MSU v Sacramento State Mens Basketball (copy)

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle talks to his team during a timeout in a Dec. 28 game against Sacramento State.

Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


Danny Sprinkle pulled out his computer in his one-bedroom apartment in Fullerton, California, and Googled motivational sayings last winter.

Amid a losing spell, Cal State Fullerton needed a boost. So Sprinkle, then a Titans assistant coach, scoured the Internet.

After surfing around, he found a phrase that resonated with him and hoped would resonate with players. Sprinkle figured if it could work for the Boston Celtics, it could work for CSUF. The rest of the year, the program used the phrase.

Ubuntu.

“We were playing selfish at the time. We needed something to bring the team together,” Sprinkle said. “It turned our season around at Fullerton last year.”

During his first offseason as Montana State’s head coach, Sprinkle introduced the word to his new players. He explains it as meaning, “My success is your success.” A simple word that not only has the team used as a motto but has been implemented throughout the season. In order for the season to continue, the No. 5 seed Bobcats (16-15) must beat No. 4 seed Portland State (18-14) around 2 p.m. Thursday in the Big Sky quarterfinals in Boise, Idaho.

Sprinkle sought players who embraced him and his coaching philosophies in order for the year to go smoothly. MSU reached 16 wins for just the second time in the last 18 years. It came as a result of players embodying the team’s mantra and putting that one word into action.

“It’s our identity,” senior point guard Harald Frey said. “It went from something that, from the outside, it can sound silly to something we really pride ourselves on. Ubuntu is what Montana State basketball is all about.”

MSU v Weber State Men's Hoops (copy)

The Montana State bench begins to celebrate in the final seconds of a victory against Weber State on Feb. 15 at Worthington Arena.

Last summer, Sprinkle showed videos to his players of the 2008 Boston Celtics, who won the NBA Finals after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They, along with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, embraced the team-first approach. That was appealing to the Bobcats, who have a first-year head coach and nine newcomers.

Once MSU chose to use the phrase, the Bobcats started breaking huddles by saying, “Ubuntu.” Inside MSU’s locker room, the word is plastered on a wall near a doorway.

At first, most players didn’t know what it meant. Others were a little confused. Many had never previously heard the word, which has roots in South African philosophy.

But the Bobcats learned quick, and then put “ubuntu” into action.

“It’s not just a catchphrase for us though,” senior guard Ladan Ricketts said. “Some teams have these terms that they just use because they want to use something. For us, I think every single one of us really buys into it.”

After Quentin Guliford played 25 minutes against Eastern Washington on Jan. 18, Belo cited that as an example of ubuntu since he had barely played all season until that point. But when he was called upon, Guliford stepped up for his team.

Against South Dakota State on Dec. 5, a game after being removed from the starting lineup, junior guard Mychael Paulo hit two key shots in the closing moments of the win. Ricketts has battled a nagging calf injury that’s limited him to about 75% health. The style in which MSU defends relies on help defenders cutting off lanes into the paint.

“I feel like ubuntu is basically how we play,” Paulo said.

Amin Adamu MSU men v. Yellowstone Christian (copy)

Montana State's Amin Adamu crouches in a defensive stance during an Oct. 30 exhibition against Yellowstone Christian at Worthington Arena.

Players also expressed the importance of holding teammates accountable. Speaking to each other about ways to improve and providing feedback is as pivotal as enjoying the team’s highs as a unified group.

If someone on the team has constructive criticism for a teammate, speaking up falls under the category of having each other’s backs.

Sprinkle has given others ownership, too, by allowing assistant coach Dan Russell to call inbounds plays. Russell said he and his fellow assistants have more responsibilities than a lot of head coaches are willing to delegate.

Midway through the season, Sprinkle approached seniors Frey and Ricketts and asked them to lead their teammates in brainstorming their own goals. Instead of the coaching staff formulating stats to reach each game, players met on their own.

The group settled on wanting to commit less than 12 turnovers, attempting and making more free throws than the opponent and winning the rebounding battle. MSU is 5-0 when accomplishing all three.

“That ties directly into (ubuntu),” redshirt junior Devin Kirby said.

MSU v Idaho State Men's Hoops (copy)

Montana State junior Devin Kirby passes to senior Ladan Ricketts against Idaho State on Feb. 13 at Worthington Arena.

The Bobcats have often acknowledged they’re not the most talented team in the Big Sky. They don’t believe that’s a hindrance, though. If they accomplish their goals, they believe they’ll have good chances to win.

The players chose those three categories because they’re based on effort and aggressiveness rather than whether shots happen to be falling that particular day.

“These aren’t my goals that I gave to you or something that we want to set as a team. This is what you guys want to do,” Sprinkle said. “It’s a whole different deal because they take a different amount of pride in it.”

As the Bobcats enter the postseason, their abilities will be tested Thursday against Portland State. Another game is no longer guaranteed. They’ve spent the entire season building toward this moment.

It’s a building process that began in the summer.

“I can’t succeed without my teammates succeeding,” Frey said. “For us to reach our ultimate goal, you need the next guy.”

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

Recommended for you