MSU Men's Hoops v. MT Western

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle talks to his team during a timeout in a Jan. 1 game against Montana Western at Worthington Arena.

BOZEMAN — Danny Sprinkle believes Montana State will be an evolving project this entire season. That’s the nature of playing through a pandemic, he’s said.

But as the Bobcats play more games, their head coach continues learning about his team. Six NCAA Division I games into the year, clear patterns are emerging in how Sprinkle doles out minutes.

Eight players — Xavier Bishop (82 minutes), Amin Adamu (73), Nick Gazelas (58), Abdul Mohamed (50), Jubrile Belo (49), Tyler Patterson (40), Devin Kirby (31) and Borja Fernandez (28) — combined for 411 of the total 425 available minutes in the two games this past week at Northern Colorado.

In previous nonconference games, Sprinkle cycled through more bench players. But in MSU’s first two Big Sky games, the rotation was tighter.

The Bobcats (5-3, 2-0 Big Sky) are next scheduled to host Portland State (2-5, 1-1) at 6 p.m. Thursday at Worthington Arena and then again at noon Saturday.

“I give them a lot of leash early because you never know what a guy is going to do under the lights,” Sprinkle said. “Some guys are really good in practice and then they can’t play in games. Some guys are bad in practice and those lights come on and they’re a different player. You find out when you’re playing against other people, like what they can really do. I kind of let them define their own roles.”

Nine of MSU’s 15 players are in their first season competing in games for the Bobcats. So Sprinkle used the six nonconference games to evaluate his roster.

He’s complimented Mohamed, who has gained more playing time as the season’s continued, for playing important defense. After coming off the bench for five games, Mohamed has started each of the last three.

Kirby, who missed two games because of COVID-19 contact tracing, has averaged 15 minutes in the past three games. He’s backed up starter Belo at center and also played key defense.

Before being replaced by Mohamed, Fernandez started the first five games at power forward and has played big minutes throughout the season.

At guard, Bishop has lived up to the expectation of replacing all-conference point guard Harald Frey, and Adamu has improved as a playmaker. Patterson and Gazelas have solidified themselves as shooters on the wings.

While things could change — and coronavirus protocols could wreck any plans at any moment — MSU’s top eight have separated based on how Sprinkle distributes minutes.

Sprinkle has also repeated that even players who don’t play as much still have valuable roles and will need to contribute. But those contributions appear to be coming with less time on the court.

“We’re still finding out so much more about our team and they’re defining their own roles,” Sprinkle said. “Each game we play, those roles get more defined.”

’Cats adjust to weekend series

To reduce travel during the pandemic, the Big Sky changed its schedule to feature back-to-back games against the same opponent at the same venue in the same week.

Last week, MSU opened conference play with two games at Northern Colorado, a 79-67 win on Thursday and then a 76-74 overtime victory on Saturday. Since previously scheduled conference games were canceled due to a COVID-19 case in Southern Utah’s program, the Bobcats were the last team in the Big Sky to begin conference play.

That also meant MSU was the last team to experience the new format of the schedule.

Sprinkle said both the Bobcats and Bears made effective adjustments from the first game to the second.

When Saturday’s game ended, with UNC missing a potential game-winning shot, players on both teams appeared to be trash talking each other.

“It was definitely different,” Sprinkle said. “You could tell the game was a lot chippier on Saturday. When guys play against each other for 80 straight minutes ... it’s chippy.”

Prep for Portland State

With Portland State next up on MSU’s schedule, the Bobcats are preparing for a team similar to one they’ve faced in recent years.

The Vikings use a full-court press, a half-court trap and aggressively crash the offensive glass. Sprinkle called them “super athletic, ultra talented.”

Though PSU leads the Big Sky with 14.3 offensive rebounds per game, the Vikings are fourth in offensive rebound percentage (34.5%), a testament to their up-tempo style.

“They make it a chaos game,” Sprinkle said. “You have to have players that can play in chaos because a lot of times you’re not going to be able to run your offense. You have to be able to score against their press once you break it.”

MSU, meanwhile, ranks fourth in the Big Sky in defensive rebounding percentage (76.3%) and has the fourth fewest turnovers per game with 12.1.

“The teams that have been successful against them,” Sprinkle said, “are teams that rebounded well and then take care of the ball.”

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

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