The Frontier Conference is a tough conference for men's basketball, where every night coaches and players walk out on to the floor knowing an upset could be upon them.
Last year, it was the Carroll College Fighting Saints, the University of Providence Argos, and the Lewis-Clark State Warriors that earned bids into the NAIA national tournament, which was subsequently canceled due to COVID-19. With the Warriors moving to the Cascade Conference earlier this year, Frontier Conference teams will play against each other four times this year, with two back-to-back series.
Carroll College head coach Kurt Paulson said, despite the Warriors leaving, he knows the Frontier Conference will still have some stiff competition
"This will be new for most everybody, no one's really used to this format," said Paulson. "It was unfortunate that the (Lewis-Clark) State decided to move west to the Cascade Conference, but our league's still going to be really good, and playing back-to-back nights will be an adjustment for everybody."
The Fighting Saints wrapped up last season with a 24-9 record, and Paulson said he expects this year to be an interesting year, not only on the court but also off the court due to the pandemic.
"(Players have) had a lot thrown at them, because not only with the COVID protocols, but there's been a lot of remote learning at Carroll, at most schools for the obvious reasons," said Paulson. "The kids have had a lot more academic pressures because it's harder doing the remote learning. You're just not getting that in-person, personal touch. So, I'm really proud of our guys for handling that, the academic side of it."
The University of Providence Argos finished last year with a 24-8 record and return this year with offensive threats like Zacchaeus Darko-Kelly, Dawson Fowler and Rashee Stocks. Argos head coach Steve Keller said this year it's going to be imperative players stay healthy because anyone can get called upon to fill a role in case someone is not eligible to play.
"You got to stay healthy. You know, (Jaxen) Hashley has had five knee surgeries on his one knee. So what you don't know is, they've been working on their own, but it's not the same intensity. You don't know what they're like from March til December," said Keller. "That's a long time to take off or they're not playing. They definitely haven't played any five-on-five and stuff like that. But if you look at the other side of it, you know, we haven't practiced for two months either, like a lot of them, so we could be fresh."
In Havre, Shawn Huse is in his 19th year of coaching the Montana-State Northern Lights, and the Lights were no slouches themselves last year. Northern posted a 20-12 record but missed the national tournament after drawing a first-round conference tournament game against Lewis-Clark State. Though this year is full of uncertainty, Huse and his players are looking at the positives this year is bringing.
"We've got to look at the bright side there and just to be able to go to the gym and be able to work out and be able to lift and be able to condition and be able to do all that stuff. We're just trying to keep it in the bright side, keep it on the positive and know that you know it's going to happen," Huse said about the upcoming season. "We've had these targets, dates come and go, and that may happen the rest of the year -- probably will -- but at some point we'll be playing somebody, and so we want to be ready for that. That's our mindset."
At Montana Tech in Butte, the Ordediggers had a bit of an up-and-down season that ended with an 18-12 record. The down: Eight of the Orediggers' losses on the year came during three- and five-game losing streaks. The up: The Orediggers notched the program's first victory against an NCAA Division I team when they beat the Montana Grizzlies 74-72. The Orediggers also beat the third, eighth and 17th ranked teams in the NAIA and ended the regular season on a four-game win streak. Though, as head coach Adam Hiatt and his squad embark into a sea of uncertainty, he's not exactly thrilled about what this season could be.
"One of the things that coaches despise more than anything else is uncertainty. This whole year is going to be one of uncertainty, where from a day-to-day basis, you just don't know who you're going to have available with you. With the protocols that we have right now, if there's just one single positive test, then the entire team is shut down for 14 days and you can't do anything. Those are tremendous setbacks," said Hiatt. "It is a challenge, and we talked about our depth and our depth is a great component to our team, which it is -- we have a lot of players that can play -- but the uncertainty of who we're going to have available from day to day and day to day is going to cause a lot of challenges for us."
At Montana Western, Mike Larsen knows he and the Bulldogs haven't had the best of seasons during his two-year tenure with an overall record of 20-40. However, Larsen believes this year is where the Bulldogs will be able to turn a page now that the players in his program have had the opportunity to understand what type of culture he's trying to create.
"We have five returners from last year, even if only a couple of them played. We had redshirts that are right now playing in the starting five, or they're in that rotation. They understood what stuff and what matters to me -- family, hard work, commitment, all of those things that come into play," said Larsen. "Everybody else had no other choice but to just jump on board. I mean, when you show up the very first day, and it's 5 a.m. weights, and we come running out that door, instead of walking out like some people might want to at 5 a.m, you're hooping and hollering and running, and everybody's like, 'I guess this is what we're supposed to do.' So, they just kind of followed suit. It kind of made it a little easier on me."
In Billings, the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears and coach Bill Dreikosen had a rough 2019-20 season. The Battlin' Bears finished the season with a 7-22 record but went 1-17 in conference play. Dreikosen said last year was obviously not the best of seasons, but his team never gave up on him. The team's record at the end of the year was not a byproduct of a lack of effort, but rather a lack of athleticism. Dreikosen said this year, that is not the case.
"We're a lot more athletic. One of our biggest problems last year was not playing hard, was not commitment, was not fighting and giving us everything. We just had a little lack of athleticism last year that we normally have," said Dreikosen. "It doesn't take long in the Frontier Conferences, as competitive and has many great athletes that we have nowadays, to really see how that affects you if you don't have some pretty good athletes out on the floor. We're definitely going to be more athletic this year."
While there are many uncertainties as teams head into the 2020-21 Frontier Conference season, regular-season play begins on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m.