BOISE, Idaho — Whether what he was wearing a jersey Skyview or Oregon State or Montana or Mozambique, Kendal Manuel has always had great pride in playing for the name on the front of his chest.
This week, the University of Montana senior gets one last chance to represent from where he came from for a program he spent his youth dreaming he could lead to the NCAA Tournament.
Manuel and the Griz are the No. 3 seed in the Big Sky Conference tournament this week. UM will play in the quarterfinals on Thursday against Idaho State. Over the previous two seasons, including Manuel’s first in Missoula last year, the sweet shooting senior has helped a Montana team that won the regular-season and tournament titles two years straight stay among the top contenders in the the Big Sky.
At each of his stops, beginning by chasing state championships at Billings Skyview High School, continuing with a three-year stint playing for the Oregon State Beavers, a transfer back to the Treasure State and a stop playing for the Mozambique national team, Manuel’s infectious smile and quite yet noticeable drive have helped endear him to teammates. And his smooth shooting stroke has helped him achieve accomplishments both as an individual and with his teams.
“Kendal has worked as hard as anyone in our program,” UM sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said. “I don’t know if anyone has worked as hard as him as far as the time he’s spent in the weight from, the workouts he was doing before our workouts, after our workouts. He invested in being successful and he wanted to be successful.”
That dedication to honing his craft helped Manuel rise to a leadership role on a Griz team many around the league expected to be rebuilding after the graduation of five seniors, including the most decorated backcourt in UM history.
Montana lost three out of four down the stretch to relinquish its strangle hold on first place but Manuel’s individual offensive progress helped the Griz play for first place in their first 19 conference games.
Manuel shook off a shooting slump that lasted most of the non-conference to catch fire in league play. Over the last 10 weeks, he has shot 43.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 47.2 percent from the floor. He is shooting nearly 91 percent from the free throw line and is averaging 16.4 points per game in Big Sky play.
“He’s a first-team all-league talent with the year he has had,” Weber State 14th-year head coach Randy Rahe said a week after Manuel scored 21 points in UM’s 72-37 win over the Wildcats. “That’s been huge for Montana. I love his game.
“He can really shoot the ball, he has a really good mid-range game but it’s the speed at which he plays the game that sets him apart. When they run stuff for him, he is fast and he is hard to keep up with. He can get that shot off as quickly as anybody.”
Manuel has expanded his offensive repertoire from playing the role of specialist sharp shooter who comes off the bench — he earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Top Reserve honors last season after transferring from Oregon State — to a player who can score at all three levels.
“We are so lucky to have him and his shot-making ability is crazy,” said UM freshman forward Derrick Carter-Hollinger, who was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year earlier this week. “He is an amazing player.”
Entering the conference tournament, Manuel ranks ninth in the league in scoring in Big Sky games. He is sixth in the league in overall field goal percentage and would be leading the league in 3-point percentage if he had shot three more free throws (100 attempts required). His free throw percentage would also be the best in the league if he had more than the 53 attempts in league play.
“You could see it coming last year,” Rahe said. “Before this year, I had a feeling him and Sayeed Pridgett would be first-team all-league guys. I thought it would be huge for their team if he developed into that first-team all-league talent, that scoring option.”
“When you have to focus on Sayeed and Kendal so much, it makes all the rest of their guys better and that’s why they have a great team again. Kendal has had a heck of a year. I think he is a first-team all-league guy.”
Although Manuel did not get first-team all-conference honors, he did earn the respect of coaches around the league. He was a second-team All-Big Sky selection, affirming him as one of the 10 best players in the conference this season.
“This has been all I’ve been asking for,” Manuel said. “I just wanted the opportunity at Oregon State. I didn’t get it after the first year. I came here and found an opportunity. One thing I always say is stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. That’s what I came into this season with, that mentality. I’m ready to display everything I can and help this team win.”
During his two seasons at Montana, Manuel has been a part of 44 wins. Last season, the Griz won 26 games for the second season in a row, including three straight at the Big Sky Tournament to advance to a second NCAA Tournament in as many years.
Manuel was a key on that Griz team but his availability was a surprise going into the season. And his path from Billings to Corvallis, Oregon and back to Missoula was anything but typical.
It’s not unique for a prep player from Montana to get a chance in the Pac 12 or a Power 5 conference only to return to his home state. But it is rare for a player to not get much recruiting interest from the Montana State Bobcats or the Grizzlies and then earn a Pac 12 scholarship opportunity like Manuel did.
During his career at Skyview, Manuel was named the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and a senior. He led the Falcons to the Class AA state title as a senior, helping his team triumph over a Billings West team led by fellow Griz fifth-year senior Jared Samuelson.
Manuel was the MVP of that state tournament and one of the top players in the Treasure State. He averaged 21.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a junior before scoring 19.7 points and grabbing 5.6 rebounds per game as a senior.
Despite his on-court accolades and his honor roll academics, Manuel received almost no interest from Montana or Montana State.
“My recruiting process was pretty crazy because I was a late bloomer,” Manuel said in an interview in January of 2019. “When I was in my senior year, I went through the AAU process again in he spring. That’s when my recruitment really blew up.
