Big Sky Conference

College hoops starts tenuously for Treasure State’s four D-I teams

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Danny Sprinkle calls it “the longest eight months of any of our lives.”

Tricia Binford directly stated “it’s been no guarantees and control what you can control because literally every day is going to have a surprise.”

Travis DeCuire says “for us and similar to nationally, there is not one team where we were at last time last year, not one team that is actually ready to play.”

From the moment the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament was called off the second week of March until Wednesday, November 25, the Bobcat and Griz women’s and men’s basketball teams have been navigating unchartered waters. It’s just one piece of the convoluted, confusing Covid-19 puzzle that Montanans, Americans and citizens of the earth have been swimming through for most of 2020.

Because of the financial necessity of the NCAA basketball tournaments for the NCAA as a whole and all of its basketball-playing Division I members, hoops charges forward with the opener set for this week.

“There’s a lot of people who need the NCAA Tournament to happen outside the NCAA,” DeCuire, Montana’s seventh-year head men’s basketball coach, said. “You look at the small conferences like ours, to use that NCAA money to pay for scholarships and stay in business. Without those dollars, there may be some athletic programs that shut down.

“It’s hard for everyone. If there’s another season without (the NCAA Tournament), then I think the NCAA is in jeopardy moving forward and a lot of conferences coming together and trying to find other ways trying to survive financially just to move forward. There’s a lot of pressure on a lot of people to make something happen.”

Danny Sprinkle calls it “the longest eight months of any of our lives.”

Tricia Binford directly stated “it’s been no guarantees and
control what you can control because literally every day is going to have a
surprise.”

Travis DeCuire says “for us and similar to nationally, there
is not one team where we were at last time last year, not one team that is
actually ready to play.”

From the moment the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament
was called off the second week of March until Wednesday, November 25, the
Bobcat and Griz women’s and men’s basketball teams have been navigating unchartered
waters. It’s just one piece of the convoluted, confusing Covid-19 puzzle that
Montanans, Americans and citizens of the earth have been swimming through for
most of 2020.

Because of the financial necessity of the NCAA basketball tournaments for the NCAA as a whole and all of its basketball-playing Division I members, hoops charges forward with the opener set for this week.

“There’s a lot of people who need the NCAA Tournament to happen outside the NCAA,” DeCuire, Montana's seventh-year head men's basketball coach, said. “You look at the small conferences like ours, to use that NCAA money to pay for scholarships and stay in business. Without those dollars, there may be some athletic programs that shut down.

“It’s hard for everyone. If there’s another season without (the NCAA Tournament), then I think the NCAA is in jeopardy moving forward and a lot of conferences coming together and trying to find other ways trying to survive financially just to move forward. There’s a lot of pressure on a lot of people to make something happen."

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Montana State 16th-year head coach Tricia Binford/ by Brooks Nuanez

Binford, Montana State’s 16th-year women’s basketball head coach, helped her team to the greatest finish in program history last season. A roster following the lead of a stellar set of five seniors won an MSU record 25 games, including shattering the Big Sky mark with 19 conference victories in 20 Big Sky outings. But league MVP Fallyn Freije, all-league seniors Oliana Squires and Blaire Braxton along with classmates Madeline Smith and Martha Kuderer did not get a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time under Binford.

Instead, the Big Sky Tournament was called on March 12 as the entire college basketball world got turned on its head. Montana State never got its chance to play second-seeded Idaho in the league tournament title game.

The Montana State women’s season has already been impacted again by the pandemic; the Bobcats’ season-opener slated to be played at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse in Bozeman tonight against South Dakota School of Mines has been cancelled. The Bobcats are set to open against North Dakota on December 6.  

Binford said her team is simply trying to approach each day by not worrying about global factors outside of their control.

Montana State guard Tori Martell (2)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It doesn’t matter if you are a senior or a freshman or a coach doing this for the 20th time or the first time, it puts everyone in a first-time situation,” Binford said. “You can’t build a rhythmic routine. Really, it’s about your ability to get an excellent day the days you get them because you just don’t know how many of those you are going to get.

“It’s challenging but from a mental standpoint, it’s a great opportunity for being able to teach removing the distractions, which that is what this is, and your ability to focus in on what you can accomplish that day.”

