BOZEMAN — If you ever walk into Brick Breeden Fieldhouse and see a stout 7-foot man doing wind sprints on the basketball court, it’s because Chris Haslam is paying his penance.
The Montana State assistant and former 13-year professional center overseas has tutored MSU’s big men for the past five years, one season on Brad Huse’s staff, the last four on Brian Fish’s. The former Wyoming standout agreed to a wager this season: if any Bobcat secures 10 or more individual rebounds in a game, Haslam will run what Fish calls a 10, or what amounts to five times up and five times back the length of the court.
“Lately, we are getting him thinner and we are getting more rebounds,” MSU head coach Brian Fish cracked at his weekly press conference on Tuesday in Bozeman.
Fish favors a starting lineup that features 6-foot-6 juniors Keljin Blevins and Sam Neumann in the frontcourt along with guards Harald Frey (6-1), Devonte Klines (5-11) and Tyler Hall (6-5). Despite the lack of a true post player in the nine-man rotation, MSU ranks third in the league in rebounding margin (+1.9), a huge factor in the Bobcats’ first 4-0 start in Big Sky Conference play in 13 seasons.
“We are a little undersized compared to most teams we play for us it comes down to toughness and team rebounding,” Konner Frey, a senior who is averaging 5.0 rebounds per game during Big Sky play off the bench, said following a 7-rebound performance in MSU’s 79-68 win over North Dakota last Saturday. “We rely a lot on each other, trusting each other and making sure everyone has their box out responsibility. It’s more about team rebounding rather than who ends up with the actual board itself. It’s a team effort.”
That team effort helped Montana State own the boards last weekend in a home sweep of Northern Colorado (76-64) and North Dakota. Montana State owned the glass 44-28 against UNC behind a team-high eight rebounds each from Hall and Neumann. MSU put up a 42-29 rebounding advantage against North Dakota behind a career-high 11 rebounds from Blevins, MSU’s leading rebounder at 5.8 boards per game. Blevins is the third different Bobcat to grab 10 or more boards, a feat he has accomplished twice in the four games MSU recorded a double digit rebounder.
“It’s definitely been an emphasis and we know that it will be really tough for us to win games if we don’t win the battle of the boards,” Neumann said. “It’s been being pushed a lot in practice. We are not the biggest team. We have to fight on the boards and we know it.”
Fish switched into a zone defense after an up and down first eight minutes that saw the score tied at 16 vs. UND. The zone flummoxed the dynamic offense and the Bobcats were more often than not able to hold the Fighting Hawks to one shot. The improvement from last year’s rebounding in zones is stark.
“Finding out who you are going to rebound is the key because when you watch our zone, we are flying around everywhere and when the shot goes up, we all have to find somebody and go block them out,” said MSU reserve senior Zach Green, who is averaging 5.3 rebounds per game in league play thus far coming off the bench.
MSU’s revitalized rebounding — the Bobcats ranked ninth in the league in rebounding last season margin with Green starting in place of Blevins, who redshirted — will be put to the test Thursday in a game where success will primarily be measured by possession count.
Portland State ranks eighth in the league in rebounding margin but the Vikings have the ability to manufacture extra possessions in a multitude of ways. Under first-year head coach Barrett Peary, PSU is forcing 21.5 turnovers per game and own a +9.4 turnover margin, the best in Division I. PSU leads the country in steals per game (12.1) and the team’s 89.9 points per outing rank behind just Duke (94) and Oklahoma (93.1) for 3rd in the country.
The Vikings do it by pressing and grasping for steals for the duration of ball games. Not allowing PSU second chances on offense or by turning the ball over after securing a defensive rebound will be key of Montana State wants to stay unbeaten in Big Sky play.
“They play an unconventional style — they’ve forced roughly 150 more turnovers than they’ve made — so they are forcing teams and pressing in every situation they can,” Fish said. “I think a lot of teams, when you play Duke, you sit back and admire the uniforms but they went after them and pressed them. They shoot very well. They are playing extremely hard. Very impressive group on film.
“Some people would say it’s fast-paced but they have a mission with what they want to do and Barrett has them playing a really exciting way,” Fish said.
Portland State played 11 of its first 15 games away from its home court, including a three-game slate at the PK80 tournament in Portland celebrating Nike Founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. At PK80, PSU led then-No. 1 Duke midway through the second half before falling 99-81. The next afternoon, the Vikings fell to mid-major powerhouse Butler, 71-69. PSU rounded out the PK80 by beating Stanford 87-78.
The win over the Cardinal preceded a 125-50 blasting of Portland Bible College, a win that sparked a streak that saw PSU win four straight and six of seven. The final victory of that spurt came over another Pac 12 opponent in Cal and this time PSU dominated. The Viks forced 26 turnovers and had six players score at least 12 points in a 106-81 victory to wrap up non-conference play 10-3.
“I looked at them during the preseason and thought, “We couldn’t play them with a one-day turnaround. No way,” Sac State head coach Brian Katz said a few days after beating PSU 80-75 in part because the Hornets had a full week to prepare for the Saturday night conference opener. “They make the game different. It’s like no game you will play the rest of the year. We were lucky enough to have a lot of time to get ready for that.”
PSU dropped its Big Sky opener to Sacramento State in The Nest because the Hornets took care of the ball, committing just 11 turnovers. That gave junior Justin Strings the opportunity to forge a career evening.
The 6-foot-7 stretch Armstrong missed his first two shots, then hit 16 straight field goals, including all nine of his shot attempts after halftime on the way to a career-high 34 points. The first player in 2018 awarded the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week chipped in eight rebounds and five assists to fill out the box score.
PSU fell to 0-2 in conference after an 81-75 loss at Eastern Washington despite forcing 20 turnovers. Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk paced EWU with 28 pints and 12 rebounds.
The Vikings had a breakthrough with last Saturday’s 73-72 win over Idaho. PSU freshman Holland Woods — the Big Sky’s leader in assists (5.7 apg) for a team that leads the league with 18.2 dimes per contest — tipped in a shot with less than a second left to lift the visitors in Moscow. Idaho only committed 14 turnovers but the effort wasn’t enough to off-set Deontae North’s six 3-pointers and 30 points.
Thursday, Montana State will be just the second Division I team to play at Portland State. The Vikings beat Utah State 83-79 on November 18. The other three PSU home games include Portland Bible and Division III Willamette (111-60) and Linfield (116-71).
Montana State (11-6) struggled on the road in the non-conference, posting a 1-5 mark, the lone victory a 68-64 win at Milwaukee. MSU did not look fluid in road losses at Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Central Michigan, or Omaha. But MSU got back on track with its first road sweep to open conference play since 2004-2005 with wins at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
“If you ever go to the track meets, the big long distance runs they have a pace setter on the track for the first eight laps,” Fish said. “The pace setter is still out there. We were 1-4, 2-4 last year and flipped it around and went 11-7. It’s still early. Having said that, I’d rather be 4-0 than 0-4.”
Thursday’s track meet between the Bobcats and the Vikings begins at 9 p.m. MST
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.