounded game. My passing, ending. I think that really helped me. It wasn’t something I’ve always been good at. The coaches put me in really good positions this year and I put a lot of work into it. I think I’ve passed the ball a good bit better now and I want to keep doing that.”
Bannan matched his six assists two days later against Troy on Nov. 19. But he also had a season-high of seven turnovers, a season-low of eight points and eight rebounds. That helped Griz lose to Troy 73-62.
The Griz needed another playmaker like Bannan to emerge. They lost last year’s Big Sky Assists leader Cameron Parker, who transferred to fellow conference team Portland State.
That distress is made worse with point guard Brandon Whitney out with a right leg injury. Bannan’s work in the off-season, alongside the transfer of Colorado State’s Discon Thomas, allows him to play more often outside the basket.
If Bannan can execute as consistently as he did against St Thomas, it could be a boost for the Griz, who have a 3-3 record. They were ranked third in Big Sky’s preseason polls and are aiming to win Big Sky for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
“It just makes us harder to guard,” DeCuire said of Bannan’s expanded role. “That makes us more versatile. And it also allows Dishon to be more effective because Bannan plays and it gives Dishon the suit to play in. It will give us more balance.
“Right now, Brandon Whitney was our biggest playmaker at that point and we needed someone else to step up in that regard. I think it allows other guys to play to their strengths and relieves them of that responsibility as players.”
Goal scoring and rebounds were Bannan’s forte. He was the only Big Sky player to average at least 17 points and eight rebounds in conference play last season. He received second-team All-Big Sky honors and competed this year as a preseason All-Conference selection.
Bannan also wanted to be a better rebounder, so he worked on that ahead of this season. He finished third in the country on Thursday with three double-doubles. He has combined jumps, hook shots and an 81.1% free throw while acting like a magnet for the ball on the boards.
He had a double-double and was on triple-double watch at halftime against St. Thomas. That performance made him the eighth NCAA Division I player since 2010 with a line of 23/17/6 or better.
Bannan averaged 14.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in three games this past week to earn Zootown Classic MVP honors for the second straight season. That led to Troy coach Scott Cross labeling him an NBA prospect. It also resulted in him being named Big Sky Player of the Week for the first time in his career on Tuesday.
“For me, rebounding is mostly about your engine, how badly you want to get the ball,” he said. “I’ve always had a strong engine, and rebounds have always been a way I felt like I could fuel myself and get my offense going. This year I attach even more importance to it. As I get fitter and fitter, I want to keep improving.”
Frank Gogola is a senior sports reporter at the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at [email protected]