MISSOULA -- When taking a look at Mack Anderson's stats this season with Montana's men's basketball team, though cliche, roller-coaster is a term that comes to mind.
The Bozeman native has dealt with fluctuating minutes and inconsistent performances during his sophomore campaign in Missoula. But Anderson has embraced a new role set for him which has been keyed largely by his defensive effort which has seen him play well and more consistently in the Grizzlies' past three games.
After starting Big Sky Conference play with only seven minutes played total in Montana's first three league games, Anderson broke through with a strong defensive performance against Northern Colorado on Jan. 4. Through his first season-and-a-half with Montana, Anderson has struggled at times with foul trouble, but he avoided fouls against the Bears while using his size to defend the paint more effectively than past contests. He racked up 16 minutes off the bench in that 74-66 loss.
Then against Eastern Washington last Thursday, he played 17 minutes, doing similar things defensively as Montana held one of the country's hottest-shooting teams to just 38.2 percent from the field in a 90-63 win. But Anderson's offense began to take form, as well, as he finished with eight points on 4-for-5 shooting while he grabbed three rebounds and one steal. Though he eventually fouled out, Montana had the game well in hand by that point.
Monday's matchup with Portland State saw Anderson break through again with arguably a season-best performance. He played just five minutes in the first half after two quick fouls. Then, after getting a third early in the second, he sat again before getting subbed in with 16:09 to play. Anderson didn't leave the game again until Montana mass-subbed its starters when the game was won with just a few minutes left.
He ended with 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting, scoring eight points in a row to put Montana ahead by double digits for good. He added two rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes of work.
That doesn't include how he once again locked down the interior for Montana with his 6-foot-9 frame. Players who attempted to post-up on him traveled more than once while trying to work against him, while some driving players veered off completely with Anderson waiting at the rim.
And that work on the defensive end is why Anderson has seen his minutes drastically increase of late.
"I think I've just been locked in defensively," Anderson said after Monday's game. "That's just been what I've been focused on trying to do. I think that that's probably the biggest difference as far as playing goes, just being locked in on defense and getting the job done down there and then that kind of leads into offense, just having a little more confidence and being a little more poised, I guess."
Montana coach Travis DeCuire agreed. Anderson started the second half on Monday as DeCuire went with a defensive lineup which included freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger, who also began the game on the bench.
"I think that Mack's been playing with a lot more confidence lately," DeCuire said. "I think the play out of Jared Samuelson has taken a lot of pressure off of Mack and made his role a lot more defined with him. I feel like he's more focused on defending and rebounding and not so concerned about his offense, and all of a sudden he's making shots."
Though Anderson picked up that quick foul in the second half, he didn't foul again the rest of the night against the Vikings, another area where DeCuire said his young forward has started to grow.
"He's playing a lot smarter," DeCuire said. "I think in the past he would've gotten some fouls fighting for position or swatting at balls. I think he did a good job of keeping his hands up and building a wall. So that's why we left him in because he's gotten better in that area and he's able to play those minutes."
"I was just trying to give them a little more space," Anderson added. "I feel like I was a little too up-close and handsy in the first half. Just tried to back off a little bit, stay straight up."
While his minutes have been up and down this season, Anderson has had moments that have showcased his potential. He had a season-high 25 minutes at Arkansas where he scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots. Against Oregon, he played 22 minutes and scored four points and blocked two more shots. He's started in six of Montana's games as well.
While technically a veteran from last year's team, Anderson is still mixed in with Montana's freshmen and younger players because he played just 8.5 minutes per game a year ago when he was thrown into the fire after the initial plan was to redshirt him. The potential has been there, but finding consistency has been his next step.
Now that he's settling into a more defined role, he may have just found that consistency he's needed, which has been a big help in UM's past two decisive victories.
"Yeah, (the learning curve) was definitely hard, a lot last year too," Anderson said. "I had a lot of guys help me through it last year like Jamar (Akoh) and Sayeed (Pridgett). It's definitely getting easier now just doing it ever day, practicing every day."