BUTTE — Montana Tech head men's basketball coach Adam Hiatt has frequently used the word "gauntlet" to describe the task awaiting Frontier Conference teams as they head into league play.
And it's not hyperbolic — with just six basketball programs, the Frontier is the NAIA's lone conference to play a triple round-robin conference schedule. By that third meeting, surprising your opponent becomes a sizable challenge.
"Everybody learns your tendencies, they're more familiar with you, more comfortable," Hiatt said. "Teams from other conferences respect what we do, but at the same time, they don't envy us."
With Dickinson State set to join the Frontier in 2025, the prospect of playing a wider array of teams is on the horizon, but for now the Frontier Conference's men's teams will open league play this Saturday knowing that they'll face their opponent this weekend twice more in the regular season.
With the race toward a conference crown — and two-time defending champion Montana Tech favored to three-peat in the preseason coaches' poll — here's a glimpse at the Frontier's six teams.
No. 7 Montana Tech: 10-3
The Orediggers emerged from non-conference play as the only Frontier Conference team to pile up double-digit victories, and now their quest to hang a third straight banner in the HPER Complex will begin at home against No. 15 Rocky Mountain College.
Tech's mid-December trip to California saw the Orediggers go 1-2 with both losses coming in the final minute to (RV) Vanguard University and (RV) University of Antelope Valley. Those defeats showed Tech what it needed to shore up, and the Diggers responded with runaway wins in their final two non-conference home games.
"We had some areas of our team that were exposed, mainly our grit and our toughness and coming up big in big moments," said Hiatt. "That was a a big point of emphasis, was that we want to have more of a blue-collar mindset. We've been on the floor a lot more, there's been a lot more energy on the bench."
Senior Asa Williams — who on Monday earned Frontier Conference player of the week honors — leads Tech with 232 points (17.8 ppg) and is the Frontier's fifth highest scoring player. Michael Ure (11.5), Ifeanyi Okeke (11.3) and Hayden Diekhans (11.1) are also averaging double figures per game.
Reigning Frontier Conference MVP Caleb Bellach made his return on Dec. 1 and has been averaging just over 21 minutes through six games.
No. 15 Rocky Mountain College: 9-4
The Battlin' Bears biggest win of the season so far — and one of its biggest in program history — doesn't count in its overall standings.
In an exhibition game on Nov. 30, Rocky Mountain stunned Big Sky Conference foe Montana State 70-62. The Battlin' Bears led for all but the first 34 seconds of the game, with head coach Bill Dreikosen saying after, "It was a great atmosphere and a special memory that this group will always remember."
Rocky Mountain then followed that signature win with a 97-95 double-overtime victory over Division II Montana State University Billings to help propel the Battlin' Bears to their current top 25 ranking.
Rocky has four players averaging double figures per game including the conference's current leading scorer in junior Kael Robinson who is averaging 19.3 points per contest. Jesse Owens (16.8), Maxim Stephens (15.7) and A.J. Wilson (10.1) are also averaging over 10 points per game.
The Northern Lights went 0-3 at the Cactus Classic in Arizona but responded by going 2-0 at home to close out non-conference play and now get set to head to Montana Western on Saturday.
But with several players battling through injuries, head coach Shawn Huse is feeling a little wary as his team heads into conference play.
"We're gonna keep the faith, gradually, hopefully get guys back and health," said Huse. "At some point we're going to be playing Northern basketball and looking like Northern basketball."
The Lights have the Frontier's current No. 3 scorer in senior Zachry Martinez who has poured in 240 points and average 18.5 ppg.
Montana Western: 7-6
The Bulldogs — and their first-year head coach — are glad to be home.
Western earned two wins at home in early November and then played the remainder of its 11 non-conference games at five road tournaments.
Patrick Jensen — who succeeded Mike Larsen as Western's next head men's basketball coach after serving as an Bulldogs assistant for five years — played for MSU-Northern and, after a lengthy series of road trips, is excited for his team to open conference play at Straugh Gymnasum.
"Just excited to get back on the court and play at home," he said. "I think it's really exciting to get back in front of our fans here."
Western has a host of new faces on its roster including junior transfer Jalyn Stepney who is leading the Bulldogs with just under 18 points per game. Abi Adedo is averaging 14.8 points per game and Quincy Taylor averaging 10.3 ppg.
The Argos, coming off a run to the Frontier Tournament championship last season, will open conference play after concluding a non-conference schedule that saw them play in five overtime games — going 2-3 in those contests.
All-conference senior Davien Harris-Williams is leading the way for the Argos with 15.8 ppg. Kenny Curtis, Jevon Burton and Jaylin Reed are also averaging double figures for Providence.
Following two seasons as an assistant with Providence, J.C. Isakson succeeded veteran coach Steve Keller as the Argos next head coach. Keller announced his retirement back in February.
Carroll College: 6-7
The Saints are heading into this season with a new head coach in Ryan Lundgren, who was tabbed as Kurt Paulson's successor back in June.
Lundgren said that his team will be leaning on the depth of its roster, especially junior guard Andrew Cook who leads the Saints with 18.8 ppg, followed by Kendall Moore (14.7 ppg) and James Lang (10.2 ppg).
"The strength of our team is our depth and our size," Lundgren said. "We've got really good bigs and we've got bigger guards. We really try to emphasize out-rebounding opponents and defending and controlling the tempo."