BOZEMAN — Think back to early November. To Montana State’s 78-73 exhibition victory over NAIA MSU-Northern at Worthington Arena. To coach Brian Fish’s utter resentment of the Bobcats’ performance that night.
A win is a win, sure. But MSU was, in Fish’s words, a “selfish, bad basketball team,” one with “no leadership” that was “a million miles away” from where it needed to be.
“The best team didn’t win,” Fish said then. “We should have lost.”
Fast forward 10 weeks and here the Bobcats sit, 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in 13 years and one of only three unbeaten teams left in the league. Fish’s early season acrimony wasn’t all hyperbole — he seemed genuinely surprised by MSU’s first-game malaise, decrying it as a waste of a month’s worth of practices.
It’s true that the Bobcats entered this season facing the highest expectations of Fish’s now four-year tenure. Now they appear to be fulfilling that promise.
All it took was time.
“You’re always trying to find a button to push,” Fish said during a media gathering on Tuesday. “I feel like in the last three or four weeks we’ve become a much more connected group. So that’s been a big positive.”
The Bobcats are 11-6 overall, their hottest start in years. Road wins over conference foes Southern Utah and Northern Arizona two weeks ago laid the foundation for home wins last week over Northern Colorado and North Dakota.
In the process, superstar guard Tyler Hall showed that he is 100 percent healthy after spending most of the preseason fighting through a right ankle injury that was also affecting his Achilles tendon. Hall had 36 points against Southern Utah, 28 against Northern Colorado and 25 more against North Dakota.
His per-game scoring average in conference games is 26.3, the best in the league.
Fish said Hall struggled to find the right mental balance during the injury because of the physical limitations he faced. Hall had trouble driving to the rim, he couldn’t get as much lift on his prolific jumper and was largely immobilized, especially after aggravating the ailment during a game at Milwaukee on Dec. 2.
“Not being able to do some of the things that he wanted to do I think got him more off balance than anything,” Fish said. “All of the sudden he was taking off on one foot, he couldn’t get a jab-step going, he couldn’t do so many things.
“Now he’s back to 100 percent. It just gives him the confidence back again.”
For as good as Hall has been, rebounding and defense have been the pillars to MSU’s quick Big Sky start.
Led by their frontcourt — Sam Neumann, Keljin Blevins and Zach Green in particular — the Bobcats outrebounded Northern Colorado and North Dakota by 29, a vast difference that allowed them to keep those teams out of their offensive rhythm. MSU used a zone defense against North Dakota and it worked to great results. Execution and communication, Fish said, were the reasons.
“As I said after the game Saturday, you can be in any defense you want, but you’ve got to make it work, and I think we’re understanding it better,” he said. “We’re a team that’s flowing better right now, a team that’s more ‘on a string’ — when one guy moves the other guy moves.
“We’ve had tremendous growth since that early November deal, but we should. If you’re going to be good and you want to have a good year you’ve got to improve and I think the guys are starting to take those steps.”
Fish has referred to the 18-game Big Sky scheduled as “an 18-lap race,” and the Bobcats are now preparing for a road trip that begins Thursday at Portland State and ends Saturday at Sacramento State.
The Vikings, employing a fast-paced style, went 10-3 in the preseason but are 1-2 in conference games, although their one league victory was garnered on the road at Idaho, which is regarded as one of the Big Sky’s best squads.
Under first-year coach Barret Peery, PSU is the top scoring team in the Big Sky at nearly 90 points per game.
“They’re pressing in every situation they can,” Fish said. “They shoot very well. They’re playing extremely hard. Very impressive group on film. (They) went in a got a big win at Idaho last week that’s going to be probably a defining win for them.”
“No one in recent memory have I seen press as much and go at it as much and have the philosophy that they have. Some people would say it’s fast-paced, but they have a purpose, they have a mission of what they want to do, and Barret’s got them playing in a really exciting way.
“Hopefully we can continue to be scrappy on the road.”