Harald Frey (5) and Devonte Klines (10) rest during a break in the action. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)

(Editor’s note: Montana State University press release)

BOZEMAN – The Big Sky Conference has improved markedly in men’s basketball this season, and Montana State faces one of the biggest forces in that change Thursday when the Cats open Big Sky play at Southern Utah. Tipoff is 6:35 pm MT.

“They’re really good,” Bobcat head coach Brian Fish said of a 6-5 Thunderbirds squad that enters league play at 89th in the NCAA’s RPI rankings after finishing 341st out of 353 a season ago. The same holds for the Big Sky Conference as a whole, which is currently ranked 18th among Division I leagues. Last year, the BSC finished 28th of 32.

“I think this conference is a lot better this year,” Fish said. “There are so many good players in our league, and there are new players that are having an impact. You look at some of the (non-conference) wins our league has this year, and it’s impressive.”

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Southern Utah’s 86-80 home win over a Central Michigan team that beat the Bobcats 73-48 earlier in December is a data point in that realm, and the Thunderbirds also own wins over schools from the West Coast (Pepperdine), Mountain West (San Jose State) and Big West (Long Beach State) conferences.

Transfers Jadon Cohee (a 6-4 junior from Seattle University) averages 16.4 points a game, Brandon Better (a 6-3 junior from Moberly Junior College) contributes 13.6 points, and Jamal Aytes (a 6-6 senior who has played at BYU and UNLV) chips in 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, but Fish said their contributions range far beyond the stat sheet. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” he said.

That, Fish said, stems from the team’s ability to shoot. Southern Utah averages 80.1 points a game, second-most in the Big Sky, and its 8.6 three pointers made per game is sixth in the league. “They really shoot the ball well,” Fish said, “and they have a lot of players shooting with confidence.”

Chief among them are Better (26 treys) and McGee (22). McGee, in fact, has 259 career three-pointers, one more than Montana State’s Tyler Hall (258 in his career, 42 this season). Those three and MSU guard Harald Frey (30 treys this year) are each ranked in the Big Sky’s 2017-18 top 10 in that category.

Bobcat fans’ most recent memory of Southern Utah is a bad one. The Thunderbirds ended MSU’s season last March with a 109-105 triple-overtime win in the Big Sky Tournament. This year’s SUU squad, without high-scoring guard Randy Onwuasor (who scored 43 points that night), has achieved more balance. After Onwuasor scored nearly one-third of the team’s points last season, Cohee, Better, Aytes and McGee each score around 10 points a game this season.

Montana State gets a considerable amount of its scoring from Hall and Harald Frey, a pair of sharp-shooters who claim 72 of the team’s 107 three-pointers this season. Joe Mvuezolo Jr. (35 points in MSU’s three most recent games) and Keljin Blevins (who has posted back-to-back double-digit scoring games for the second time this season) stand as the top candidates to help MSU diversify its offense, and carrying a hot home shooting hand to road games could also help. The Bobcats hit 39.8% of their three-point shots at home, and just 30.3% on the road.

Thursday’s game is available across Montana and at msubobcats.com on the Bobcat Radio Network, and on WatchBigSky.com and the Pluto TV app. Montana State’s next outing is Saturday at 5 pm at Northern Arizona.