Montana State hired Brian Fish as its basketball coach on April 1 ... April Fool's Day.
That incidental footnote comes to mind when thinking about how Montana State got to its game at Kentucky on Sunday night. Never mind the look-away quality of a game pitting the No. 1 team in the country against, according to noted numbers cruncher Ken Pomeroy, the No. 329 team.
Here's the truly bad part: the Bobcats will be playing in Rupp Arena on the 11th day of a road trip that so far includes three losses, no victories and a game postponed due to surreal snow accumulation. On Friday, Montana State was supposed to play in Buffalo, the same Buffalo that officially got hit with 49.3 inches of snow last week.
With the team's commercial flight to Buffalo on Thursday morning canceled, Montana State was stuck in suburban Los Angeles (all in all, not the worst place to be stranded) while waiting to see if or when it would play Buffalo. All the while, travel plans were adjusted and updated not only for basketball games, but also for the players to go home for Thanksgiving later this week.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"You know, it's a nightmare," Fish said Friday. "When you don't charter, you're at the mercy of United or Delta or whatever you're on."
The trip, which was arranged before Fish became coach, began on Nov. 13 when Montana State left its campus in the north-central Montana town of Havre. The Bobcats lost 113-78 at UCLA on Nov. 14, then traveled to Phoenix for a 61-45 loss to Grand Canyon on Monday, then went back to Los Angeles for a 72-65 loss to Cal State Northridge on Wednesday.
The team was supposed to fly from Los Angeles to Buffalo on Thursday morning. At 6:30 a.m., or a half-hour before the scheduled wake-up call, the alert arrived of the flight cancellation.
Not far east of Buffalo in East Aurora, N.Y., the weather service reported 90.5 inches of snow (about 71⁄2 feet).
The NFL moved the Buffalo Bills' home game Sunday against the New York Jets to Detroit. University of Buffalo spokesman Brian Wolff described the scene as only someone who lives in a place like Buffalo could. "Sort of a weird situation up here because the area where our school is and where the airport is really didn't get hit at all, maybe 10 inches to a foot at the most," he wrote in an email Friday. "But if you look places just 10 miles away, they have over 7 feet of snow and people have been stuck in their houses since Tuesday morning."
Fish said that officials considered several Plan B alternatives for the Montana State-Buffalo game.
"We looked at going to Cleveland to play Buffalo," he said. "We looked at playing Buffalo in Lexington (Friday). We looked at playing Buffalo in Phoenix. There were so many things thrown up on the board of possibly getting in this game, it was mind-boggling."
Fish said Montana State did "due diligence" to get to Buffalo. Contact was made with state police, campus police, airlines, buses, hotels. "There wasn't a lot of people telling us we should come to town," the Montana State coach said.
The best option seemed to be Phoenix. Montana State was already in Southern California. Buffalo is scheduled to play at Grand Canyon on Tuesday.
One problem: the Buffalo team couldn't get out of Buffalo to play Friday.
A deadline loomed. NCAA rules require that all games in an event such as UK's Cawood Ledford Classic be played within a two-week period. Fish said Montana State plans to appeal to the NCAA for an exemption in order to play Buffalo sometime in late December.
Meanwhile, Montana State kept busy in suburban Los Angeles. The team practiced at Cal State Northridge on Thursday, at UCLA on Friday. The players attended study halls.
"That part has been great," Fish said. "We have good students. They have been focused, and we've been able to do some things that, quite frankly, I'm not sure could have been done at home."
It wasn't all hardship for Montana State. As Buffalo dealt with several feet of snow, Fish sat poolside in Northridge, Calif. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, the weather sunny and 70-some degrees, as he worked on practice plans.
"Just enjoying the sunshine sitting outside and having a staff meeting," he said.
Kentucky and Montana State share little in common. UK aims to not only win a national championship, but do it in a historic way. Montana State, which hasn't been in the Ratings Percentage Index top 200 in the last five years, had five assists and 22 turnovers in the loss at Grand Canyon.
"If we do anything well, it's something we can take home and build on ... ," Fish said of the game at Kentucky. "We're at two opposite ends of the spectrum. They're trying to win a national championship this year, and we're trying to build a program.
"The word 'championship' has so many different levels. In the Big Sky (Conference) and at Montana State, it's about winning that conference championship and playing in the Big Dance. For Kentucky, it's winning the national championship. The ultimate goal changes, but being a champion doesn't."
Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Fish suggested the trouble-filled trip can help Montana State be a champion.
"I don't care if you're Coach (John) Calipari or you're coaching Montana State," he said. "You really don't know what type of team you've got till you deal with adversity. And travel is a part of that adversity. We're getting a great early test."