MISSOULA — Last season was nothing short of weird for college basketball teams.
Threats of cancellations loomed — even if that is still an issue this season. Teams played fewer games than normal. The Big Sky Conference had a weird schedule where teams had to play in the same venue against the same opponent twice in three days.
Some of the most notable missing pieces were either empty or mostly empty arenas and fieldhouses, and storied rivalry games being called off, Montana and Montana State included due to a positive test at UM. It marked the first time since 1943-44 that the game was not played.
This year, despite COVID-19 still causing cancellations, including the Lady Griz and MSU women's game, the Brawl of the Wild men's basketball game is still on. The teams will play at 5 p.m. Sunday at Worthington Arena in Bozeman.
"Last year obviously sucked because even if we were going to be able to play them, we wouldn't have had fans, which would have just made it weird to begin with," Grizzlies senior and Bozeman High grad Mack Anderson said Wednesday.
The game was moved to Sunday to accommodate the Montana State football team's FCS title game against North Dakota State Saturday morning, which ended as a lopsided defeat for the Bobcats.
"I get it," Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said Wednesday of the schedule shift. "I think that if we were playing in that game that the community would have preferred that the game get pushed, so I understand it. There was no pushback or negative thoughts from our end. But, at the same time, it gets you out of your normal routine of a Sunday off and a hard practice on Monday. We are going to have to transition into Southern Utah with a Monday off, but we will make the most of it."
Montana (11-5, 4-1 Big Sky) and Montana State (11-5, 3-2 Big Sky) each come in seeking major wins. Sure, a rivalry win is always ideal, but with both teams playing at a high level and in the top five of the league standings, there is a bit more to it.
With Sacramento State, previously winless in the Big Sky, handing Northern Colorado, previously undefeated in league play, its first conference loss of the season, Montana comes into Sunday as the top team in the standings, while the Cats are fifth.
Montana enters with three-straight league wins, downing Idaho State, Weber State and Eastern Washington. Montana State, meanwhile, lost to Weber State at home two weeks ago, but the Cats took two in a row over lowly Idaho State and Idaho by double digits.
Montana has had the Cats' number since DeCuire took over. But in his third season in Bozeman at the lead, Danny Sprinkle is seeking his first win as a coach over the Griz — albeit he has only had two chances before Sunday.
Last ride at home
Anderson had some fun in his first game at Worthington Arena in a Grizzlies uniform his freshman season.
The Bozeman High graduate only played one minute, but he put an exclamation mark on the game in that minute.
Anderson took a feed from then-Grizzly guard Timmy Falls and slammed home a dunk underneath. Just seconds later, then-Grizzly point guard Ahmaad Rorie and Anderson connected for an alley-oop to cap off an electric minute.
In four career games against the Bobcats, Anderson has played more than 10 minutes only once. That came his sophomore year in 2020 at home, when he played 13 minutes, hit the one shot he attempted and hauled in three rebounds. He has never lost to his hometown team in four tries.
Expect an Anderson-supportive crowd in a sea of Bobcat fans come Sunday.
"I'm super excited," Anderson said. "I love playing back there. It's good to see family and friends and play in that environment, so I'm definitely looking forward to getting back there. ... It kinda feels like you know most of the people in the arena when you're playing."
The last time Montana and Montana State met on the hardwood, Kendal Manuel made a cross-over move, rose up and buried a 3-pointer to silence the crowd in Bozeman in a 59-54 win in February 2020.
Manuel's shot capped off a 7-0 run that followed a thunderous dunk by Montana State wing Amin Adamu, who is still with the team two years later.
“I think it just swung momentum and got us going again," Manuel, now playing professionally in France, said to the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com after the win. "After that dunk, it was a big shift, and we felt it. Once we got that layup and three, I think that it shifted back for us.”
The win pushed DeCuire's all-time coaching record against Montana State to 11-1 and capped off the ninth sweep of the Bobcats over a 10-year stretch.
The Grizzlies lead the all-time series 153-148, have won 19 of the past 20 meetings and are 9-1 in Bozeman over the past decade. The last time UM lost to the Cats was in 2017, when Tyler Hall went off for 37 points and six 3-pointers in a 78-69 win in Bozeman.