Keron DeShields

St. Vincent Pallotti High grad Keron DeShields is a freshman guard at University of Montana, a team that plays Wisconsin March 15 in the NCAA tournament. (Photo by Todd Goodrich, University of Montana / March 16, 2012)

Keron DeShields has come a long way to get caught up in March Madness, the NCAA tournament that garners so much attention this time of year.

In fact, he has made his way from some rugged neighborhoods in west Baltimore to spending a year at St. Vincent Pallotti High in Laurel and a year of prep school in Vermont.

That's not the end of his travels, either, considering the 6-foot-2 freshman guard landed at the University of Montana this season.

"It has been a big adjustment. I'm a big-city guy," DeShields said about life in Missoula, where the school is located. "It is a long way from west Baltimore."

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Missoula County's population is 109,000 compared to the 2.6 million people living in the Baltimore metropolitan area, which might make DeShields feel positively lonely in Big Sky Country.

It doesn't help that his biological father has been in a North Carolina jail for nearly 10 years and has to serve four more years, DeShields said.

Yet DeShields has plenty of other things to think about now that the Grizzlies earned an automatic spot and a 13th seed in the NCAA tourney with an 85-66 win over Weber State in the Big Sky Conference title game March 7.

Montana (25-6) opens play Thursday, March 15, against fourth-seeded Wisconsin (24-9) in Albuquerque, N.M., at 2:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The game can be seen on TNT.

"That was very exciting. I can't even explain it," DeShields said in a phone interview. "We are like a family on this team. We work hard. I really like this team. We root for each other."

His own family situation has been challenging, to say the least.

DeShields said several male relatives, including his stepfather, have been instrumental along with his mother, Angel, in raising him since his father went to jail. One of his nephews was hit by a car and died; and his friend, high school basketball standout John Crowder, was shot and killed in 2010 at the age of 17.

"I had to make it (out of west Baltimore). I did not want to be like that," DeShields said.

His stepfather, Michael Lloyd, was a star at Dunbar High School in Baltimore before playing for Syracuse University.

One of the people who watched Montana's title game March 7 was Shae Johnson, the head coach at Pallotti when DeShields was with the Panthers. Johnson said one his assistants, Tarik Brown, had known DeShields and his family since he was in elementary school.

DeShields said Brown "really helped me out. He got me started in basketball."

His prep career began at Towson Catholic, where he was coached by current Pallotti girls coach Josh Pratt, until the school closed in 2009.

DeShields ended up at Pallotti for his senior season and graduated in 2010. Despite the long commute from west Baltimore, he made the most of his year in Laurel.

"He fit right in," Johnson said. "He averaged about 17 points per game."

Having a mentor, Pratt, on campus was a bonus.

"I found out he was coming to Pallotti, and I was excited because I knew he would do great here," Pratt said in an email. "He has steadily improved as a young man and basketball player."