HELENA — Trever Spoja had one dream from the time he could pick up a basketball and walk.
“I was going to play for the University of Montana,” Spoja said.
His dream eventually became a reality when he walked on to the team as a freshman, just months after graduating from Billings West High School.
He played in 28 games, scoring 19 career points, handing out four assists and even making a trip with his teammates to the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I was born a Griz. The school colors are in my blood,” Spoja said.
But, though both of his parents attended Montana and his dad was a four-year starter on the basketball team in the 1990s, was Spoja on the right path?
He had to think long and hard about his future, especially if he was going to remain on the hardwood.
“I had some quality internship opportunities coming up that summer,” Spoja said, “I was also taking my upper core classes, and I was in a position (on the court) that was full of extremely talented players. I didn’t see a lot of ability to be able to crack into the rotation.”
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Spoja let his coaches know that he had decided to leave the program. His reason was simply to concentrate on his studies and graduate with a degree in business finance.
Spoja decided to leave the game altogether.
“Making the decision to go (to Montana) was easy,” he said. “Making the decision to end it early was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my life.”
Spoja isn’t the only basketball player to leave a program like Montana.
According to a study completed by the Independent Record that spans from 2015 through 2019, roughly one out of three men’s and women’s basketball players in the Big Sky Conference have left or transferred schools with eligibility remaining.
And each has their own reason why.
About the time Spoja was leaving Montana, Brynley Fitzgerald was a senior at Beaverhead County High School in Dillon.
She graduated in 2018 and thought hard about where she wanted to play college basketball.
While she grew up watching football games at Montana, and even took the court with her high school team inside Dahlberg Arena, she realized the atmosphere was not right and eventually decided to sign with Montana State.
“It was one of those things where I thought they had a great thing going,” Fitzgerald said of the Bobcats’ women’s basketball program.
Fitzgerald stayed the summer in Bozeman with the team, getting to know the campus, taking a class and improving her game, but the result ended up in limited playing time.
“I wanted to play and I wanted make a big impact on my team,” Fitzgerald said.
It was time to talk to her coach, Tricia Binford.
Binford has seen success over her tenure as Montana State’s women’s basketball coach.
The program has not produced a losing season in 13 years.
“You want to build a culture where everyone is happy, everyone is valued and everyone is gaining experience but, at the end of the day, sometimes these players aren’t getting the experience they were hoping for,” Binford said.
Meetings at the end of the season are common in college basketball programs and consist of players sitting down with their coaches to discuss their future.
“These are the most realistic and honest conversations, where we talk about where we see them going forward and their impact on the team,” Binford said. “If those aren’t aligning with the student-athlete’s expectations for their experience, we do have honest and transparent discussions.”
Limited playing time is one reason why a player might become discouraged and seek other opportunities, whether to transfer or leave the game altogether.
Out of the study’s 339 players who left his or her program, 61 percent averaged less than 10 minutes of playing time per game.
During Fitzgerald’s time at Montana State, she played 61.5 total minutes, 4 percent of her team’s completed season.
Spoja played even less at Montana, averaging no more than 2.8 minutes per game.
“You want to be out there, but I understood what my role was at that time,” Spoja said.
Coaches try to sell their program every year to new recruits, but none of the coaches interviewed for this article say they promise minutes.
“When I sit down with a parent and player, I always open up the conversation with, ‘I don’t make promises I can’t keep,’” Montana men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire said.
That’s not to say he doesn’t offer incentives to sign. DeCuire simply takes the student and parent into his office to show them three items: a wall with the history of Montana basketball, a University of Montana diploma and a photo of a packed Dahlberg Arena.
“I can promise them that I’m going to graduate 100 percent of my seniors and, when they get in the game, they will play in front of a large crowd,” DeCuire said. “The rest is up to them and how hard they are willing to work.”
Randy Rahe is another Big Sky coach who has seen players transfer because of their lack of playing time.
The Weber State men’s basketball program has seen 23 players leave over the five-year span, with 13 transferring to another program.
“I’m going to be honest with the players and tell them, ‘Your playing time is not going to be what it was like last year, because we brought in such in such player,’” said Rahe, who has coached the Wildcats for 15 seasons. “The players who have left have not been a part of that winning culture. We have never lost a player to a transfer that we have wanted to keep.”
DeCuire, Binford and Rahe have all made the NCAA Tournament and know how important it is to find recruits and keep that winning culture in place. Unlike the Power 5 conferences such as the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC, a mid-major conference like the Big Sky only gets one team into the NCAA Tournament.
