MISSOULA, Montana — A countless number of young boys who grew up in the Last Best Place have dreamed of growing up to play basketball for the Montana Grizzlies.
Since Jud Heathcote laid the foundation of one of the West’s most consistently successful mid-major programs in the mid-1970s, the Griz have been one of the Big Sky Conference’s elite teams. From Eric Hays under Heathcote to Larry Krystkowiak under Mike Montgomery to a slew of Montana products who starred under Blaine Taylor, in-state products have often risen to become among the most memorable Griz basketball players.
In the 21st century, players like Kevin Criswell and Jordan Hasquet have carried the Treasure State torch. But no one has a story quite like Jared Samuelson.
When Samuelson was a youngster growing up in Billings, he watched videos of his father, Shawn Samuelson, muscling his way through the paint against teams like the Idaho Vandals.
Idaho left the Big Sky Conference following Shawn Samuelson’s senior season at Montana in 1996.
So it’s no surprise that earlier this season, when Jared Samuelson hit three 3-pointers in the first half in what ended up a 67-63 win over Idaho that the second-generation Griz wore an illuminating smile with each triple that brought the Dahlberg Arena crowd to their feet.
But that’s only part of the story. A rare few sons of Montana legends have followed in their father’s footsteps to play for the Grizzlies. But you’d be hard pressed to find another player in the country who is not only following in his father’s footsteps but one who is playing for one of his father’s former teammates or one who left for the middle part of his career only to realize his dream for the second time.
And to be sure, Jared Samuelson is undoubtedly living his dream in his fifth college basketball season as a forward for the first-place Griz.
“I’m happy to be ending things where I started,” said Samuelson, a standout at Billings West who is in his third season at Montana after a two-year sabbatical to Rocky Mountain College in his hometown. “It means a lot to me to be a Montana Grizzly. I’m just happy to be here.
“I find myself soaking it in damn near every day. I’ve always wanted to be a Griz ever since I was a little kid. I grew up watching Griz football, Griz basketball and my dad played here so I watched his highlights a lot as a kid. It’s been a dream of mine my whole life and now I’m living the dream so I’m trying to soak in the moments.”
Shawn Samuelson finished his career with 1,293 points and 791 rebounds during his standout career with the Grizzlies. Following his final season, he ranked in the top 10 in school history in scoring and rebounding. The native of Broadus, Montana is still one of just seven Grizzlies to score more than 1,000 points and grab more than 700 rebounds during his UM career.
Jared was born in Missoula in May of 1996 just a few months after Shawn’s playing days finished up at Montana. Early on, Jared gravitated toward watching film of his father’s play. In grade school, Samuelson started looking up to Grizzlies. And by high school, Jared knew his primary goal was to earn a shot to follow in his father’s footsteps.
By the time Jared Samuelson was a senior at Billings West, he was working on his second straight Class AA all-state season. Meanwhile, Travis DeCuire was in his first season the head coach at his alma mater. Years earlier, DeCuire was the point guard for some of Taylor’s best teams, finishing his career as the school’s all-time leader in assists.
DeCuire was the point guard for the Grizzlies during Shawn Samuelson’s first two years on the team.
“What I remember about Travis is he was ultra competitive by nature, a leader and the consummate point guard who is going to get everyone where they need to be,” Shawn Samuelson said in an interview in late February. “Then you fast forward and my son is wrapping up his final run, there’s a lot of proud dad moments. It’s pretty cool.”
DeCuire helped guide Montana to the Big Sky regular-season title in his first season as the head coach. The Grizzlies lost in the Big Sky Tournament championship game on their home court to Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, Jared Samuelson guided Billings West to the Class AA state title game only to lose to current Griz Kendal Manuel and the Billings Skyview Falcons.
The following season, Samuelson joined the roster and redshirted. The Griz won 21 games and advanced to the league title game again, this time losing in the BSC tournament championship game to Weber State in the league’s first neutral site tournament in Reno, Nevada.
During the 2016-17 season, Samuelson got his first crack at Division I competition. The 6-foot-7 forward showed mature and polished post moves in a reserve role. He finished the season by averaging 5.1 points per game on 57 percent shooting. In February of that season, he broke out with a 20-point performance in a win over Northern Arizona.
Plenty of gray area lingers in what happened following that season. But a 16-16 finish and a loss in their first Big Sky Tournament game meant DeCuire overhauled the roster.
It’s vague whether Samuelson was not part of the future plans or if he left on his own accord. But nonetheless, the power forward transferred from Montana to Rocky Mountain College, a Frontier Conference participant in Billings.
In his two seasons playing for the Battlin’ Bears, Samuelson earned NAIA All-American honors twice. He was a two-time Frontier Conference first-team all-league selection and the league’s Newcomer of the Year his first season. He averaged 18.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and he honed in his 3-point shot, shooting more than 40 percent from distance both seasons.
And entering his second season at Rocky, Samuelson’s fiancé Kylie Nielsen gave birth to their daughter, Jordan Ryan.
“It’s changed my entire mentality,” Samuelson said.’ I want to make my daughter proud and I do everything for her. In the future, I want to show her the pictures and hope that she’s proud of what I’ve done.”
“That’s what I use it as: I use it as motivation. I can’t look down and think of the negatives. This is such a short time frame. I remember when I was a redshirt. It feels like yesterday. I have to enjoy this time while I have it.”
