MISSOULA — College basketball is taking steps toward starting a season, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams at the University of Montana are ready to roll.
The recently changed start date to the NCAA Division I college basketball season was set for Nov. 25, so teams around the country have a little less than a month to prepare before games can officially begin.
The Montana Grizzlies and Lady Griz officially began preseason practices two weeks back, and the Big Sky Conference recently released the conference schedules for everyone as well.
So before the seasons begin, here is a look at the 2020-21 Montana men’s and women’s basketball teams:
Montana Lady Griz
The Lady Griz get started with a new coach in 2020 in Michael Petrino. Petrino paces the sidelines as the head coach after spending the previous four seasons as an assistant with previous head coach Shannon Schweyen.
Petrino has his work cut out for him in Year 1 as the Lady Griz were dealt an offseason of turnover as well as a plethora of new faces joining the program.
“It’s a world of chaos as we know with COVID, so it’s been therapeutic to be in the gym working, so that’s been a good part,” Petrino said. “We got a great group of returners, they’re working really hard and helping the new kids out. We've been here for a few practices so for that part, we’re getting used to each other.
“It’s been fun and energetic and trying to make it that way. It’s a tough time for everybody, tough time for our kids, but I feel like they’re bringing good energy, working hard, and we learn more every day about ourselves, so that's good.”
Senior Madi Schoening and juniors Abby Anderson and Sophia Stiles serve as the returning players with the most playing time for UM. Anderson (9.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game) and Stiles (5.5 points and 2.1 assists per game) both started in every game they played a year ago, while Schoening (6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) cracked the starting lineup in the second half of the season after missing 2018-19 due to injury.
But the Lady Griz are now tasked with filling the shoes of all-Big Sky guard McKenzie Johnston, Emma Stockholm and Taylor Goligoski, who all exhausted their eligibility, while guard Gabi Harrington transferred to Idaho and forward Jamie Pickens left the team for hometown Carroll College.
Sophomores Carmen Gfeller and Jordyn Schweyen return with experience. Both played as true freshmen in 2018-19 before redshirting last season. Junior Kylie Frohlich also returns after averaging 10.1 minutes per game a season ago.
Outside of that group, there are transfers and first-year players aplenty for the Lady Griz. Juniors Lauren Mills (Iowa State) of Tasmania, Nyah Morris-Nelson (Iowa Western) of Australia and Hannah Thurmon (Three Rivers College) of Missouri are all new to the Lady Griz this season with college experience elsewhere.
The Lady Griz sport a Montana-heavy freshman class headlined by 2020 Gatorade player of the year in Kyndall Keller of Havre. Glendive’s Karsen Murphy, Willa Albrecht of Billings West, Joelnell Momberg of Box Elder and Portland’s Bria Dixson are UM’s incoming freshmen. Shelby Schweyen also returns after redshirting last season as a true freshman to round out the Lady Griz team.
So the task now is to mesh this group together in uncertain times.
“It was a big turnover with a lot of new girls, and I think that we’ve done a really good job just getting to know each other, and practices have been competitive and high-energy,” Stiles said. “I think that we’ve developed a really good chemistry off of the court, which has definitely helped translate on. All of the new girls are really excited to be here, super coachable, high-energy and I feel like we’ve meshed really well.”
“Over the summer we were doing a lot of Zoom calls just because we weren’t allowed to be around each other, so the first time we all met each other was right around when school was starting in August,” Schoening added. “We did a lot of team bonding and group things so we got to meet the new girls and get to know them quite a bit before we stepped onto the court, which was nice and a big change. Since then it’s been a lot of adjusting to new things that Mike is doing, and they’re all in a whole new program, so it’s been a whole new learning experience altogether.
“Being a senior, I’m just so happy to be out there playing and getting one last year that’s as close to normal as we could have hoped at this point, so pretty excited for it.”
Schoening also noted that players like her, Stiles and Anderson have played under Petrino now for a number of years and help communicate his coaching philosophies to the new players.
UM finished 17-13 a year ago and was eliminated from the Big Sky Conference tournament in the opening round against Northern Arizona. The Lady Griz are gunning for their first conference title since 2015.
Petrino said the Lady Griz are aiming to have five non-conference basketball games plus the 20 games they will get in the new Big Sky schedule that was recently released.
“Whether all of those are played or not, we don’t know, but our new motto is plan, prepare and pivot,” Petrino said.
