They will come from Bozeman to Long Beach by airplane and bus, not by stagecoach. They will bring with them the fabulous Ferch brothers, Kral and Shann, as well as a fast little fella who used to go to the College of the Desert.
They also will bring with them a losing record--the only one belonging to any of the 64 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament--and the first thing they must do Friday in the West Regional is play the wild bunch from St. John's that has a record of 30-4.
Hey, Montana State doesn't mind. "We're looking at this whole experience as a pretty neat thing," Coach Stu Starner said Tuesday.
For one thing, some of the other contiguous 48 states have rediscovered Montana's existence. All it took was a tournament appearance to remind friends and countrymen from the East that, yes, Montana is still out there. Sometimes folks forget that Montana has indoor plumbing, TV, the automobile, store-bought butter, everything.
"I've already done two talk shows, and tomorrow I have to do 'Good Morning, America,' " Starner mentioned. "It's been quite interesting. I'm pretty sure some people back East think the wagon trains still roll through here."
As campuses go, Montana State's will rarely be mistaken for St. John's. It would be like confusing Gary Cooper with Jimmy Cagney. Bozeman's idea of a rush hour is a deer crossing. It is quiet and scenic and clean. The only graffiti are the hopscotch markings on the sidewalks. The school, which has about 11,000 students, is tucked into the Gallatin Valley, curtained by the Northern Rockies. Yellowstone Park is 110 miles away, and the Missouri River's point of origin is nearby.
"I guess if you asked me what our biggest claim to fame is, it would be that we have three of the top five trout streams in the country," Starner said.
At the moment, the basketball team might be slightly bigger. Even with that unseemly record of 14-16, the Bobcats have, from time to time, impressed those who have watched them. Like when their best player, guard Tony Hampton, triggered a one-point win on Loyola Marymount's court. "The kid is blazing fast. He can play," Starner said. "Ask (Loyola Coach) Paul Westhead if he can play."
Nobody is saying Montana State is going to mop up the Long Beach Arena with College Player of the Year Walter Berry and St. John's. But what we have here is your basic, happy-go-lucky, eminently qualified sentimental favorite. Imagine a sub-.500 Montana State team's victory over a nationally ranked team from New York. It probably would cause Mayor Ed Koch to declare a state of emergency.
Somewhere in America there are office poolers who picked Montana State out of a hat and begged for a refund. But what would the college ball be without such a Cinderella? For every Georgia Tech, there must be a Marist; for every Louisville, a Drexel. And every so often there is a storybook upset.
Starner said his Bobcats were excited about making the tournament and drawing St. John's as a foe. "Excitement, and perhaps a bit of wonderment," was how he described it.
The coach describes his team as being a year early, seeing as how, with six freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and two seniors, Montana State figured to be too young to get very far. Hampton, the only senior, is the team's best player, a 5-11, 155-pounder from the Spud Webb Finishing School. He scored 28 points in the win at Loyola, a game that was a season turning point in the coach's eyes.
Hampton was Starner's first recruit. The Portland, Ore., product was attending College of the Desert in Palm Springs when Montana State hired Jim Dutcher's assistant coach from the University of Minnesota.
Dutcher, who resigned in January in the wake of scandalous behavior by several Minnesota players, called Starner to congratulate him on making the tournament.
"What a sad story that is," Starner said. "Jim's coming out to be the fall guy in that whole affair. He's crushed over the whole thing. This is a great guy and a great coach we're talking about."
The big difference between the Big Ten and Big Sky country, Starner says, is the size of the inside players. Montana State center Greg Walters does go 6-11, and forward Tom Domako from Livonia, Mich., is 6-8, but St. John's has far more height and muscle. And the Bobcat backcourt, including sophomore guard Ray Willis from Dallas, is cat quick but goes only 5-11 and 6-0.
As for the Ferch brothers, Kral Ferch, a 6-4 forward, is a starter, and Shann is the third guard. "They're local boys, from Livingston, only 25 miles away," Starner said. "Their dad, Tom, said he was tired of the same old Tom, Dick and Harry names. He wanted to think up something creative."
That he did. People named Kral and Shann ought to be locked in battle with Conan the Barbarian.
Instead, they will take on Berry the Redman. The Ferches are fine players, and they will have their home state behind them when they run into St. John's come Friday. Thirty-five years have passed since Montana State's last NCAA appearance, a 50-46 loss to Henry Iba's Oklahoma A&M team.
If, by some chance, Montana State improves its record to 15-16 and moves to the second round of the NCAA regionals, wouldn't that be something? The trout wouldn't be the only things jumping in Bozeman.