While Samuelson put together outstanding seasons at a lower level, he still kept close tabs on his former team. He consistently talked to players he came in at Montana with like Bobby Moorehead, Trevor Spoja and Michael Oguine. He enjoyed the experience as a fan and former player while the Griz advanced to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the fourth time in school history.
Samuelson himself was not only taking care of business on the basketball court. He was also taking care of business in the classroom, earning his undergraduate degree in business management in May. That opened a door that never closed when he initially left his father’s alma mater.
“The whole process unfolded as it was,” Samuelson said. “I can’t say I had aspirations to transfer out of Billings. My next step was to play at Rocky and have the best career I could have there. But when this opportunity came about, it was something I couldn’t say no to. I wanted to end my career as a Griz.”
After graduating five seniors from a group that won 52 games over the last two seasons, DeCuire was in the market for a few transfers. Rather than mining the Pac 12 like he has recently, DeCuire looked east to the Magic City.
Montana’s head coach extended an offer to Samuelson to return to the Griz, play his final college basketball season in the town he was born in and help UM continue its reign over the Big Sky.
“He came back to compete for a championship because he felt like he missed out on that while he was away,” said DeCuire, who’s Griz enter Saturday’s rivalry game against Montana State in first place in the Big Sky standings with a 12-3 record. “For us to be sitting where we are sitting and him to be playing well, it’s huge for him.
Samuelson suffered a tear to the meniscus to his right knee before the season began. He did not play more than 18 minutes in a single game and scored a total 23 total points in Montana’s 4-7 non-conference start.
But he scored 14 points in his first Big Sky game back against Sacramento State and scored a career-high 21 points the next night out against Southern Utah. That game in Idaho where his smile might’ve been the brightest its been all year, Samuelson hit five 3-pointers and scored 23 points in a 67-63 victory.
“I think he’s just caught up enjoying the moment, wish is exactly what I wanted for him,” DeCuire said after the Idaho win.
Samuelson’s minutes have fluctuated during conference play both because of matchups and because he frequently has to get his aching knee drained of a substantial amount of fluid. He is playing through pain every time out.
The game against Idaho in Missoula, he played a season-high 32 minutes. At Portland State, he played five minutes. In Montana’s 78-64 win over Montana State, he played four minutes. Since then, he has played 17.25 minutes per game.
“When I got the call when he told me something wasn’t right with his knee and I knew he was going to get surgery, I just hoped he would get the opportunity to contribute,” Shawn Samuelson said. “I knew he would be in pain all season long. But I just wanted to feel somewhat decent so he could contribute and play. And he’s done that.”
Regardless of his minutes, Samuelson is making the most of his final season. He is shooting 61.5 percent from the floor in conference play, including 58.6 percent (17-of-29) from beyond the arc.. He is scoring nearly 10 points and grabbing nearly three rebounds per game despite playing 17.3 minutes against Big Sky opponents.
“He brings a lot, first of all leadership,” UM junior guard Timmy Falls said earlier this season. “As a fifth-year guy, so if the younger guys have questions, he answers all of them.
“His ability to shoot, pick and pop instead of pick and roll, that spreads out the floor a lot for us. He just hustles his ass off even when he’s hurt.”
Manuel and Samuelson were at the same time childhood friends, teenage AAU teammates and crosstown high school rivals. Manuel originally went to Oregon State before making his way back to Montana before last season. Now he and Samuelson are playing their final seasons alongside each other.
“I’ve been very impressed with him making his way back here,” Manuel said. “And knowing how Jared is, I’m not surprised at all. He’s someone who can adapt to many different situations and he’s a team guy.
“You’ve been able to see that all year. He doesn’t complain about playing time or getting shots. He has a positive impact every single day.”
For most of the last 40-plus years, the Griz have had dominant big men to throw the ball to in the post. Heathcote was one of the architects of the high-low offense and even UM coaches like Taylor and DeCuire, guards during their playing days, have used variations of the offense.
This year, with no true post player in their rotation, the Griz have altered their offense. Samuelson has been a key to that, becoming a sort of stretch center who can shoot 3-pointers while also battling on the block on both sides of the court. He has sometimes battled foul trouble but he’s also been efficient in the post, like during a 6-of-7 shooting night on the way to 12 points in a 78-63 win over Idaho State UM’s last time out.
“His path has been kind of rocky, kind of crazy but his father was a Griz so his heart has always been here,” UM senior captain Sayeed Pridgett said. “He has always followed us, even when he wasn’t here. He would always hit us up and tell us good job.
“Jared is a great dude and he’s always wanted the right things as a Griz. He wants to win and he’s a vital part. He could be a lot more selfish but he’s a guy who wants to do whatever it takes to win.”
Winning has come more prevalently than many expected for this year’s Griz. And Samuelson has played a key role in many of Montana’s 12 Big Sky victories.
UM has five regular-season games remaining along with the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Idaho the second week of March. As the end draws near, Samuelson is trying to make the most of every moment living his dream.
“I’ve always had high expectations throughout my career playing basketball,” Samuelson said. “I’ve always wanted to win championships and win as many games as we could. It’s awesome being a part of a team where the goal is to win a championship and I’m trying my best to contribute to do so.
“You have to come to play every single day. Whether it’s in the weight room, the class room or on the court, you have to soak it in because it’s going to be over quick.”
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