BOZEMAN — With Jamar Akoh’s status in question leading up to the final Cat-Griz basketball game of his career, the Montana brutish big man couldn’t help but tell a joke.
“I probably would only get like 12 minutes in this game even if I was healthy,” Akoh cracked before UM practice the final week of February. “That No. 4 always figures out a way to take me out of the game.”
No. 4 is Sam Neumann, arguably the biggest nuisance in the Big Sky Conference during his four memorable and unique seasons at Montana State. For the betterment of the Bobcats and the annoyance of every other post player in the league, Neumann has carved out a niche that has helped him compete in a forest of trees.
Neumann is listed at 6-foot-7 but he sees eye to eye with Montana State All-Big Sky shooting guard Tyler Hall. Neumann is likely the last player in MSU’s rotation that head coach Brian Fish would choose to execute the jump ball to start the game.
When Neumann first arrived on campus, he spent the summer running every morning at 6 a.m. Fish and his staff thought Neumann needed to lose 20 pounds in order to compete on the wing in the Big Sky Conference. But midway through his first year on campus, Neumann realized that MSU’s wing position — led by Hall, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year that season and the conference’s all-time leading scorer four years later — was stacked.
The Bobcat front line however didn’t have any depth at all. Neumann came off the bench and drilled five 3-pointers in as many tries in an epic MSU win over Northern Arizona in which the Bobcats hit a Big Sky-record 20 3-pointers. That outburst aside, Neumann knew he could find minutes much easier if he moved to the post.
So instead, Neumann gained the weight lost back and then some, getting up to 225 pounds in order to bang on the block.
“I have no problem putting on weight. I was excited to do so,” Neumann said with a laugh, showing his trademark humor that has made him a fan and media favorite during his Bobcat career.
Thus began the evolution of Sam Neumann, a player who set the career scoring record at Cretin-Derham Hall while leading the St. Paul prep school to the Minnesota big-school state championship. A player that once dropped 45 points in a game and rarely thought of his role as a defensive antagonist against players significantly bigger than him all of a sudden had to dedicate his career to mastering box outs, taking charges and honing the art of annoyance.
“What Sam has become is such a big part of our team,” MSU senior Keljin Blevins said. “He steps up in those moments and takes that charge or goes down and gets that stop or catches it under the rim, gives them that pump fake (laughs), gives us an and-1, gets us going.
“There’s a lot of stuff that he does that goes unnoticed but he’s definitely the unsung hero of our team.”
Neumann’s ability to get in the heads of his sizeable opponents has been crucial for Fish’s program. Over the last five seasons, Fish has recruited and developed some of the top guards in the entire conference, let by Hall and junior point guard Harald Frey. But Fish has been the first to make the joke that the Bobcats were like a donut: sweet on the outside and empty in the middle.
That is, except for the presence of Neumann. The personable and hard-nosed senior has mastered the art of taking charges and taking charge. On the eve of his final home game as a Bobcat, Neumann asserted that “I certainly have to be the program’s all-time leader in charges at this point”.
“A charge is one of the biggest plays in basketball,” Neumann said. “You get a foul on the other guy and you get the ball back. It doesn’t go unnoticed by the team.”
Before last season’s Cat-Griz game in Bozeman, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire openly talked about Neumann’s penchant for “flopping.” That’s the annoyance Akoh referenced. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Akoh battled foul trouble in all three of his matchups against Neumann.
But the MSU leader has been more than just a flopper. He has improved his strength each year, helping him become Montana State’s most consistent rebounder. His ability to put his hip into an opponent and box out with physicality helped him rank sixth in the Big Sky in rebounds per game as a junior (7.2).
“It’s so important for a guy like me to understand his role and try not to do too much,” Neumann said. “That’s what a lot of people, especially if they are young, mess up. I understood that I wasn’t going to be the same player early on that I was in high school. When I got here, I realized that this is going to be different and I’m going to have to actually work for this.
“It was really important for me to understand that I have a role like everyone. Tyler’s job is to put the ball in the hoop and my job is to do the dirty work.”
Neumann’s sacrifice helped him start 64 out of 64 games as a sophomore and a junior. But sacrifice has also trademarked his senior season, one that has Montana State winning at a higher clip than at any time during the Fish era.
