MISSOULA — Montana's men's basketball team brings a lot of flair and experience from a year ago back into their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
But two rotation players for the Grizzlies will make their debuts when they step onto the floor Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
Redshirt senior Donaven Dorsey and redshirt junior Kendal Manuel have both been to the NCAA Tournament before, only they were watching the game from the bench. In 2016, Manuel, a true freshman with Oregon State out of Billings Skyview, was redshirting that season after breaking his leg before the year even started. The Beavers advanced to March Madness for the first time since 1990.
Dorsey, meanwhile, was with Montana during last year's run, but surgery he had on a benign tumor on the head of his femur before the season began ended his opportunity to step on the court before it even began.
Now, both are healthy and playing key roles for the Grizzlies as they prepare for a rematch with Michigan.
"It was always something I wanted to get back to, especially after I saw it my freshman year and got to experience the atmosphere and get a feel for how it is," Manuel said. "It's definitely a stage, looking back on it, that I always wanted to be a part of and actually go out there and play.
"It's a blessing to be a part of this program and have that opportunity now."
Since getting cleared by the NCAA just a day before the regular season started, Manuel has given the Griz a 3-point threat off of the bench. He's played in every game, averaging almost 20 minutes, 8.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per contest. He's shooting the ball at a 43.2 percent clip from deep.
"That's the thing I'm trying to make sure I take in the most is that I'll be able to play this year and have an opportunity to go and make some shots hopefully," Manuel said. "That's what I'm excited about most is being able to contribute."
Dorsey has had his ups and downs throughout the season. His minutes dipped during December and January as he adjusted to playing basketball again, but turned a corner with a breakout performance at Montana State on Feb. 2. He began to see his minutes increase and with it, his production jumped dramatically. And with redshirt senior Jamar Akoh going down with injury against Idaho on Feb. 7, Dorsey has filled in as a post who can shoot from deep and has thrived, starting in eight games down the stretch.
Dorsey went two seasons without playing basketball after he transferred to Montana from Washington. Now, his chance at March Madness is here.
"You for sure don't take it for granted. There was a point where I didn't think I'd dribble a basketball again or run on the court," Dorsey said. "You just think about it differently and try to enjoy the moments and not let it go away too fast."
Dorsey has also become a fan favorite for his light-hearted attitude on the court. After each made three, Dorsey celebrates by either holding up three fingers, raising his hands toward the roof or skipping down the court. He often looks toward the crowd and waives them on to ignite some fire and energy while also hyping up his teammates.
"The celebrations are just me enjoying the game. Before when I played, I didn't celebrate that much," Dorsey said. "Now that the game was almost taken away from me, I just try to have as much fun as I can out there."
With so many serious faces everywhere during a basketball game, it's quite the sight when Dorsey begins to skip down the middle of the court.
"I just try to get us going, man," he added with a big smile and laugh. "Just get everybody into it and keep us having fun. When things are going wrong, you can easily get upset or frustrated, but I try to keep us positive."
Dorsey shoots at a 45.3 percent rate from 3-point range and is averaging 6.1 points per game. Against Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game, he went 4 for 4 from deep as a spark off of the bench.
Last season, Montana shot at a 33.9 percent rate from deep, which ranked 236th in the nation. This year, Montana is shooting at a 38 percent clip which is tied for 28th in the nation.
A lot of that improvement is in part to the contributions by Manuel and Dorsey, and how well Montana shoots from beyond the arc could be one of the biggest deciding factors in Thursday's match against Michigan.
"I feel like Donaven and I especially can go out there and spread the floor for us," Manuel said. "Last year, Michigan was able to collapse on them and keep the defense in tight. The way Donaven and I can shoot the three, I feel like we'll be able to provide spacing and we can make plays off the dribble too if that's needed."
And though it's their first time competing in the tournament, both are approaching it like their teammates who have been there and done that with a business-like mentality.
"Realistically we're just going to go in with the mentality that we belong here even though we are a 15 seed," Dorsey said. "We feel we belong, we worked hard enough to get here. Fought through a lot of adversity throughout the season that people don't know about.
"We're going to go into the game and go at them. We're not going to hold anything back. We're not going to be scared."