Led by Darian White, last season’s Freshman of the Year and a preseason All-Big Sky selection, and a roster featuring single senior in shooter Tori Martell, the rest of the MSU women’s team’s non-conference schedule includes contests at BYU on December 10 and at Utah Valley December 12; plus a home game on December 21 against South Dakota State.

“Patience is the best word to describe it,” Binford said of the last eight months. “The easiest word to go to would be frustration. But that’s obviously not the one you want to go to because you want all your opportunities to be on the court with your young talent as possible. We are just trying to get creative and take where we are at. You cannot compare to where last year’s team finished off.”

DeCuire has guided his alma mater to the last two NCAA Tournaments that have been played. Last season, Eastern Washington won the outright league title while the Grizzlies stumbled down the regular-season stretch.

Montana lost at Northern Arizona as well as getting swept during its final two-game home stand by Northern Colorado and Southern Utah to fall the third seed in the conference tournament.

But DeCuire’s squad harbored a high level of confidence entering the league tournament in Boise, Idaho. Despite losing three of four down the stretch, the Grizzlies pounded Eastern Washington 90-63 in January and then earned the sweep with a 92-82 win over EWU in Missoula.

Montana’s Sayeed Pridgett takes a hard foul from Eastern Washington’s Kim Aiken Jr. in the championship game of the 2019 Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Idaho/ by Brooks Nuanez

A team led by the All-Big Sky pair of slashing forward Sayeed Pridgett and sharpshooting wing Kendal Manuel seemed primed to make a run, particularly when the first round of the men’s tournament featured 11th-seeded Idaho State knocking out NAU with a 64-62 victory, setting up a No. 3 versus last place matchup for the Griz in the quarterfinals. Montana also would not have to face Eastern until the finals, a place where UM had ended EWU’s season in 2018 and 2019.

The tournament’s cancellation meant the Griz were in Boise to watch the opening round games on Tuesday and to watch the Lady Griz’s season end abruptly at the hands of NAU in the quarterfinals only to never get a chance to take the court themselves.

“Since then, it’s been hard,” DeCuire said.

“Whether it’s quarantines, struggling to get guys in shape, we’ve found ourselves cancelling, changing our day off schedules, shortening the length of practices just to be able to get through things.”

Montana is officially set to open up its season November 28 at USC. The Griz open up Big Sky Conference play with games December 3 and December 5 at Southern Utah. The rest of UM’s non-conference schedule includes December 8 at Georgia; December 16 at Washington; and December 22 at Arizona.

“It’s tough because you just haven’t had enough time to build up to where we are at and we have no idea because we are just trying to guard each other,” DeCuire said. “This point last year, we would’ve had two closed door scrimmages and a Maroon-Silver scrimmage. And we would have a pretty good feel for where we are at and where our starting lineup is.

“We have question marks to be sure…With all that being said, it sounds like a lot of negativity but the reality is we are excited to play some ball and we can’t wait for next week to come. We are going to get as much done in the mean time to get ready to go out and perform.”

Montana Griz men’s basketball players Josh Vazquez( 3), Sayeed Pridgett (4), Derrick Carter-Hollinger (35), and Kendal Manuel (12) in 2020/by Brooks Nuanez

As has become a strength of his program, DeCuire had a stud transfer waiting in the wings while sitting out last season in former San Jose State post Michael Steadman, a preseason All-Big Sky selection despite never playing a minute in the league.

DeCuire also added transfers Cam Satterwhite (Loyola-Chicago, NAU) and Cam Parker (Sacred Heart) to the fold. Derrick Carter-Hollinger, last season’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year, adds to a talented front line that also includes junior Mack Anderson and true freshman Josh Bannan.

“The opportunity to play against Arizona, USC, Georgia, Washington? Can’t wait,” DeCuire said. “And then an opportunity to potentially compete for a championship, we will find out if we can or not or if we are that good. We have a lot of work to do.”

Sprinkle is entering his second season guiding his alma mater. In many ways, Sprinkle’s first year of his rebuilding project was a success. MSU finished with an above-.500 record for the first time in more than a decade. The Bobcats also earned a first round bye in the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in more than 10 years as well.