“When you are a coach, you want to make sure your program has that experience at your place,” Binford said. “You commit to these kids and your goals want to match but there are scenarios, whether there are injuries or positions on the roster that are really deep, that there might be opportunities for players to thrive in a different environment.”
But all three confirmed they will do everything in their power to help them find success at another location.
“I’ll help them get a scholarship. That’s not a problem,” Rahe said. “Every player we have sort of nudged out the door, nobody has been left hanging.”
Where are they leaving from?
Each player has his or her own reason to leave, but data reveals that some programs lose players more frequently than others.
The Weber State and Northern Colorado men, Eastern Washington women and both of Southern Utah’s programs have a turnover rate of 40 percent or higher.
Sacramento State’s men, on the other hand, have shown to keep most of its players, regardless of how much the players contribute.
Brian Katz is entering his 13th year as head coach and has only seen six players, or 15 percent, leave within the five-year span.
“We are a developmental teaching program, meaning continuity is key,” Katz said. “The longer you have players, the better they will get. You can always trade up for a player, but that hasn’t really worked for us.”
Aside from Sacramento State losing only six players in 13 years, Katz said only five have transferred in from another Division I school.
“We really look for a fit in regard to our culture,” Katz said. “We recruited them but they did not sign with us, so we felt like we already knew them.”
Sacramento State also features one of the smaller arenas in Division I, but Katz said the quality of facilities do not affect his players once they sign.
“We say from day one that their high school facility is better than ours so, if that is going to be a problem, it’s nothing personal and we understand,” Katz said. “It’s not an issue for the kids that we do get.”
How quickly can they transfer?
Every Big Sky basketball program has seen players leave or transfer.
Recently, the NCAA has made it much easier to make a change and find a new home with the birth of the transfer portal in October 2018.
An article published by the NCAA, “What the NCAA Transfer Portal Is and What It Isn’t”, states that the portal was created to “add more transparency to the process among schools and empower student athletes to make known their desire to consider other programs.”
Many associate athletic directors at the NCAA Division II level are in favor of the process because it benefits compliance administrators.
Sean McAndrews, an associate athletics director at West Virginia State University, said the transfer portal helps save time.
“Like most administrators in Division II, I have other duties, such as sports information and facilities responsibilities,” he said.
Coaches have a differing opinions on the issue.
“I’m not a fan of it,” DeCuire said. “I liked the original process where a kid walks in, tells the coach to his face, the coach tells the athletic director and then they work from there.
“The portal takes away the pure communication, and a kid can enter the portal without having a conversation with the coach.”
Once a student-athlete asks the school to place his or her name in the portal, the school has two business days to submit the information. At that point, the school can reduce or stop giving them athletics aid at the end of the term.
If a player transfers, they must sit out a season unless they file a waiver showing extenuating and extraordinary mitigating circumstances beyond their control.
A student-athlete transferring from any NCAA division to the NAIA is eligible to play right away.
“There are really good intentions with the transfer portal as far as if a kid is in a bad situation, such as a coach preventing them from considering a school they want to be a part of,” Binford said. “The portal protects the student-athlete but, at the same time, (college) is going to be difficult and you need to teach them to overcome adversity.”
Montana treasured by locals
No matter how quickly a player can transfer, some decisions to leave are tough.
Especially when playing for a specific school is the ultimate goal.
Many Montana high school athletes look at playing for Montana or Montana State as a dream come true.
“Kids fantasize about it because that is the highest level you see in Montana,” Spoja said. “There’s a pride that every Montana resident has. They are either a ‘Cat or a Griz. There is no in-between. To see that much support from the fans all over the state, you just don’t find anywhere else.”
During the span in which the data was compiled by the IR, 55 Montanans have been a part of Big Sky basketball programs.
The Lady Griz roster has been comprised of more than 60 percent of its state’s talent, and only six have left to pursue other opportunities.
“Robin (Selvig) and Shannon (Schweyen) both believed in laying the foundation with Montana kids,” Montana women’s basketball coach Mike Petrino said.
But that doesn’t mean every college coach in Montana believes in a local foundation.
Binford’s roster was comprised of 26 percent Montanans. The Montana and Montana State’s men’s basketball programs recruited a mere nine total players from the state.
“I think we are trying to find the best players period to take the program to the next step. We not only want to be competitive for Big Sky titles, but also start working that mid-major poll and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament,” Binford said. “If those kids are in our backyard, great, but we want the best kids that are competitive and successful on the court and in classroom. We are going to look wherever we need to to find those players.”
