Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29. For the other available capsules, click here.
Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate’s favorite principle is to trust the process. MSU head men’s basketball coach Brian Fish is trying his best listen to his colleague and maintain patience as he continues to build his program.
Fish’s Bobcats have made incremental steps in his first two seasons at the helm, going from seven victories in his first year to 14 wins last season. This season, Fish and MSU athletic director Leon Costello put together a schedule with 17 home games, including eight in the non-conference, both marks more than any other school in the 12-team Big Sky Conference.
Montana State won five straight at home to begin the season 5-2, it’s best start in more than a decade. But a narrow loss to Milwaukee despite a career-high 42 points from sophomore Tyler Hall was the first of six straight losses to close the non-conference 5-8. MSU has lost three straight at home, most recently a 106-103 loss to Central Michigan on December 21.
“I have a lot of guys out there, Devonte, Harry, Benson, Mandrell, DK, who have never played at this level,” Fish said following the CMU loss. “It seems like when there is a leak in the dike, we plug it. And when one pops, we plug it and it starts leaking again.
“I thought for 31 minutes against South Dakota (an 80-68 home loss) and for 40 minutes tonight, we have played 71 minutes of good basketball. That’s been a big step but we have lost both games. If I was a Bobcat fan, I’d be mad we lost because we lost at home. But I’m not sure I saw much growth when we got off to a 5-2 start. I thought we were living on a prayer. Last two games, I’ve started to see it sliding our way.”
The challenges do not stop with the opening of Big Sky Conference play this weekend. The Bobcats host reigning champion Weber State on Thursday night. MSU hosts Idaho State, the league’s No. 4 finisher last regular season, on Saturday afternoon. Weber features first-team All-Big Sky guard Jeremy Senglin, an NBA prospect with one of the sharpest shooting strokes in the league. Idaho State features Ethan Telfair, the Newcomer of the Year in the Big Sky last season by averaging nearly 24 points per game in league play.
“Right now, we are playing 30 or 35-minute games and the 10 minutes we aren’t playing is killing us,” MSU sophomore forward Sam Neumann said a day before the Central Michigan game. “We have dropped some games we shouldn’t have lost. We have met as a team and talked about what we need to do to make those correction.”
Devonte is sophomore Devonte Klines, a 6-foot-2 bulldog with a penchant for harassing opposing scorers on the perimeter. He moved into the starting lineup with senior swingman Quinton Everett questionable with a knee injury.
Harry is Harald Frey, a precocious, skilled 6-foot-1 point guard who is playing 31.5 minutes and averaging 10.7 points and 4.2 assists per game as a true freshman. The Norwegian has struggled to find his shot but has showed poise in initiating MSU’s up-tempo offense.
Benson is Benson Osayande, a 6-foot-9 jumping jack with raw offensive skills but true Division I athleticism. Osayande struggled in MSU’s first 11 games but turned a major corner in the previous two leading up to Thursday night’s matchup with Weber State, a team that sports two of the league’s best post players in senior Kyndahl Hill and sophomore Zach Braxton.
Against Central Michigan, the junior college transfer finally showed the athleticism Fish hoped he could bring when he signed him from Casper College. Osayande ran the floor efficiently, rebounded proficiently and scored a career-high 21 points in just 19 minutes against Central Michigan.
“We had to step up because we are missing guys so I had to play extra minutes to cover up for the guys we are missing,” Osayande said after the CMU loss. “I’m starting to adjust to this level and help out my teammates.”
Mandrell is Mandrell Worthy, a former highly touted recruit out of Seattle 3A powerhouse Eastside Catholic who missed last season with a knee injury. Fish did not expect to play the 6-2 guard much in this non-conference but the injury to Everett combined with a
severe medical ailment that is still under evaluation for junior swingman Joe Mvuezolo Jr. and the indefinite suspension of senior forward Sarp Gobeloglu have left the Bobcats severely short-handed.
DK is Devin Kirby, a 6-11 freshman from the Phoenix area who Fish initially wanted to redshirt but is now playing 8.5 minutes per game due to the injuries, suspensions and the NCAA denying senior Konner Frey’s eligibility waiver when he transferred from Utah Valley.
“It’s been tough but we have to learn from this stretch,” Frey said after scoring 17 points in the Central Michigan loss. “We have some guys out and it’s great seeing guys stepping up. I really think we are on the right path heading into conference play.”
Klines, Harald Frey, Osayande, Konner Frey Mvuezolo and Kirby are the six new faces in the locker room hoping to bolster a talented, still developing core of returners. Any success Montana State will have this year will be driven by Hall, a 6-5 guard with one of the sweetest shooting strokes in America.
“Harry, Tyler, these are program-building guys,” Fish said. “If we keep moving in the right direction, it’s going to cash in soon. I don’t know when but those guys are winners and it is going to turn.”
The Rock Island, Illinois native burst onto the scene last season, burying 96 3-pointers and scoring more than 20 points per game in league play to earn Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors. This season, he has taken his scoring to another level. His 23.9 points per game are the best among Big Sky players and ranks third nationally.
“We have to keep playing hard and concentrate on executing our game plans because we have gone away from it at times and it’s lost us games,” said Hall, who has already drilled 52 3-pointers and is shooting at a 42.3 percent from deep.
Junior Zach Green has showed his improved strength and initiative so far in the non-conference. The 6-4 slasher is MSU’s No. 2 scoring option. He is averaging 12.8 points per game and has scored exactly 16 points on six different occasions. He is doing it by getting to the rim — he’s shooting 48.7 percent — and thanks to an improved 3-point shot. He is hitting 37 percent from deep and has hit 17 3-pointers total, the third-most on the team behind Hall and Frey (23), but has struggled at times with consistent production.
When healthy, the 6-3 Everett has provided a punch on both sides. He is averaging 9.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. He also has 12 steals in 12 starts.
Neumann has carved out a role during the second half of his freshman season last winter. The Minneapolis native is listed at 6-7 but sees eye to eye with Hall, yet he has transformed into MSU’s starting center. Neumann is averaging 7.1 points on 49.2 percent shooting in 25.1 minutes per game. He has hit 44 percent of his 25 3-point tries and he is grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game.
“Last year, I was just happy to get on the court so it didn’t bother me too much and I got used to it and learned how to play more inside,” Neumann said. “My role has evolved there. I like being on the floor. I like defending big guys, taking on those challenges. I just try to do what the coaches ask of me and that’s my role right now so I’m just doing the best I can.”
Mvuezolo went to a specialist in Salt Lake City before Christmas for further evaluation for what Fish said could end up being a career-ending ailment. Fish declined detailed comment on the situation, saying Mvuezolo will talk about the issue when all the details are fully known.
Fish said Everett could miss the opening weekend of conference play but will likely return for MSU’s first conference road trip to Eastern Washington and Idaho next week.
Gobeloglu had an academic issue during finals week, resulting in his suspension. He missed MSU’s last two non-conference games and will likely sit the opening weekend of Big Sky play while he completes a set of tasks set forth by Fish to earn a spot back on the team.
With three eligible scholarship players out and two more — Konner Frey and Southern Miss transfer Keljin Blevins — ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules, the Fish has 10 players, including walk-ons Cooper Olson and Dallas Lussier, at his disposal with WSU and ISU coming to Bozeman.
“The season is two parts: the non-conference is one and then you get down to conference where it really matters,” Neumann said. “You gotta win all your games in the Big Sky to get to where you want to get to. It will be a fresh start for us and I think it’s something we need.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.