Scuffling Montana State finds positives as Big Sky play begins

December 29, 2016 GMT

BOZEMAN — Montana State’s December of discontent comes to an end this weekend, but is there reason to believe 2017 will bring more prosperity?

The Bobcats are 0-6 since the calendar flipped from their 5-2 start in November, and with it came 1) the news of a still-undisclosed yet apparently serious medical condition that has sidelined Joe Mvuezolo Jr., 2) a suspension to fellow reserve Sarp Gobeloglu and 3) a knee injury to key starter Quinton Everett.

MSU had just nine scholarship players on its active roster in its most recent outing, a 106-103 shootout loss to Central Michigan last Wednesday at Worthington Arena in which the nation’s leading scorer, CMU guard Marcus Keene, poured in 44 points.

Inconsistent defense, rebounding, secondary scoring to complement star guard Tyler Hall ... it’s all plagued the Bobcats during their losing streak.

But they aim to right the ship when they host Weber State on Thursday and Idaho State on Saturday to open Big Sky Conference play.

From here on out, it’s a sprint to March.

Despite the pile-up of losses, MSU coach Brian Fish said he thinks things are trending in the right direction based on how the team played against Central Michigan and in its penultimate nonconference game against South Dakota.

“We are doing things better. We had a pretty good 71 minutes of basketball the last 80 minutes,” Fish said last week. “But it can’t leak. We’ve got to grow up. If we keep moving in the (right) direction, it’s going to cash in soon.”

Against Weber State, the Bobcats (5-8) face another tough guard matchup in Jeremy Senglin, who has won back-to-back Big Sky player of the week awards. MSU will also need to account for the size and muscle of big man Zach Braxton.

Weber State (5-6) again was the preseason pick to win the conference.

“Weber State is the preseason favorite for good reason,” Fish said. “They have an outstanding player in Jeremy Senglin, but they have a lot of talent around him. They shoot the ball very well and they have won three straight games, so it’s a hot team, too.”

Idaho State (2-10) will come to town after a Thursday stop in Missoula, where it will play Montana. The Bengals are led by guard Ethan Telfair, one of the more explosive scorers in the league.

In the face of roster volatility, the Bobcats hope they’ve found some clarity with their low-post game after the strong performance of Benson Osayande against Central Michigan.

Osayande played more minutes (19) than he had all season and responded by scoring 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting while pulling down seven rebounds. Osayande, a 6-foot-9, 200-pound transfer from Casper (Wyo.) College, said he’s making progress.

“I feel like I’m starting to adjust to (this) level,” Osayande said after the CMU loss. “Being out there, knowing I can play confident, it helps a lot.”

“When you watch him on film, his quickness is alarming,” Fish said of Osayande. “It’s the first time I thought he played above the rim down instead of blow the rim up. Anybody that watched him (against Central Michigan) would not question his athletic ability at all. He was, at times, dominating.”

Streak on the line

In contrast to the Bobcat men, Montana State’s women are riding a six-game winning streak entering their Big Sky opener Thursday at Weber State.

MSU, the league’s reigning regular-season champion, has beaten all comers since slipping up on the road against UC Davis over a month ago. The Bobcats (7-3) hope to replicate last year’s success in the Big Sky, which produced their first outright crown.

“I think we’re excited for it. Feels like it came fast,” Peyton Ferris said of the conference schedule. “But we’re ready for it. It will be nice to get into that consistent groove.”

Ferris, the Big Sky’s preseason MVP pick, has been the Bobcats’ most consistent performer with per-game averages of 16.1 points and 7.1 rebounds. But Riley Nordgaard’s impact can’t be overlooked.

Nordgaard leads the team in rebounding at 7.3 per game, and averages 13.3 points since returning from a three-game suspension to start the season.

Defensively, MSU ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky at 58.4 points-allowed per outing, a big point of emphasis during its winning streak.