MISSOULA — Every college basketball season, Mack Anderson always has at least one homecoming scheduled during the season.
Sure, it's a brief trip, but always a special one when the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats meet, for more reason than one.
Anderson is UM's lone Montanan, as he hails from Bozeman, and will be making what could be his final game appearance in his hometown on Sunday when these two teams meet in the first of their two annual rivalry games.
"It’s funny, we’ll be warming up and I see like an elementary school lunch aid walking in," Anderson said. "You feel like you know everybody in the arena because it is a small town, but it’s a pretty special experience and it’s really cool too because it is full and you really do feel like you know everybody in there."
The Griz senior has had some moments to remember during these rivalry games that mean a little more to him than your average player.
"I remember my freshman year checking in and Jamar (Akoh) was kind of joking with me after, he said that it looked like I was going to pass out right before I checked into the game just because my face was so white," Anderson said with a laugh. "But it’s just kind of turning that into positive energy and just bringing juice because obviously we all get up for that game and it’s special being home but I think it’s just appreciating the rivalry for what it is and just knowing that you have to go in there and compete grind it out."
In that first game on Feb. 2, 2019, Anderson dunked twice against the Bobcats in less than a minute as he was welcomed back to his hometown. In four games against his hometown Bobcats, Anderson and the Grizzlies have gone 4-0.
It has been a solid senior campaign for the 6-foot-9 Anderson thus far. He has started every game for UM and is averaging 4.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, and as a defensive presence has 16 blocks so far this year along with six steals.
He estimates he requested about 30 tickets for Sunday's game for friends and family, and Anderson feels the support when he makes his return each year.
"I obviously love going home, it’s a special night," Anderson said. "I think about it a lot throughout the year, not just during the season. I’m excited to get back there, see my family and friends obviously. Super excited to compete."
Montana and Montana State's men's teams never played last year after their games were canceled due to COVID-19, making this year's contests even more important with both teams off to strong starts and expected to be contenders at the Big Sky tournament in Boise in March. The Grizzlies (11-5, 4-1 Big Sky Conference) and Bobcats (11-5, 3-2) were both picked to finish in the top four in the Big Sky this year.
In this rivalry, the Grizzlies have beaten the Bobcats in 19 of the last 20 meetings between the two. But without last year's games, a number of players on both teams have yet to see what a true Brawl of the Wild game looks like. And this year, fans are allowed to be in attendance in what traditionally has been a sell-out at both locations.
"With this game, you can’t simulate it, right?" Griz associate head coach Chris Cobb said. "We can put it on a video screen and say hey look at what environment you’re going to walk into but until that hits, it’s a different environment. The guys will be excited, it’s what it’s about. You come to these types of places, these schools to play these games."
The Grizzlies come in riding a three-game winning streak, with recent wins over perennial contenders Weber State and Eastern Washington heading into Sunday. After a bumpy nonconference slate, UM is beginning to find a rhythm with their group as they hit the meat of their conference schedule and have won a pair of games with plenty of adversity, from a buzzer-beater win over the Wildcats to a game that featured 56 fouls against the Eagles.
"I think now, we're starting to figure out who we are, what is expected night in and night out, and so I think now we're getting a little bit better sense of what we're trying to accomplish," Cobb said. "For us it's just the maturity level and the continuity of playing together over a number of games now and you can really see a lot of growth.
"Our guys are playing with confidence, our guys understand what their roles are and what we expect of them and our approach day in and day out in terms of our attitude and buy-in has been really good. I think there's just overall belief and a good approach day in and day out with the group."