Bobcats relishing practice time during nine-day break


BOZEMAN — Practice: it’s not just a classic Allen Iverson rant. It’s what Brian Fish’s Montana State basketball team is looking forward to most during their time in between competition as the non-conference slate winds down.

When Fish was putting together the schedule his team is currently navigating, he didn’t want to play the Wednesday of MSU’s just completed finals week. He didn’t want to play this weekend. So instead, Montana State took nine days off between its first Division I home game (a 91-69 loss to UC Santa Barbara) and Monday night’s game against Denver.

“We are looking forward to it more so for the practice than anything else,” MSU junior Sam Neumann said following the UCSB loss. “We haven’t been able to have hard practices because we have been traveling or at games so frequently. It will be nice to get on the court and go hard and battle with each other and get better.”

Montana State junior Sam Neumann against UC Santa Barbara

Montana State is coming off two straight losses after winning six of its first nine games. The Bobcats have been all over North America, winning the Cancun Challenge during Thanksgiving weekend and winning at Milwaukee before going cold in losses at Central Michigan and the last time out against the Gauchos. But Fish hopes the time off is what his team needs to rejuvenate themselves with two games remaining in the non-conference and Big Sky Conference play less than two weeks away.

“Boy, I’m so happy we did that,” Montana State’s fourth-year head coach said of not scheduling a game during finals week. “We have some things we have to work out. Our energy Saturday was fantastic. How hard we played was for the most part was really, really good. We have got to get to the point where we can make some adjustments. That’s what practice will do.

“I like the way we are headed. It’s chess. We have to have a counter and we don’t have a counter. People have countered what we do against us and we haven’t done the counter against them. Now, the two teams that just beat us are 18-3 so the counters may not have worked against them period. But we have to find some answers and we need practice time because we are a cohesive unit that relies on each other so we have to find that counter.”

Montana State has won more non-conference games than in Fish’s first three seasons despite star guard Tyler Hall battling an ankle injury for most of the season. The junior sharpshooter rolled his ankle in MSU’s home opener victory over NAIA Montana Western. He wore a walking boot during MSU’s entire four-game, 11-day road trip that included the Mexico tournament victory along with bookend losses at Louisiana Tech and Fresno State.

Because of the travel, flying and being away from on-campus rehab, the walking boot caused Hall’s Achilles to swell. He has been hampered by the ailment for more than a month. He played just 11 minutes and was held scoreless for the first time as a Bobcat in MSU’s lopsided 75-48 loss at CMU.

“Got to get him healthy,” Fish said. “This is what we have been focused for is this nine days. We are talking about we come home and we are trying to get him to where it just gets better. Saturday was the first game we came out of where it wasn’t worse.

“When he lifts, he can’t lift on his right foot and when he lands, he lands on one foot and he’s favoring it. He’s off balance, off kilter. Even if we couldn’t play him on Monday, we could play one game in 14 days and get him healed. This is the time.”

Montana State junior Tyler Hall

The MSU trainers have told Fish that Hall’s injury is one that should heal in four or five days of inactivity. The Bobcats have played once every three days since opening the season with an 89-80 overtime win over Omaha in Great Falls. This is Hall’s first elongated stretch to heal.

Despite the injury, Hall is still averaging 19.3 points per game. Take away his scoreless 11 minutes at CMU and he is averaging 21.4 points per game. The 6-foot-4 NBA prospect has already drilled 38 3-pointers this season.

“You’ve got to practice to get your cohesiveness down and the few times we’ve been able to practice, Tyler hasn’t been out there,” Fish said. “That’s got to get fixed.

“Tyler wants to show that he’s a player and he can’t move. It’s altered his game so we have to get him practicing to get that confidence back.”

Outside of Hall, Fish said the rest of the team is healthy. Freshman Isaac Bonton battled a variety of nagging injuries, from a concussion to a bruised hip, causing him to miss 27 practices according to Fish. During finals week, despite playing 18.9 minutes a game and taking the third-most shots on the Bobcats, Bonton abruptly quit the team.

The key talking point for offensive improvement from several players along with the Bobcat coaches has been emphasizing ball movement. The Bobcats are averaging 12.7 assists per game led by the 3.2 assists per game average by sophomore point guard Harald Frey.

The ball has been particularly sticky when the starters leave the game, perhaps partially because Bonton was averaging nearly eight field goal attempts per game off the bench. Senior Joe Mvuezolo has been a volume scorer as well, averaging 7.7 points per game while taking 73 shots, fifth on the squad. Bonton was shooting 36 percent before his departure. Mvuezolo is showing 43.8 percent, including 35.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

“To move the ball, you have to practice,” Fish said. “The ball has to move in practice. You can’t walk through a ballroom in a hotel and say this is what we are going to do and expect the ball to move.

“My history has told me that if you see it in practice, it happens in games two weeks later. We haven’t. That’s where if you look at our schedule, we are two games over the next 18 days. This is the two weeks to make advancement in that.”

Montana State enters Monday’s game against Denver with an RPI of 107, the highest at this point in the season in Fish’s four years. The Bobcats are third in the Big Sky in RPI behind Portland State (61) and Southern Utah (99). The Big Sky has seven teams inside the top 200 and five inside the top 160. Denver is No. 298 this week.

“We are beating really good teams and our last two losses are to two really good teams,” Fish said. “I thought best case scenario right now we’d be 7-4 and we are 6-5 with Tyler limping. I may have been wrong because I didn’t think Santa Barbara with three grad transfers would be what they are. We are right at best case scenario coming out of this week.” 

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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