Neumann made his lone start of the season in MSU’s 95-90 win over Washington State, the lone win by a Big Sky team over a Pac 12 foe this season. He finished with four points and seven rebounds.
Neumann did not start on MSU’s on Senior Night against Southern Utah on Monday. It didn’t matter. He matched his season averages by scoring four points and grabbing six rebounds in MSU’s 90-83 win, MSU’s sixth in their last seven and 11th conference win overall.
The fact that Neumann “lost” his starting spot as a senior is actually a testament to his versatility. He has come off the bench but played an almost identical 20 minutes a game as his junior year. When he comes off the bench, he can come in for a variety of his teammates, giving him more value.
“I see Sam as our relief pitcher,” said Fish, a diehard baseball fan who roots for the Cincinnati Reds. “When I move him around, he can play more minutes. Rather than playing him at the same position and letting guys load up against him, I feel like I let him down last year because we didn’t have the size to help him out. I have been very pleased with what Sam has done.”
Although he has branded himself as the lunch pail worker on the Big Sky block, he will be the first to tell you he still has it when it comes to shooting the basketball. He sticks around to challenge his teammates to shooting contest after practice frequently. His season high this season came against Idaho State, when he worked his way to 12 points.
Against Idaho, he hit nine free throw attempts, baptizing the Vandals’ baby-faced front line with his trademark pump fake. After the game, he joked, “Someday, those young bucks will stop falling for it…or maybe not.”
With his Bobcats career winding down, his numbers will be adequate if not impressive considering he played alongside two of the best scoring guards the league has seen in the 2010s. Neumann has scored 532 points and grabbed 512 rebounds. He is shooting 51.4 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from the 3-point line in his career. Despite the hitch in his set shot, he is a 71.1 percent free throw shooter who has shot 73 and 79 percent from the stripe, respectively, over the last two seasons.
But Neumann will be best remembered for his personality. Hall is a shy, unassuming young man who has never wanted the spotlight that has illuminated him since the day he stepped foot on campus. Neumann at first envied Hall before quickly transforming into one of Hall’s closest confidants.
“With his career and all his accomplishments, he always has people that are trying to talk to him constantly and he’s more reserved so I’ve tried to step up and talk,” Neumann said. “I have no problem talking. The problem isn’t getting me to talk. The problem is getting me to stop. We have leaned on each other for a lot of things, that included. I have tried to be a bit of a spokesman for him and for this team.”
Any time a media member walks into one of Coach Fish’s practices, Neumann defies protocol and at the very least says hello, but more typically gives a fist pump or a hand shake. Any time one of his more “high profile” teammates does not want to talk to the press, Neumann readily volunteers, giving his time generously to serve as a spokesman for a program he loves.
“I couldn’t have done this and we wouldn’t be where we are without Sam,” Hall said. “He’s a big part of the heart and soul of our team.”
Montana State’s trying run — Fish lost his daughter less than a month ago, a tragedy that has been both defining and uniting for this Bobcat squad — comes to a finish, at least in terms of the regular season, on Saturday at Portland State. Neumann can feel his time winding down, too.
“Basketball has been my whole life pretty much through this point,” Neumann said. “It will be really sad to say goodbye to it. I’ve met so many people and made so many relationships. It’s helped me get to school and I would’ve never came to Montana if it wasn’t for basketball. The people I have met here and the support I’ve gotten is great. It will be a big change after this year going forward in my life. I can’t thank the game enough for being there and being able to escape for me and being my pride and joy for so long.”
Neumann and the Bobcats will try to take momentum into the Big Sky Tournament in Boise next week. Hall stole all the headlines early and Frey is the reigning league Player of the Week. But Neumann is the lynchpin. And although the somberness in his voice while conducting one of his final interviews was apparent, he is elated to try to finish his Bobcat career on a high note.
“This is the first time in my four years where we have a ton of confidence going into the tournament and this is the first Montana State team that I have been on that is actually getting better late into the season,” Neumann said. “We’ve dealt with a lot of stuff, a lot of adversity and we are still here and people are still willing to fight. That’s awesome. I’m so proud of that. I’m really excited to see what we can do.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.