BOISE, Idaho — Sayeed Pridgett has never been one to back down.
Growing up in Oakland, the University of Montana senior looked up to many of the great players who hail from the Bay Arena to become among the best basketball players in the world.
“Growing up in Oakland was kind of tough because we had a lot of names, Damian Lillard, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, who all came out of there so it was like, you gotta be hard,” Pridgett said. “Everyone expects it. You have to be hard on yourself if you want to follow what they are doing. In Oakland, you have to grind because everyone is coming at you.”
Pridgett also grew up with a demanding father who wanted the best for his son. Any time Pridgett goes back to his dad Terry’s home small hometown in Louisiana, locals tell Sayeed about Terry’s prowess as a basketball player once upon a time. It’s always been a challenge for Sayeed to earn a reputation on par with his dad.
After Sayeed flirted with the third triple-double in Griz basketball history in a win over Idaho State with Terry sitting courtside earlier this season, Sayeed answered a question about performing well in front of his father by saying, “I’ve never shown out for my dad. He always wants more from me.”
His background idolizing trash talking, unapologetic players like Payton influenced Pridgett to master the art of verbal combat himself. His father helped Sayeed develop a thick skin and an elite competitive mindset. In high school, Pridgett also worked out with Payton’s father, a local coach by the name “Mr. Mean.”
The edge Pridgett learned to represent himself with as a kid helped him blossom into a star at El Cirrito High School. He earned a ranking as one of the five best prospects in the Bay Area by SFGate.com, helping him field offers from Oregon State, Creighton, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco, Weber State and Montana.
“Hoops in the Bay, sometimes, we get overlooked because of how bad our cities are so we have a point to prove that even though our cities are kind of bad, we still have that game and we know we can bring that edge to a program,” Pridgett said in an interview during the 2019 season.
“The toughness, the grit, the grind, most guys from Oakland, you don’t have to worry about that. We love to compete.”
Ultimately, Pridgett came to UM because he grew up watching future Griz Hall of Famer Will Cherry help Montana to consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Pridgett also trusted Griz head coach Travis DeCuire’s promise that he would never stop demanding the best from the versatile, tough point guard turned forward.
DeCuire is one of the most demanding coaches in college basketball, a no-nonsense coach who tells the players in his program that he does not have rules, only expectations. He empowers those that are ready to be empowered to grow rapidly into men. DeCuire is never hesitant to light a fire under his athletes by getting in their faces and challenging them verbally.
Throughout DeCuire’s six seasons, the players that have been able to endure the head coach’s intense style have thrived. And perhaps no Griz over the last four years has responded better than Pridgett.
“He and I had this conversation when he was a freshman and I came to the conclusion there’s a certain way to communicate with him to get the most out of him and we agreed that was what our communication will be like,” DeCuire said.
On the court, Pridgett never backs down from a challenge. This season, as the defined leader of a team that features three freshmen and a sophomore in its seven-man rotation, Pridgett has had to navigate when to not be too hard on UM’s young players. But he also has helped will the Grizzlies to the brink of their fifth 20-win season under DeCuire despite losing one of the most decorated senior classes in school history.
Pridgett rose to the occasion a year ago when Montana big man Jamar Akoh suffered what amounted to a career-ending injury midway through conference play. On a roster featuring Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, the most decorated and prolific scoring backcourt in school history, Pridgett still managed to lead the team in scoring and earn first-team All-Big Sky honors.
As a senior, Pridgett has been one of the most important and diverse players in the league, picking his spots to take over games as a scorer while also serving as the best facilitating point forward in the conference. If Montana could have avoided a sweep the final weekend of the regular season, Pridgett likely would’ve earned Big Sky Player of the Year honors.
“He brings the guys together during moments we need to come together, stick together and push through adversity,” UM senior Jared Samuelson said. “He handles adversity really well and he knows how to pass that on to everybody on the team.”
To watch the old school, powerful ball-handling forward interact with his team, particularly DeCuire, is to see a player who refuses to back down from any person or any challenge. When DeCuire goes at Pridgett, Pridgett gives it right back to his head coach, forming a special relationship between mentor and pupil.
“He’s different than any leader I’ve had and I think the reason I respect him so much is it’s very similar to how I was in the competitiveness,” DeCuire said. “He leads a lot by example but also when he’s vocal, his expectations on his teammates are vocalized. And you have to have thick skin to play with Sayeed.
