The last few seasons, some of the most recognizable and memorable Bobcats and Grizzlies battled in the Montana-Montana State men’s hoops rivalry.
Saturday in Missoula marks the first time in four years that UM defensive stalwarts Michael Oguine and Bobby Moorhead won’t be chasing MSU sharpshooter Tyler Hall around the perimeter. It will be the first time in three years that MSU charge-drawing master Sam Neumann won’t be enraging stout UM big man Jamar Akoh by flopping on the floor.
Saturday will also mark the first time in recent memory that many significant contributors in the game will hail from Montana. The Grizzlies enter the game with a 7-2 Big Sky Conference record and a first-place designation once again. UM sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire has consistently employed an eight-man rotation that includes Treasure State natives Kendal Manuel, Jared Samuelson and Mack Anderson.
“I think it’s great for the rivalry,” DeCuire said. “But I think it’s typical of anywhere regionally. When you look at the Bay Area, you look at Seattle, there’s years where there is a plethora of talent and there’s years where it’s thin. You look at our roster right now, we don’t have as many Washington guys as we have had in the past.”
Danny Sprinkle is in his first year back at Montana State. But the former MSU sharpshooter knows exactly what it’s like to prove yourself as an in-state prospect at a Montana school. The former Helena High standout was the Big Sky Conference’s Freshman of the Year in 1996 and an all-league player in an MSU career that ended in 2000.
Sprinkle spent most of the last 20 years coaching in Los Angeles — he had stints at Cal State-Northridge and Cal State-Fullerton — but his Montana roots have always run deep. He recruited Manuel to Fullerton when Manuel was coming out of Billings Skyview High.
And he’s fortified his roster with Montana players. Livingston product Ladan Ricketts is playing 30 minutes a game in league play during his senior year. Sprinkle also added three other Montana natives to his roster in the off-season.
“If there is a Montana guy who is good enough to be on our roster, I want that guy,” Sprinkle said. “They are the heart and soul of this athletic department and they know what this week is all about.”
Ricketts grew up about 30 minutes from Bozeman in Livingston. After an outstanding career at Park High School in which he earned Class A all-state honors in consecutive seasons, Ricketts had light interest from Montana State but no solid offer.
The 6-foot-5 sweet-shooting wing took his talents to Sheridan College in Wyoming. At the two-year junior college, Ricketts further honed his shooting ability and basketball IQ, eventually earning a scholarship to come back home.
Ricketts enters his final game in Missoula, he can feel the magnitude of a matchup he grew up immersed in.
“Cat-Griz is huge,” Ricketts said. “Growing up, everybody was a Cat or a Griz. There was no in between. It doesn’t even have to be regarding basketball. It’s just known that Cats and Griz go at each other. Everyone picks a side. People come from all over the state, in small towns, to come watch the Cats and the Griz play each other. It’s something that everyone, especially Montana natives take really seriously and get really in to. It’s a rivalry that you don’t really see a lot of places. It’s very unique and it’s super fun.”
Ricketts is averaging 6.5 points per game for the Bobcats this season. He has upped his minutes to 30 per game in nine conference outings. He hasn’t shot the ball at his highest level — he is shooting 41.7 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from beyond the arc, percentages that dip to 33.3 and 28.9 percent, respectively, in league play. But his improved defense and his grasp of Sprinkle’s concepts have allowed him to contribute in other ways.
Caleb Bellach, a star on Manhattan Christian’s state championship squad last season, is playing 5.4 minutes per game in his first college season. MSU’s roster also includes senior Brett Finn of Big Timber and junior Gavin Gundlach of Miles City.
Montana’s three in-state players have all been impressive in their improvements from a season ago. Manuel, in particular, has been outstanding in his senior year.
The former Oregon State transfer earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Top Reserve last season while coming off the bench for the league champs. This season, Manuel has assumed a role as one of Montana’s leading scorers.
He came back to earth last weekend, yet he is still shooting 47.4 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He is shooting 91.4 percent from the free throw line in league play and 90.9 percent (60-of-66) this season. Manuel is averaging 17.8 points per Big Sky contest and 15 points per game overall.
“I take a lot of pride in proving we can play at this level, being able to go showcase our talent and sharing the success with these guys is huge,” Manuel said. “I hope that continues to carry on with the younger guys in high school.”
After leading Skyview to the Class AA state championship over Samuelson’s Billings West squad five years ago, Manuel headed to Oregon State to play for former Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle. Now he’s in his final season of college hoops about to play his final game against the Bobcats in Missoula.
“We’ve all played against each other growing up so having everybody back in that type of game, that type of environment, it’s going to be fun,” Manuel said. “Knowing that even more people will be watching because there is Montana kids is going to be a different dynamic than in past years.”
Samuelson has also been a revelation. The son of former Griz standout Shawn Samuelson started his career at Montana. After averaging 5.2 points per game as a redshirt freshman, Samuelson returned to the Magic City to play for the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears. The move was partially spurred on by the arrival of his daughter, Jordan.
After two All-Frontier Conference campaigns, the 6-foot-7 stretch forward is back at the school he grew up rooting for.
“It’s a dream to be finishing where I started and it means a lot to me to be a Montana Grizzly,” Samuelson said. “I’m just happy to be here. I went through a lot of adversity this year, dealt with a knee injury early on, wasn’t sure what my role was going to be like but I knew I was going to give it my all and go out with a bang.”
He has been excellent in conference play, shooting 62.5 percent from the floor and 60 percent (15-of-25) from beyond the arc. He is averaging 12.2 points per game since league play started and has scored 110 of his 124 points against Big Sky opponents.
“His ability to shoot, pick and pop instead of pick and roll, that spreads out the floor a lot for us,” UM junior combo guard Timmy Falls said. “He just hustles his ass off even when he’s hurt.”
Mack Anderson, a Bozeman native who picked the Griz over an offer from his hometown Bobcats, has improved his confidence over the last six weeks. He enters Saturday’s game averaging 3.9 points per game in conference play. He has made 15 of his 20 field goal attempts, mostly by dunking the ball.
“I looked up to Jared and Kendal a lot because they were seniors when I was a freshman so I remember watching their games when I was in high school,” Anderson said. “Being here and being able to play with them, we live together too so being around them, they are always trying to set the standard of what we want to be.
“You just have to be thankful to get the opportunity from Trav and these coaches. Cat-Griz, being a part of that game, last year, I was looking forward to it since the day I committed to it. It’s a really special thing to be from Montana.”