MISSOULA — With the cancellation of the Big Sky Conference tournament hours before the Montana men’s basketball team was set to tip off due to coronavirus, we will never know just how far this improbable season could have gone.
Following two straight NCAA tournament berths and league-tournament wins, many thought the Grizzlies would take a major step back this year. While the 18-13 campaign was lower on the wins total than either of the past two seasons, Montana still was in first place in the Big Sky for the vast majority of the season.
Incredibly, this followed a brutal non-conference slate that pushed Montana down to a 4-7 record heading into Big Sky play, one loss of which was to NAIA school Montana Tech. It was the first time since the 1940s the Orediggers beat the Grizzlies.
But the turnaround came quickly, and Montana went 7-1 in its first eight Big Sky games and ended up sweeping rivals Eastern Washington and Montana State.
Dropping three of its final four games pushed the Grizzlies down to a third seed, but Montana had a decent draw on its side of the bracket and likely would have met Northern Colorado in the semifinals.
All that is, of course, by the wayside now, but perhaps the saddest thing for the team was that Sayeed Pridgett never got the chance to end his career on his own terms. One of three seniors along with Montana products Jared Samuelson and Kendal Manuel, the group pushed the rest of the young roster to heights they otherwise likely wouldn’t have found.
Pridgett’s season averages, of course, were impressive. The senior averaged 19.8 points per game, the fourth-best single-season average in school history.
Incredibly, Pridgett hit 51.1% of his shots this season and leaves Montana with a career field goal percentage of 53%, extremely efficient numbers for a guard. Pridgett also led the Grizzlies in rebounding (7.2 per game), assists (3.9), steals (1.5) and both free throws attempted and made.
It was an outstanding year for him, and if Montana would have won the Big Sky regular season league title, there is no doubt he would’ve been named the conference’s most valuable player.
Historically, Pridgett has the fourth-most career points in Grizzly men’s basketball history with 1,679. Only Bob Cope (1,810 points), Michael Ray Richardson (1,827) and Larry Krystkowiak (2,017) are ahead of him.
One of Montana’s best recruits under Travis DeCuire, Pridgett lived up to lofty expectations from the beginning. His role changed numerous times throughout his years in Missoula, but he became an extremely versatile player and played with a passion few could match.
Manuel also came into his own as the season came along, transitioning from a role player and knock-down shooter last year to an important starter for Montana.
DeCuire lauded the guard’s detail to and improvement on defense, which hadn’t been one of Manuel’s strongest areas in prior seasons. It was this year and allowed DeCuire to have yet another option to score the ball on the court.
Manuel’s 15.1 points per game were second most on the team, and he hit 59 3-pointers on the season on 36% shooting.
The last of the three seniors, Samuelson instantly became a starter once he was healthy enough to do so, starting in 20 of the 27 games in which he played. He was third on the team in scoring with 8.1 points per game and hit 46.3% of his 3-pointers while battling a nagging knee injury.
Samuelson often had treatment on his knee on the bench during games but was able to give the Grizzlies 16.8 minutes per game.
Carter-Hollinger won the freshman of the year award for Montana, which had not been awarded to a Grizzly since Cameron Rundles in 2007. The three true freshmen tallied 40 total starts and 20 of those came in the first 10 games of the season, which was the first time since 2014 a pair of Montana freshman started the same game.
It is the only time in school history two freshmen have started five or more games in the same season.
Even more impressive? Carter-Hollinger was 17 until early December, making him one of the youngest-ever players to start a game for the Grizzlies. He totaled 17 starts and hit 59.7% of his shots on the year.
He also gained well over 20 pounds throughout the summer and regular season and should be penciled in as a regular starter who will have the chance to become a star next season. He has all the tools both offensively and defensively to be the key piece of what Montana wants to do for the foreseeable future.
Next season will be an interesting one for Montana. Point guard Timmy Falls will be a senior, and Bozeman’s Mack Anderson, who improved tremendously as a sophomore will also be an upperclassman.
Naseem Gaskin and Michael Steadman, who each sat out this year due to NCAA transfer rules, will also be available for the Grizzlies. Gaskin will likely start, and Steadman may as well. Each has flashed in practice.
Several freshmen who could have an immediate impact will also likely join the squad over the summer, making the prospect of next season tantalizing to the Grizzly faithful.
Certainly the future is bright for Montana, but there was still so much left for this year’s group that was unfortunately taken away far too soon.
Jordan Hansen covers a bunch of stuff for the Missoulian and 406 Sports. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or shoot him an email at Jordan.Hansen@406mtsports.com