Montana State guard Harald Frey (5) hugs head coach Danny Sprinkle/by Brooks Nuanez

Although MSU was a long shot to advance to its first NCAA Tournament since Sprinkle was dazzling the league by winning Big Sky Tourney MVP honors as a freshman in 1996, the presence of Harald Frey, the best point guard in the Big Sky, gave the Bobcats a chance to make a run.

Instead, Montana State did not get to play any postseason games. And now a roster that features one holdover from the Brian Fish era (senior center Devin Kirby) will receive its first test of Sprinkle’s second season in Las Vegas tonight against a UNLV team that finished second in the Mountain West last season.

New Bobcats fighting for spots in Sprinkle’s rotation, at least on paper — Sprinkle said the Bobcats have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic as of late — includes transfers Xavier Bishop (Missouri-Kansas City), Abdul Mohamed (North Texas), Nick Gazelas (Jacksonville College), Bilal Shabazz (Trinidad State) and Mike Hood (Southern Idaho). Tyler Patterson and Kellen Tynes are two of a freshmen class of four that could challenge for playing time on a roster highlighted by preseason All-Big Sky junior post Jubrile Belo.

Montana State junior big man Jubrile Belo dunks the ball during the 2020 season/ by Brooks Nuanez

“As a coach, you never think you are where you need to be but it could never be more true than this year,” Sprinkle said. “The one thing that is inconsistent with this year is some teams haven’t had that many Covid cases and they’ve been practicing for the last six to eight weeks. They’ve gotten a good chunk of practice in where there’s been some teams that have been just devastated with it where they haven’t had their whole team, they haven’t had to go five on five, haven’t been able to scrimmage. The first six weeks of the season will be really interesting to see where teams are at.”

The rest of Montana State’s non-conference schedule includes games at Pacific on December 2; at Washington State on December 18; and at Portland on December 22. Pacific is coached by former NBA All-Star point guard Damon Stoudamire. Portland is coached by former NBA standout Terry Porter.

“Our guys didn’t know if we were going to have a season,” Sprinkle said. “Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And now we have a really talented UNLV team waiting for us. It’s exciting for everyone in the country to have something other than the NFL to watch on the tube.”

For the Lady Griz, the Mike Petrino era starts in earnest this afternoon at Utah State. Robin Selvig guided Montana from 1978 until 2015, helping UM advance to 21 NCAA Tournaments and win a total of 835 games. When he retired, Montana promoted internally, naming Shannon Schweyen as the head coach.

Formerly Shannon Cate, Schweyen was the only Kodak first-team All-American during her time as a player in the early 1990s before spending more than 25 years as an assistant on Selvig’s staff.

Following a 17-win season that included the No. 4 seed in the league tournament and a first-round bye but ended in a 68-65 loss to Northern Arizona in the quarterfinals, Schweyen was initially offered a contract extension. Instead, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam decided to pivot, ultimately not renewing Schweyen’s contract after she posted a 52-69 overall including a 1-4 record in the league tournament.

Montana head coach Shannaon Schweyen/by Brooks Nuanez

Because of a university-wide hiring freeze, Petrino, an assistant on Schweyen’s staff the last four years, was named the interim head coach until the end of next season.

Wednesday, he will coach his first game as a college head coach and the first game with a Lady Griz coach other than Schweyen or Selvig in more than 40 years.

“Having a few games under our belt, both for a learning experience and for us to try different lineups, would have been fantastic,” Petrino said. “Instead, this is where we’re at. It is unique. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves the last two months in practice. Now we’ll learn a lot more about ourselves in our first game.”

The rest of the Lady Griz non-conference schedule includes North Dakota on December 2; at Gonzaga on December 13; and at Seattle U on December 15. Montana is expected to lean on senior Madi Schoening along with juniors Sophia Stiles and Abby Anderson.

The NCAA Tournament has set a qualification standard of at least 13 games played. The Big Sky has set a schedule for 20 league games, including back-to-back games against the same opponent at the same site for most of the conference season.

With the uncertainty of the world at large looming over pretty much every aspect of life as we know it, all the Division I basketball teams from the Treasure State can do is heed Binford’s advice: practice patience.

“It’s going to take us a little bit longer than last year’s class building the chemistry because we have been in and out like everybody nationally,” Binford said. “We have not had the rhythm with having so many new faces. We just aren’t quite getting that chemistry piece yet so we are anxious to get that game under our belts to go against somebody else.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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