“There’s a lot of time his emotions are on his sleeve and he has no problem vocalizing that. I think his guys know what he wants for the group. And because they understand it’s not just about him, they follow. It’s been fun to watch.”
The Griz lost their final two home games even with Pridgett giving his best effort. Pridgett notched 26 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Northern Colorado that essentially cost UM its third straight Big Sky regular-season title. He scored 27 points, dished out eight assists and grabbed five rebounds in an 84-80 overtime loss on Senior Night to Southern Utah.
Montana entered this week’s Big Sky Tournament as the No. 3 seed. The Griz were gunning for a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, which would’ve mark the first time in program history UM has gone dancing three years in a row.
But the Big Sky Tournament was cancelled the morning before the men’s quarterfinals were set to open. Then the NCAA Tournament was cancelled, abruptly ending Pridgett’s Montana career.
Despite the cancellations, coaches from around the league praised Pridgett for helping put the Griz in a position they likely would not be in if not for his leadership and sense of the moment.
“His level of toughness is incredible,” Idaho head coach Zac Claus said. “Both as a player, the impact he has to go make and finish plays, defensively, you can rely on him but more than anything — and this is just a coach watching him from the other bench and a coach watching and admiring him— I believe his will to push not only himself but his teammates may be his biggest strength.”
Pridgett averaged 19.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game this season. From field goal shooting percentage to steals per game, he ranks among the top in the Big Sky in almost every major statistical category.
“He is a great player,” said Weber State 14th-year head coach Randy Rahe, who is close friends with Pridgett’s AAU coach Raymond Young and who offered Pridgett out of high school. “He’s a Swiss Army Knife. He can hurt you in so many ways. He does it every single night. He’s a tough kid, a competitive kid.”
Pridgett scored a career-high 33 points in a career-best 45 minutes in an overtime loss against Rahe’s Wildcats in Ogden, Utah earlier this season. He also scored 25 points in a 72-37 thrashing of Weber in Missoula.
“In my mind, he is the best player in the league,” Rahe said. “The affect he has on the team is second to none in the league because of the versatility he brings.”
Although Montana lost its final two home games — The Griz are 39-5 over the last three years at Dahlberg Arena — Pridgett still continued setting individual milestones. In the span of one weekend, he overtook, in order, Oguine, Rorie, Kevin Criswell and Kareem Jamar on Montana’s all-time scoring list. He currently sits in fourth place behind only Larry Krystkowiak, Michael Ray Richardson and Bob Cope with 1,679 points.
“It’s crazy that three of us were on the same team and to play with those players is amazing,” Pridgett said after surpassing Rorie and Oguine in the most recent loss to Northern Colorado. “To do it off a W would’ve been better, but I’m happy for it and my teammates are happy for me, encouraging me.”
Entering the season, most around the league did not think the Grizzlies would threaten for a three-peat. No one will ever know if the Griz could’ve strung together three straight wins in Boise to advance to the Big Dance for the third straight year.
But Pridgett himself acknowledges the way DeCuire and his staff along with the Missoula community has embraced him. It’s been an influence that has helped him grow and mature.
“This program has taught me a lot about being a man and learning how to take care of my business. I’ve learned how to communicate and learned how to live on my own, prepared me for the real world.
“I’ve gained a lot of extended family and they have treated me well here in Missoula,” Pridgett said. “It’s much different than California. Going out to the grocery store, a person is always going to come up to you and want to talk to you even when you are in a bad mood. You really can’t say no because of how happy they are to see you and they cheer you up even if you have a bad day.
“Being here in Missoula has been great for me.”
Pridgett has climbed the list while playing among some of the most talented groups in Montana history. He worked with the class above him to compile 52 wins over a two-year span, setting a UM record. He played alongside and often had to default to Rorie and Oguine. Yet here he is, among one of the most decorated Griz of all time.
“It’s rare and we should be grateful for guys like who gave us four complete years of their career because it just doesn’t exist anymore,” DeCuire said.
“His ability to evolve has been impressive. His skill set is fairly similar to when he arrived here but he has evolved as a leader and on the defensive side of the ball. But also, waiting his turn, and knowing late in the year, we are going to need the most out of him, that’s what has made him special.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights. Reserved.