A year ago, Adam Hiatt could not help but smile when he talked about next season.
I figured the Montana Tech men’s basketball coach must have known what he was talking about, but I didn’t really believe him.
No way could the 2022-23 Montana Tech men’s basketball team be anywhere near as good as the 2021-22 Frontier Conference champion Orediggers. There was just no way.
I did not care how much Hiatt, the head coach of the Orediggers, thought he knew. There was going to be a serious drop off.
That 2021-22 team won a game at the NAIA National Tournament, and it had some “Super Seniors” who could not be replaced. We are talking about guys like Taylor England, Derrius Collins, Drew Huse and, of course, the great Sindou Diallo.
They led Tech to a 27-7 season, highlighted by Huse’s game-winning 3-pointer over Carroll College in the Frontier Conference championship game in Helena.
Last season was a season for the ages. With those guys walking out the door, the program had to take a serious hit. Right?
The latest edition of the Orediggers is as good as ever. It is also as exciting as ever.
I thought it would be decades before we would ever see a team that could match the excitement level of one led by Diallo, who is now playing professional ball in the Qatari Basketball League.
He was the most fun player to watch at Montana Tech since the legendary “Flyin’” Brian Vaughns took flight at the HPER Complex three decades earlier.
After Saturday’s 97-70 win over the University of Providence in Great Falls, the No. 11 Orediggers are 23-4 on the season. At 11-3 in conference, Tech has wrapped up sole possession of the Frontier Conference regular-season championship.
Last year, Tech shared the regular-season crown with Carroll College, giving the Orediggers their first banner of the 21st Century.
Then, of course, Huse hit that trey in the madhouse that was the P.E. Center to give Tech the tournament title, too.
Junior Caleb Bellach, whose parents were both stars for the Orediggers in the 1990s, is the leader of the Orediggers. He can score inside and outside. He can also play some defense.
Junior College transfer Asa Williams, a junior, and sophomores Michael Ure, a former Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year, and Keeley Bake average in double figures.
The player I just can’t take my eyes off, though, is redshirt freshman Hayden Diekhans. The Geraldine product and nephew of former Montana Western player and coach Kevin Engellant, is a force on both ends of the court.
He is one of the top defenders in the conference already, and he is not afraid to throw down a dunk in traffic.
Seriously, we need to have a dunk meter installed at the HPER Complex. With this latest edition of the Orediggers, it is just so hard to keep count.
They dunk so much that they remind me of the days of the Ferch brothers at Montana State.
Tech has put 50 wins over the last two seasons, and the Orediggers are nearly unbeatable on their home court.
Last Thursday’s 87-78 overtime win over Carroll College extended Tech’s home winning streak to 27 games.
Tech fell 62-59 to the College of Idaho at home on Nov. 12, 2021. The Diggers rolled Oklahoma City University 88-69 the next night to start the streak that included running the table at home in conference games two straight seasons.
The crowd for last week’s Carroll game was nuts. The gym was mostly full, and it was loud. And fun.
Unfortunately, it seems like not enough people know about the Orediggers. Finding a seat for home games is usually never a problem — even if you show up late.
The crowds are nice, but not as big as they should be.
I remember seeing Vaughns play, and we had to sit on the floor. That is how games should be now. The HPER Complex is not big enough for the crowds Tech should be getting for such exciting play.
The Butte Civic Center is not big enough for the crowds these Diggers should be drawing. The $7 price tag for general admission is the best bargain in town.
The Orediggers close out the regular season Saturday against MSU-Northern in Havre. Then, Tech will play in the Frontier Conference Tournament in Great Falls.
For the first time this century, the Orediggers would have locked up home-court advantage for the tournament. It just so happens to be the first time in many years that the tournament will be held at the same site.
I will spare you my conspiracy theories that are on par with my longtime skepticism about Carroll College winning every tiebreaker in football when the great Mike Van Diest was the coach.
Still, the Orediggers will likely host the first two rounds of the NAIA National Tournament as long as they at least qualify for the Frontier Tournament championship game.
Last year, remember, the Frontier champions had to go to Waxahachie, Texas, while the runner-up Saints hosted the first two rounds.
That will never sit right, but let’s get back to this year.
If the Orediggers do, indeed, get to play a tournament game on their home court, we just might see the biggest HPER Crowd since Kelvin Sampson’s last postseason game in 1985.
At least we should.
Then, if the Orediggers can run that home streak to 29, they would be playing in Kansas City in the round of 16.
Of course, we are getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.
For now, it is just fun to watch a program that is turning out winning season after winning season. For so many years following the days of coach Rick Dessing, we saw Oredigger teams play hard and play smart. But they lost.
Now, the Orediggers are officially perennial contenders, and they seem primed to make some serious noise this postseason.
Here is the best part about the Tech program, though. The Oredigger men did not celebrate Senior Night when they hosted the Saints in their final home game of the regular season.
That is because the Frontier Conference champions do not have a single senior on the roster.
Tech’s team is made up of nine juniors, four sophomores and four freshmen.
After the win over Carroll, I congratulated Hiatt on another title, and I reminded him of the struggle of his first season, the 2016-17 campaign. We laughed that he called it “Year Zero” as he started to build a program from the very bottom up.
That program is now officially built, and these are good days to be an Oredigger fan.
Even as his team is heading to the postseason on a high, Hiatt could not help but smile when he talked about next year.
This time, I definitely believe him.
— Bill Foley, whose wild conspiracy theories all revolve around Carroll College, the Green Bay Packers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Yankees, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.