Binford said she does not receive any pressure from the athletic department to recruit locally or promote a local brand, but she does want to sign the best kids that will make the university proud.
“It’s not pressure but they encourage to find the right student-athlete that will win championships and be excellent representatives out in the community,” Binford said.
Twenty-eight percent of the state’s basketball players have left either Montana or Montana State’s men’s or women’s programs and, much like for Spoja, that decision is a difficult one.
“Everyone has goals from the time they were a kid,” Fitzgerald said. “I tried it. I did it and it didn’t work out. It wasn’t for me, but I think there are a bunch of other opportunities you can have on the court where kids from smaller communities can look up to you.”
Finding success elsewhere
Fitzgerald took her new goals to heart while also finding some success on the court along the way. She decided the best opportunity was to head home. Montana Western was right down the street from her high school, and its women’s basketball team was about to hang its first NAIA national championship banner.
“To see the culture that (Montana Western) coach (Lindsay Wooley) had built was pretty special,” Fitzgerald said.
In her debut season, she averaged 9.4 points per contest and grabbed 3.9 rebounds.
Transferring to another school and dropping a level from NCAA Division I to NCAA Division II or the NAIA has been common over the last five years.
Less than 25 percent of the Big Sky basketball players who continue their careers at other schools remain at a NCAA Division I institution.
Fitzgerald found success at Montana Western where her minutes increased exponentially, but some athletes have to travel a long distances to find the right opportunity.
Niko Bevens is another player who saw success as soon as he stepped away from the Division I level.
He took his talent north when he signed with NCAA Division II Alaska Anchorage after his sophomore season at Montana.
“Alaska is a different place than the rest of the country,” Bevens said. “It’s pitch black all the time, so all I wanted to do was stay in the gym.”
He played one season with UM in 2017 but knew that he needed a change.
“I really didn’t see myself improving and going on to the next level if I was going to stay,” Bevens said. “Guys like Bobby Moorehead were a year ahead of me, and the incoming freshmen were having a great year.“
But Bevens also blamed himself.
“I feel like I could have worked harder,” he said. “I came into Montana knowing I made a D-I school and pumped the breaks a little bit. I kind of thought I was all that.”
Bevens’ learned from his mistake in Missoula and thrived in Anchorage. His senior year he averaged 32 minutes a game and in one game hit seven 3-pointers.
“The team welcomed me in and made it a priority to make me feel comfortable,” Bevens said. “This team fit my style of play. We were very shooter-oriented.”
Bevens and Fitzgerald were just a few of the 150 players who have transferred from Big Sky schools to smaller programs.
Local players that have seen increased minutes and production on their new teams include Hailey Nicholson, who transferred from Montana to MSU-Northern; Kamden Hilborn, who transferred from Montana State to Carroll; and Jared Samuelson and Riley Bradshaw, who left Montana for Rocky Mountain College.
Others, like Spoja, hung up their sneakers and decided to put their playing careers behind them.
Spoja lives in Boise now and doesn’t regret leaving the game.
“Basketball was my identity for almost my entire life, but I was going into my senior year of college. I have made some of the best friends and really happy with my situation.”
Regardless of whether a player stays or goes, the key to future success is communication, Binford said.
“When a player signs, it’s like the wedding day,” she said. “After that, you both have to work at it. There’s a mutual commitment there. I understand that there might not be the right situation, but also would recommend that they work toward what they can control first and don’t leave too early when there are opportunities to develop skill sets that will serve them well for life.”
Big Sky Basketball roster results
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|School||Total number of players over five year span||Players who left program with eligibility left over five year span||Percent who left||Number of players who left program who played less than 10 minutes per game||Percent of players who left program who played less than 10 minutes per game||Players who transferred to another college program||Percent who transferred||Percent of players who left that transferred to another college program||Players who transferred to NCAA Division I school||Percent who transferred to NCAA Division I||Players who dropped down to NCAA Division II, III or NAIA||Percent who dropped down to NCAA Division II, III or NAIA||Total number of Montanans over five year span||Percent of Montanans||Total number of Montanans who left program over five year span||Percent of Montanans who left program||Total number Montanans who transferred to another college program||Percent of Montanans who transferred to another college program||Montanans who transferred to NCAA Division I school||Percent of Montanans who transferred to NCAA Division I school||Number of Montanans who dropped down to NCAA Division II, III or NAIA||Percent of Montanans who dropped down to NCAA Division II, III or NAIA|