MISSOULA — Dahlberg Arena could’ve been Ryan Edwards’ home court.
The Butte native and former Kalispell Glacier standout in the class of 2013 considered accepting a basketball scholarship to Montana, but he was weary of successful Montana Grizzlies head coach Wayne Tinkle leaving for a bigger job, which turned out to be the case.
He wanted to play for the same coach for four years and eagerly signed with Gonzaga, which had been a top-25 program under head coach Mark Few, who has been at the school since 1989. But he played sparingly.
He stepped away from basketball briefly, and now at Portland State, the 7-foot-1 graduate transfer is playing regularly and enjoying basketball again. He'll play his first game at Dahlberg Arena when the Vikings (14-9, 4-6) visit the Griz (18-5, 11-0) 7 p.m. Thursday. They then travel to Bozeman to face Montana State 2 p.m. Saturday.
Edwards expects numerous family and friends to be in attendance Thursday: his mom and his mom’s boyfriend, his dad and his dad’s wife, his 85-year-old grandfather, his brother Jeff — who played at Montana State — and friends, teammates and other people from high school.
“I’m excited,” Edwards told 406mtsports.com in a phone call. “I’ve never played in either of the arenas. It’ll be different because I grew up watching games at those gyms. I’m not concerned about playing there. I’m excited. It’ll be a fun atmosphere.”
Edwards graduated from Hillcrest Elementary in Butte before his family moved to Kalispell. He became a two-time Class AA all-state basketball player at Glacier. He also played four years of tennis and tried his hand at football as a freshman
He committed to Gonzaga over offers from Montana and Washington State and was described as a “hidden gem” out of northwest Montana who didn’t play AAU basketball.
In four years at Gonzaga, including a redshirt season, he never found a permanent role. He played behind current NBA players Domantas Sabonis and Zach Collins; he was also behind Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski, who are playing in Europe. His most productive season came as a redshirt sophomore, when he averaged 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in 31 games.
Last year, he played 48 total minutes in 17 games as the Bulldogs lost in the NCAA title game. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting and public relations, and he announced he’d forego his senior season because he felt he wasn’t good enough to play at that level.
On a trip to Portland in June 2017, he ran into two Portland State assistant coaches who recognized him at a restaurant and asked him about joining the Vikings for his final year of eligibility. He thought about playing again, talked with his parents and spoke with Barret Peery, who had recently been hired as Portland State’s new head coach.
He’s now working on a master’s degree in education with a certificate in leadership at Portland State. He had considered becoming a special education teacher when he entered Gonzaga but found out he’d be unable to fit the student-teaching hours into his basketball schedule.
He’s gained some newfound confidence in his abilities at Portland State and is now hoping to play in Europe after the season is over. He’s then hoping to go into college coaching, another recent development.
“The coach I have now (Peery), I enjoy his structured style of coaching,” Edwards said. “He gave me the inspiration to do that one day.”
Edwards doesn’t ideally fit into Peery’s uptempo style pushing the ball and playing a full-court press.
While the 7-foot-1, 290-pound center lacks speed and quickness, he has shown quick feet and soft hands. Peery has found a role for Edwards in set plays and has been impressed with his unwavering maturity and leadership.
“Ryan might be the one guy on the roster that fits us the least, but I’d take him again every year because he’s a great kid, he’s skilled, he knows how to play and he really understands basketball,” Peery said. “He’s been a guy that we can lean on and count on. I think he’s had some ups and downs on the season. But, overall, he’s a guy who we can count on each day to bring it and work hard. He’s a tremendous kid. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Edwards has improved his output since the beginning of conference play. He’s raised his scoring average from 7.4 to 8.6 and his rebounding average from 3.3 to 4.1. He ranks second in the conference with 39 blocks.
His earned his first double-doubles on Jan. 18 and 20 on the road. He had 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against Idaho State. At Weber State, when he tallied 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“I had never played in an offense like this,” Edwards said. “At Gonzaga, it was walk the ball up the floor and see what play Mark (Few) is calling. Now it’s run and gun. It’s not necessarily my style, but there’s not going to be a fast-break point every possession. Having a big five-man to get the ball into is an asset.”
Because of Edwards’ uncommon height and size in the Big Sky, Peery felt he’s been tough to officiate, leading to cheap fouls and early exits to the bench. He fouled out with 11 points in eight minutes in the first game against Montana.
He’s started 20 games this season before coming off the bench the past two games. It was a move to try to help him try play longer by avoiding the fouls he usually picks up in the opening minutes.
“I think everybody thought he’d able to hit the ground running and kill it here,” Peery said. “He’d been at Gonzaga, but his playing time hadn’t been great. I think he needed time, just like any new person in a program, to get settled in and know his role and know how we want to play. I think he’s getting more comfortable in understanding what he can do and where he fits.”
The Griz have supplied highlight-reel dunks, a historic scoring output and a 9-0 record in Missoula this season.
Thursday’s game could potentially bring similar excitement between two teams who like to score in transition. The Vikings lead Division I in steals per game (10.7) and turnover margin (plus-7.4). Montana leads the conference in scoring offense (83.1), while Portland State is third at 81.3 points.
However, Portland State might be playing without senior guard Deontae North, who is second in the conference with 21.1 points per game. North missed the past three games because of a suspension, and Portland State head coach Barret Peery told 406mtsports.com on Monday that no decision had been made on when North will return.
Even without North, Portland State beat Eastern Washington, 94-81, on Saturday to end a three-game losing streak. Freshman Holland Woods scored 29 points on 10-of-10 shooting with nine assists.
The Vikings are hoping they’re back to the team that went 10-3 in non-conference play and beat Stanford and Cal. They’ve started 11 different lineups this season and began league play at 4-6 because of injuries, illness and suspension.
“January was a wildly tough month,” Peery said. “We’ve come full circle. We got our feet back under us and beat a good Eastern Washington team. We looked like ourselves again, like in November and December.”
When the Griz beat Portland State, 92-89, on Jan. 13 on the road, the Vikings were without three players because of injury or illness: senior forward Brandon Hollins, junior forward Jamie Orme and sophomore forward Brandon Rumel. Senior forward Traylin Farris played through an illness.
Orme broke his nose in January, played in a mask and returned to full strength on Saturday, Peery said. Rumel is out for the season with a hip injury.
Hollins has been back the past three games. He’s averaging 8.7 points and is second in both field-goal percentage (58.8) and rebounds (5.9).
“Brandon Hollins makes their trap work better,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said. “He’s the best in the front of their press. He’s their best athlete, so he causes problems on the offensive glass. Defensively, he’ll be active and create some things, so their defense will be better with him.”
In the Griz win at Portland State, guard Mike Oguine scored a career-high 39 points, finding easy lanes to the rim in the open floor against the Vikings’ press.
The Griz made 8 of 10 free throws in the final 70 seconds to seal the win. They made 33 of 47 free throws, while Portland State attempted just 22 on their home floor, which Peery called “disheartening.”