DanSwany: Danny Sprinkle has taken MSU to new heights, as the team proved it was the best in the Big Sky tournament. Tell us a little about the journey of this Montana State team to March Madness?
Parker: The Bobcats proved early on they could be a dangerous team. In their season opener on Nov. 9, they became the first team since Dec. 2018 to score 80 points on Colorado in Boulder. The Buffs won that game 94-90 in overtime, but it was an impressive start.
MSU also took non-conference losses at South Dakota State and New Mexico in November, but the team always talked about learning from those large and loud crowds. That experience, the thinking went, would prepare MSU for later in the season.
The Bobcats were otherwise undefeated in their non-conference schedule, and they lost just four times in the Big Sky. At one point in the season, they had won eight of 10 games. And after the second loss of that stretch they won 11 straight games, the second-longest streak in school history.
The Bobcats faced three really good teams in the conference tournament last week in Boise, Idaho, and they won the championship game by holding Northern Colorado — the league’s best shooters and second-best overall offense — to 30.2% overall shooting in a 21-point win.
MSU’s 27 wins this season are the most for the program in 93 years.
DanSwany: In your opinion, what is the biggest weakness and strength with the Bobcats squad on the court this season?
Parker: I’ll start with the strength, which has to be the experience on the team. It’s not uncommon to see a team with a few fifth- or sixth-year players thanks to the extra year of eligibility afforded to athletes because of the pandemic.
Montana State has four such players — point guard Xavier Bishop, guard Amin Adamu and guard/forward Abdul Mohamed, who are all seniors, and junior center Jubrile Belo. It’s clear they have been coached well for a long time, and that’s continued with coach Danny Sprinkle. They remain poised in big moments and make sure the rest of the team follows suit. Belo, the Big Sky’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, is in his third year at MSU and his fifth in college basketball. He’s the team’s defensive anchor and a reliable threat around the basket and at the foul line.
MSU has some nice depth also around those four — shooters Tyler Patterson, RaeQuan Battle and Nick Gazelas come to mind, along with freshman forward Great Osobor — but when a team’s top four players are as experienced as MSU’s, that’s a real luxury.
As for a weakness, I’d have to point to on-ball defense. There are times when MSU gets caught up in screens or is the victim of a skip pass to a perimeter shooter. The Bobcats do a good job of collapsing on drives into the paint, but those drives happen more than they should.
There are several reasons why the 6-foot-9 Belo has 60 blocks this season. He is a talented defender with good instincts. But he also has that many because he’s the last line of defense after a teammate gets beat off the dribble.
DanSwany: Texas Tech ranks #1 in the KenPom adjusted defense category, what do you feel the gameplan will be for Montana State against the Red Raiders?
Parker: MSU likes to play through Belo, either on the block or in the high post. He’s been battling a right knee injury the last two weeks, though, so he may not be as effective as he normally is, and that’s before even taking Big 12 defenders into account.
If looks for Belo aren’t there, the Bobcats are adept outside shooters. And Bishop, despite his 5-foot-8 frame, is as talented a mid-major point guard as I’ve seen when it comes to hitting clutch shots and scoring at all three levels of the floor.
I’m assuming the Bobcats will have to do a lot of creating their shot off the dribble. I haven’t watched much of Texas Tech this season, but given the team’s defensive rating, I’d imagine it doesn’t give up a lot of open looks.
That notion should be concerning for MSU. With all respect to MSU’s talent and to the talent they faced in its own league: Big Sky defenders are not Big 12 defenders.
DanSwany: When MSU’s offense is playing well, what’s usually happening that causes that offensive surge?
Parker: When they’re playing at their best, the Bobcats are getting Belo some opportunities to score but the outside shooters are also being aggressive. It’s a delicate balance.
Led by Bishop, MSU is patient enough to wait for the shot it wants, not the shot it thinks it should take.
The Bobcats have no trouble kicking the ball back out to reset and reverse an action. They know what they’re looking for and know how to manipulate the defense to find it.
Once the shooters — Gazelas, Battle and Patterson — get a shot to go down and get their confidence up, that’s a huge lift to the team.
DanSwany: For the Texas Tech fans, who should we watch out for on the Montana State roster that will be a concern for us in this game?
Parker: I’d say Bishop and Battle are the answers here.
Bishop has the greatest attributes you’d want in a point guard: an outside shot, craftiness and the ability to finish with either hand around the rim, confidence and the ability to dribble wherever he wants.
He can take over a game pretty easily. On several occasions this season, he hasn’t allowed MSU to lose because he’s scored eight or 10 of the team’s points in a row. When he’s feeling it, he can be tough to stop.
He’s short in stature but not short in heart. If he believes, the rest of the team is right there with him.
And Battle is a Washington transfer in his first year at MSU. It’s clear he has Pac-12 talent. He’s as athletic as they come. He’s a heck of a shooter and dunker.
He arrived at MSU as a talented shot blocker on closeouts because he has such great speed and leaping ability. As time has gone on, he’s gotten better at not falling for pump fakes. He’s become a more disciplined defender, making him extremely fun to watch on both ends of the floor.
DanSwany: Prediction time, what is your feeling that will be the outcome for this first round battle between the Bobcats versus Red Raiders?
Parker: Montana State arrives as the underdog, of course, but it shouldn’t be feeling any pressure. I imagine MSU will be nervous but settle in quickly. The Bobcats will be introduced to a national audience against a team that doesn’t want to be upset.
My only hesitation is a worry about Belo’s injury and effectiveness, but what is March without a spicy upset pick? MSU will be playing to win. Tech will be playing not to lose.
I’ll predict the Bobcats win 68-64.
DanSwany: Awesome stuff by Parker Cotton, and many thanks for joining us over on Staking The Plains. Follow him @ByParkerCotton on twitter, and read his stories in Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s sports section. Let’s get ready for some basketball… and Wreck ’em Tech!!!