BOZEMAN — Trying to pick the most difficult part of her team’s nonconference schedule, Darian White needed a few moments.
The Montana State point guard couldn’t narrow it down to just one obstacle. The Bobcats are among the youngest teams in the country, and they’ve had to adjust in countless ways this season which has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bobcats have already had four games canceled, including two against Southern Utah last week which were supposed to mark the beginning of MSU’s Big Sky schedule. Through all of this, the Bobcats have been trying to develop a team identity and identify exactly what strategy fits them best.
After a narrow win at Utah Valley last week — a game scheduled just two days before it was played — the Bobcats (3-3, 0-0 Big Sky) hope their style is beginning to take shape. They’re scheduled to begin conference play at 7 p.m. Thursday and noon Saturday against Northern Colorado (2-7, 1-3) at Worthington Arena in Bozeman.
White, a sophomore, had advice for MSU’s freshmen who are going to be taking on Big Sky opponents for the first time.
“Just going out there and not being scared,” White said. “We’ve been practicing and doing everything to prepare for these games. Just not to be in our heads, but to be supportive and go out there with confidence and do what we do every day.”
The Bobcats’ desired identity is not one dimensional and goes beyond on-court strategy. White told her teammates she doesn’t care if they turn the ball over or miss five shots in a row.
White wants them to exude mental and physical toughness consistently, which she believes will make a “big difference” on the floor. MSU’s defensive mentality is part of that attitude.
“Obviously we’re a young team, but I hope we’re defensively oriented,” White said. “I hope we’re a team nobody wants to face because we’re so physical and we’re always up in everybody’s grill and it’s just so hard to do anything because we make that other team so frustrated. We’re also a really good shooting team, so I hope we can build off of that too. Hopefully we can build off of our defense first that will lead us to our offense.”
After Montana State’s double-digit loss to South Dakota State at home in December, Bobcats head coach Tricia Binford pointed out multiple defensive deficiencies. She wanted to fix MSU’s post defense and lack of communication.
Binford said MSU’s lack of practice time this season has in part led to those struggles.
Leia Beattie said said she and her fellow freshmen need to take on more responsibilities and ownership of those flaws. She noted the Bobcats are young and don’t have as many upperclassmen to rely on.
“For us, the focus, the locked in, the discipline, those are the areas we need tremendous growth and that really is what champions are able to do,” Binford said. “We’re not there yet. We’re still hurting ourselves.”
Since the beginning of the season, Binford said ball movement and developing depth needed to be two of her team’s priorities. This was especially evident when the Bobcats attempted 40 3-pointers in their season-opening win against North Dakota. Binford wanted balance.
Against Utah Valley, the Bobcats didn’t rely on a single player for the entirety of the game. Their bench totaled 29 points. Eight MSU players chipped in at least five points.
“Just sharing the ball, being more focused not on how I’m going to get points but how I’m going to get looks for my teammates,” Beattie said. “Giving up a good shot for a great shot, that’s going to be really important. Swinging the ball, reversing it, just being patient and not forcing anything.”
Also, the Bobcats made 23 field goals against Utah Valley, and 21 of them were the result of assists. This was another area of growth.
Binford noted opponents will be focusing on White, a preseason All-Big Sky selection, so the Bobcats need to find ways to score without the ball in her hands.
White agreed. She hopes that by attracting defensive attention, she can create open shots for others. Beattie said White’s presence opens up offensive opportunities.
“I think if we can get mistakes off of film on our part and stop beating ourselves, I think we can be as good as anyone in this conference, if not the best,” Binford said. “I think we have tremendous talent. We’re just not sure how to play with each other. We don’t know how to stop hurting ourselves yet, but we’re getting there.”