BOZEMAN — There’s no shortage of scoring on the Montana State men’s basketball team. With Tyler Hall as the foundation, the Bobcats return 85 percent of their point production from last season, which ranked 35th among Division I teams at 80.0 per game.
But the focus of MSU meeting internal and external expectations — which are greater now than at any point in Brian Fish’s four-year tenure as coach — resides squarely on the defensive end of the floor.
Thus, Thursday’s practice inside Worthington Arena was decidedly defense-centric. It was a manifestation of what Fish spoke about during the Big Sky Conference’s digital media day on Tuesday.
“We were nothing short of pitiful defensively last year,” Fish said. “You look at the teams that consistently win in the Big Sky, you have to be somewhere around one of the top 200 teams in the country defensively to win the league, and we were not there last year.
“We were (top 40) in the country in offense, but we have spent a great, great deal of time trying to smooth out our defense, trying to build camaraderie and togetherness on defense. If we’re going to contend and if we’re going to be a factor, we’re going to have to be in that range.”
The Bobcats finished last season with a 16-16 overall record and placed sixth in the Big Sky standings. They were eliminated in the first round of the league tournament with a 109-105 triple-overtime loss to Southern Utah, a team that had won just five games entering the postseason.
This year, after losing only one senior (Quinton Everett) and with the services of transfer forwards Konner Frey and Keljin Blevins, MSU is pegged to finish in the top four of the conference. CBS Sports even listed the Bobcats as one of 10 potential Cinderellas for the 2018 NCAA tournament.
But to meet — or eclipse — those grand prognostications, they must swell up defensively. MSU allowed 79.1 points per game a year ago, which ranked 318th out of 351 Division I teams.
Fish was cracking the whip Thursday as the Bobcats drilled defensive logistics, help-side rotations and, of course, verbal on-court communication, which has been an inconsistency in the past.
It’s all part of the effort to manage the weight of preseason forecasting.
“It’s like anything else. You get in this to be a team competing for a championship, and the great thing about these players is that’s why they’ve come here, to do that and to be in that situation. I haven’t see it as a burden or anything, I just know that you keep your nose down and you work each day,” Fish said.
“I’ve never been through a year in 27 years where there (aren’t) peaks and valleys, no matter if you’re picked first or last. It’s how you handle those three or four times that adversity hits that determines your season.
“I think this team is working very hard and moving in the right direction. You’ve just got stay healthy and keep grinding.”
For Hall, the individual accolades have rolled in during the run-up to his junior season. Earlier this month he was picked as preseason Big Sky Conference MVP and was named to the Julius Erving Award watch list, an honor given at the end of the season to the top small forward in D-I.
Hall’s 23.1 points-per-game average ranked seventh in the nation last year. Entering the new season, Hall has 1,317 career points, good for a per-game average of 20.9. MSU’s career scoring record is held by Larry Chanay, who scored 2,034 points from 1956-60.
Hall has always handled individual accolades with a level head, and that’s not changing this year.
“Well it’s good to see, but it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day,” Hall said. “What matters is what I do during the season and what we do as a team during the season, so that’s what I try to focus on.”
In spite of Hall’s scoring prowess, here is a telltale statistic: In the 10 games that Hall has scored 30 or more points in the past two seasons, the Bobcats are 2-8.
It’s a sign that MSU needs to match its offensive efficiency with more consistent defense.
Fish said the Big Sky is better this season as a whole, as well. That only adds to the challenge.
“We’re throwing out some players in this league that, quite honestly, have a chance to be next-level players,” Fish said. “We’re certainly fortunate to have a few on our team that are very good, but (Montana’s) Michael Oguine (and) Ahmad Rorie, (Idaho’s) Victor Sanders ... I really think this league has done a big-time job. Every single coach has done a great job of stepping their program up.
“I think the team that wins this league won’t be by accident. I think it will be a bloody 18-game league schedule, and if teams stay healthy I think we’re getting ready to have some really exciting basketball that, quite honestly, is the best I’ve seen going into my fourth year.”