MISSOULA — Most Montana men’s basketball fans know all about Travis DeCuire, Mike Oguine, and Ahmaad Rorie.
The most loyal followers probably could tell you something about redshirting freshmen like Eddy Egun, Freddy Brown III or Ben Carter.
But it would take the keenest eye to notice one of the Grizzlies’ key pieces — Jesse Bartels, a five-year student manager who’s been the head manager and is now a graduate assistant and video coordinator.
And for the second year in a row, the Hamilton native who helps take care of the day-to-day details that keep the team on schedule will be going to the NCAA Tournament with the program he grew up admiring.
“It’s pretty phenomenal,” Bartels said before the Griz left for Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ll take on Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at 7:20 p.m. Thursday. “Coming from a small town here in Montana, seeing the Griz my whole life and just dreaming of that day hopefully getting to go to the NCAA Tournament with the team and finally going there last year, it was a cool experience and one you’ll never forget.”
“This year, going back, you don’t see very many teams that go back-to-back, so to be part of the fifth team in Big Sky history that’s won the regular season and tournament in back-to-back seasons is really cool and pretty amazing.”
Like many Montana kids before and after him, Bartels grew up in awe of the Griz. He enjoyed the success of the football program, but since basketball was his favorite sport, he connected more with the basketball team and players like Kevin Criswell, Matt Martin, Will Cherry, Kareem Jamar and Mathis Ward. He’d put the team posters handed out at the arena on his bedroom wall, marking them up throughout the season with the result of each game.
Over the years, Bartels would make multiple trips to basketball games throughout the season. When he’d go with his dad, who coached him in AAU, they’d sit in general admission seating before making a dash to the best open seats after the game’s first eight minutes.
Now, Bartels has had one of the best seats in the house, sitting on the bench alongside the coaches while wearing a suit.
Among a host of duties, Bartels sets up the gym before practice, helps out during and closes up afterward. On game days, he opens the gym for the opposing team, sets up balls and water, gets film ready to go and rebounds during the pregame shootaround.
When there’s a free moment, he’s in the office working on cutting up film or creating the schedule for other managers. This year, he’s been the go-to guy who makes travel arrangements for the team’s road trips.
The higher level of responsibility for Bartels the past two seasons came after assistant coach Jay Flores was promoted from director of operations. Head coach Travis DeCuire decided to forego filling the position, splitting duties up among the staff and Bartels.
“He’s invaluable,” said Flores, who works most closely with Bartels. “From the outside looking in, you never really notice it. But then when you’re on the inside and he’s not here for a day, it’s like, ‘Well, how do we do that?’ Well, Jesse’s the one who always knows.
“I think at certain points it’s overlooked what he does because he’s so steady with it. He’s really an unsung hero in terms of he doesn’t really get a lot of credit for what he does.”
On the hardwood, Bartels’ hopes of playing college basketball were dashed by multiple knee injuries, including ligament reconstruction surgery in his left knee after an injury in his final high school game. Following a year away from basketball, Bartels tried out to be a manager for former coach Wayne Tinkle’s staff, but Tinkle soon after left for Oregon State.
When DeCuire was hired, Bartels got a spot as a student manager. He has a hard time picking a favorite memory, but some that stood out are trips to the NCAA and Big Sky Conference tournaments, games at Power Five schools and traveling to The Kennel, where the Griz nearly beat Gonzaga.
Bartels has enjoyed the experience so much that he’s looking to make a career in the basketball world, either on a college team or in the front office of a professional organization, putting to use his degree in business administration and his postgraduate certificate in big data analytics.
“If you would have told me my senior year of high school that this is where I was going to be five years from then, I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Bartels said. “It’s been a fun ride. It’s gone by super-fast.”