But with the start date on the calendar, the Lady Griz have a goal to work toward as the season rapidly approaches.
“I think we just appreciate everything that we get right now,” Stiles said. “It’s awesome to have a goal in mind and it’s easy to bring it every practice when you know that you’re working toward something.”
Similar to the Lady Griz, the Montana men’s basketball team is tasked with building around a team full of new faces.
Junior Mack Anderson, redshirt sophomore Eddy Egun and walk-ons Peter Jones and Freddy Brown III return as Montana’s longest-tenured players. Sophomores Kyle Owens, Josh Vazquez and Derrick Carter-Hollinger also saw significant time last season as true freshmen, with the trio frequently starting or racking up starter's minutes off of the bench.
But outside of that core, Montana once again is tasked with filling large shoes left behind by the likes of Sayeed Pridgett, Kendal Manuel and Jared Samuelson, all of whom exhausted eligibility, while veteran guard Timmy Falls left the team after three seasons at UM.
So what does Montana have at its disposal? A lot of eyes will be on senior Michael Steadman, who transferred to UM last season after one year at San Jose State. The 6-foot-10 Steadman redshirted last year at Montana to work out and learn Montana’s systems, so by the time this season rolled around, Steadman could hit the ground running.
“I plan to dominate, that’s what I came here to do,” Steadman said. “I want to win games and at the same time I want to get to the tournament. That’s been a lifelong goal of mine. To be on a traditionally winning team and to be a focal point in that offense, it’s pretty exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
250 to 215 in a a year...hard work is undefeated 💯 pic.twitter.com/EkQyxB4sou
— Michael Steadman (@mikesteady123) October 21, 2020
Steadman also transformed his body during his first year with UM. After arriving at 250 pounds, Steadman said he’s worked his way down to 215 through workouts and a new diet. At San Jose State, Steadman averaged 13.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, good enough to lead the team in both categories.
Plus, Steadman’s measurables, offseason work and stats in the Mountain West Conference have the coaching staff excited about what he can do as a likely preseason player of the year candidate going into the year.
“I think it’s a good collective group and I think we’re going to be pretty good this year,” Steadman said. “I think we’re starting to get to a point where we all know what we can do and like to do, so I think we’re starting to hit our stride in that regard.”
Steadman and Anderson, who stands 6-9, could form a formidable post duo in the Big Sky after Anderson made strides a year ago thanks to the pair challenging each other and going head-to-head each practice.
“I think that him coming here has been huge for our program and for me as well just to be going up against him every day,” Anderson said. “He’s a great player, he can score down low, shoot it, big body, so I think it’s going to be exciting to have him here.”
Guards Cameron Parker and Cam Satterwhite also enter into the mix. Satterwhite joins UM as a grad transfer from fellow Big Sky foe Northern Arizona, while Parker transfers in as a junior after two years at Division I Sacred Heart in Connecticut where he set the single-game Division I assists record at 24 on Dec. 1, 2019.
That duo figures to play an integral role in this rotation. Fellow transfer Darius Henderson, a junior, joined UM mid-year last year from UMass Lowell and will be eligible once the fall semester comes to a close.
Outside of them, like Owens, Vazquez and Carter-Hollinger, it's another highly touted freshman class with Australian duo Josh Bannan and Hunter Clarke as well as California guards Brandon Whitney and Robby Beasley III.
So in similar fashion as the Lady Griz, the men have to adapt to this new group of faces as they all get set to take the floor together for the first time.
“It’s been good to kind of get back into a routine with the official practices starting,” Anderson said. “Everything’s just been kind of wild getting that going, especially over the summer. I’m really excited, we got a lot of new guys, and I think that once we kind of just get it all together, I’m excited to see what we can do."
Montana never got a chance to suit up at the Big Sky tournament in Boise, with the Grizzlies’ quarterfinal game scheduled the day everything was shut down due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So UM finished 18-13 with no real closure to the season. But even with a roster full of players who have never suited up together in a game, Montana’s depth of athletic guards and well-rounded big men should make it once again an early season favorite to win the league and advance to the NCAA Tournament for a third time under seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire.
“Everyone was asking me all throughout the summer and this fall if we were going to play,” Anderson said. “It’s good to finally have that for sure yes and we got games on the schedule, the conference schedule is out, so it’s definitely good to kind of have everything set.”