“When I went to Vegas that spring, I had a couple of 30-point games out there and that’s when the high major programs took notice. Being in Montana, you don’t get a lot of respect playing in high school. I went out there and played well and fortunately, I had a bunch of schools talking to me but I was already a senior so everybody’s scholarships were used up by then.
“(Montana and Montana State) knew I was 17 years old and they were like, ‘How about you go to a prep school, we will give you an offer and you can come that next year. That’s what I was originally planning on doing. I was going to go to Hillcrest Prep and ride that out.”
Manuel had played AAU basketball with Tres Tinkle, a star at Missoula Hellgate who’s father, Wayne, served as the head coach at Montana during Manuel and Tres’ teenage years. With Manuel’s father living abroad, Wayne Tinkle served as a sort of father figure and basketball mentor.
In May of 2014, after leading Montana to three NCAA Tournament berths in four years, Tinkle took the head job at Oregon State. The following year, he signed Tres to come play for him. In the spring of 2015, after Manuel’s outstanding AAU tour, Tinkle offered Manuel a chance to come play for the Beavers.
“Coach Tinkle definitely was there for whenever I needed it, to talk to somebody, for basketball and he gave me a chance,” Manuel said. “I appreciate everything that he has ever done for me.”
Manuel, a 6-foot-4 guard who earned a 3-star recruiting ranking despite the state he prepped in, might’ve had a chance to play at Oregon State that first season. But he broke his fibula in October of 2015, forcing him to redshirt.
While Manuel sat out, the Beavers qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the firs time since 1990. Entering Tinkle’s third season and Manuel’s redshirt freshman year, the guard from the Treasure State found himself in a starting role.
He ended up starting 25 games, playing nearly 29 minutes a game. He scored 248 points, setting the stage for him to reach 1,000 points in his career earlier this season. He hit a 52 3-pointers, the second-most by a freshman in Oregon State history. And he scored in double figures 10 times. But Oregon State went 5-27 that season, including winning just one out of 18 Pac 12 games.
“It was a tough year as a team, but being able to play against those caliber players shows you what you have to do to get to that level,” Manuel said in 2019. “You also realize it’s a special thing that you are getting to experience playing against the best.”
The following season, Manuel’s opportunities all but disappeared. He played just 10.7 minutes per game and scored just 75 total points.
Former Montana assistant Rachi Wortham was the director of player personnel for two seasons at Oregon State, including the year Manuel had to deal with the leg injury that cost him his first collegiate season. Wortham helped Manuel through the mental battles of returning to action.
Two years later, Wortham was on DeCuire’s staff and Manuel was looking for a new opportunity.
“When I decided to leave Oregon State, I thought, ‘Why not come to the University of Montana and represent my state and be able to play and know someone was here to look after me too?” he said.
The decision to return to Montana wasn’t difficult. The process to earn an eligibility waiver from the NCAA was, at least in terms of how long it took.
But before the process was complete, Manuel got a chance to represent his country. When Manuel’s father, Paulo, was a guard at Miles Community College, he met Kendal’s mother, Kody Hert. Paulo finished his playing career at Rocky Mountain College and Kendal was born in Billings. When Kendal turned four, the family moved to Paulo’s native country of Mozambique. The family lived there for three years, setting the stage for him to return to Southeast Africa years later.
In the summer of 2018, Kendal Manuel got a chance to represent for his father’s native country in the FIBA World Cup in Dekar, Senegal.
“Any time you can go out and represent your country or where you are from, that’s something you have to take pride in,” Manuel said. “Just like I take pride in wearing that Montana jersey because I’m from here, I took pride in representing Mozambique as a country because that’s also something that is part of my culture.”
Manuel got a chance to spend some time with his father in Mozambique as well. He was startled by how much he remembered from his youth. He returned again last summer as well.
“Going back there this summer, playing for the national team, my dad was showing me around asking me if I remembered things and I retained everything,” Manuel said. “I remembered almost everything he was saying. It was shocking because I thought so much would change over that time but it was minimal. I was actually surprised with how much I remembered.”
When Manuel was seven, he moved to Maine with his mother. He also made a stop off in New Orleans before moving to Billings.
In a story that ranges across the globe, perhaps the wildest detail of Manuel’s life is his famous African kin. His aunt Graca Machel is a Mozambican politician and humanitarian who was married first to Mozambican president Samora Machel and then former South African president Nelson Mandela. Machel is the only women in modern history to have served as the first lady of two different countries.
“It’s what has made me who I am,” Manuel said. “I am very fortunate to have experienced as much as I have at such a young age. To get to travel that much and me being 21 and having already experienced all those different cultures is something that has made me who I am and I appreciate the fact that I have had these opportunities.”
Last season, Manuel did not get cleared until the day before UM’s season opener against Georgia State. He still had a successful season, averaging 8.7 points per game and hitting 57 3-pointers.
This season, Manuel is finally getting the chance he always wanted. Manuel took a dip the final weekend of the regular season, scoring two points in a loss to Northern Colorado and went 6-for-19 in a loss to Southern Utah. But Manuel is ready to peak in his final conference tournament of his career.
“I’m just going to cherish it because a lot of kids don’t get this opportunity, especially a lot of Montana kids,” Manuel said. “Our state doesn’t produce a lot of Division I athletes and people that are able to play at this level. It’s just a moment I am going to be able to cherish forever.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.