BOZEMAN — During Tuesday night’s practice, Montana State went through its scouting report for Southern Utah. But as soon as the practice ended, Danny Sprinkle found out the news and told his team.
There was a positive COVID-19 case in Southern Utah’s program so the Bobcats’ games on Thursday and Saturday were canceled.
At first, players were frustrated and disappointed. They were looking forward to beginning Big Sky play.
“I’ve been sitting out a long time, so all I’m trying to do is just play games,” said MSU senior point guard Xavier Bishop, who sat out last season due to transfer rules. “Every team is going through the same things. Some teams are going through worse. We just got to stick together and continue to grind.”
Sprinkle and his staff tried to keep the players positive. They knew another week without a game would harm the team’s progress.
The coaches held a meeting to review Tuesday’s practice. Then they immediately began calling other teams. They scanned ESPN’s scoreboard to see which other games were canceled. They reached out to programs to see which ones were available.
After unsuccessful attempts to schedule a Division I opponent, the Bobcats lined up Friday’s game against Montana Western (1-2) and went on to win 96-67.
“The most important thing about this game was I think from a mental standpoint with these guys,” Sprinkle said. “It’s hard. And I can see it wearing on some of our guys. We got to manage that … and keep these guys on a positive note.”
MSU cruised to the 29-point victory at Worthington Arena on New Year’s Day. The Bobcats closed the first half with 11 straight points and opened the second half with a 12-0 run. The 23-point swing put MSU (3-3) comfortably ahead, and the Bobcats rolled from there.
Jubrile Belo scored 19 points, Amin Adamu added 17 and grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds and Bishop finished with 12 points. MSU also used its size advantage to outrebound the Bulldogs 51-27.
Though the Bobcats expectedly took care of business against an NAIA opponent, players were excited to play after their previously scheduled games were canceled.
“It goes to show that the game could get taken away from us in a second,” Adamu said. “At the same time, we also got to stay ready regardless of what happens.”
While searching for an opponent this weekend, the Bobcats sifted through Division I teams in the western United States. That was Sprinkle’s preference because MSU needs at least 13 Division I games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
But they couldn’t find a match. Teams either had a game to play or were affected by positive COVID-19 cases themselves.
After trying for a day, MSU had struck out looking for a Division I program. So the Bobcats turned to Montana Western. Since the Big Sky’s testing rules require 48 hours, MSU scheduled the Bulldogs by Wednesday afternoon.
Adamu told his teammates to treat it like a conference game. Bishop was excited to play because he was tired of facing his teammates in practice.
The tumultuous scheduling of the week was emblematic of the season as a whole.
“Things change by the hour, by the day. You just got to be prepared for anything,” Bishop said. “Expect the worst. We just got to stay level-headed and stay focused and continue to stay never too high, never too low.”
It wasn’t the first time MSU dealt with unusual scheduling scenarios.
When the Bobcats opened the season at UNLV on Nov. 25, they turned down the chance to stay in Las Vegas to play more games.
When trying to add a game in mid-December, MSU had another opponent unofficially lined up. Due to COVID-19 issues, the Bobcats ended up playing Yellowstone Christian from Billings on Dec. 13.
By now, MSU’s players realize how fickle the season can be.
For nearly 24 hours, they thought they might not play anyone this weekend. Then they found out they would. They were grateful for the opportunity and then made the most of it by playing with crisp ball movement and effective defense.
In the new calendar year, the unusualness of this mid-pandemic season carried on.
“It’s crazy,” Sprinkle said.