BOZEMAN — Most Big Sky Conference men’s basketball observers would agree Danny Sprinkle had a successful first season as the Montana State head coach.
But Year 2 of the Sprinkle Era is going to take on a different look.
The Bobcats, who went 16-15 last year for their first winning season since 2009-10, lost seven players off the 2019-20 roster, including do-everything guard Harald Frey. Frey led Montana State in points (16.6 per game), assists (4.6) and steals (1.5) last season and graduated as one of the great players in Bobcat history. He also led the team with 61 made 3-pointers.
Ladan Ricketts ranked second on the team with 50 made 3s and Mychael Paulo was third with 27. Ricketts graduated and Paulo entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, meaning MSU needed to reload with marksmen for 2020-21.
The Bobcats will bring in six newcomers next year: guards Nick Gazelas, Mike Hood and Kellen Tynes, wings Abdul Mohamed and Tyler Patterson, and forward Bilal Shabazz. The players are coming to Bozeman via different routes — Tynes and Patterson as freshmen, the rest as transfers — and have unique nuances to their games, but all seemingly have one thing in common: They’re adept 3-point shooters.
“The new guys we have coming in, I’m super excited about them. I know everybody says that with every recruiting class, but I really feel like they’re good fits for Montana State, the style of play we want to get to,” Sprinkle said Wednesday during a virtual meeting with reporters. “And I just think their talent is tremendous for the Big Sky Conference.”
Sprinkle, who made 263 3s during his MSU playing career from 1995-99, no doubt sought to bring more shooting to the Bobcats this offseason. MSU ranked eighth in the Big Sky Conference in made 3s last season and ninth in 3-point percentage and scoring offense.
Even with their offensive struggles, the Bobcats managed to secure the No. 5 seed for the Big Sky Conference tournament, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic before Montana State ever took the court in Boise.
The coronavirus-related restrictions are still wreaking havoc on athletics across the country, and it’s no different in the Big Sky Conference. All athletic activities, including in-person instruction, have been suspended, so Sprinkle and his coaches are only able to communicate with their players virtually. Last summer, Sprinkle said the Bobcats were able to hold 21 practices. This year, he’s hoping he can just get his players to Bozeman.
“I don’t know when we can get these kids on campus,” he said, adding he hopes for clarity by the end of the month. “I just want to be able to touch and feel them and that way they can be on campus and be in Bozeman, because it’s hard doing (virtual meetings) with your players all day, where you just see them at their home.”
Whenever the Bobcats can return to the court, the six additions, along with Xavier Bishop, who sat out last season after transferring from University of Missouri - Kansas City, should help provide a spark to the Bobcats’ offense. Even though replacing a player of Frey’s caliber is a tall order, the roster is beginning to resemble Sprinkle’s vision of versatile shot-makers.
Five players transferred out of the program, including Paulo, who played in all 31 games last season, starting 10. The other transfers — Zeke Quinlan, Quentin Guliford, Zach Hobbs and Brent Finn — played sparingly or not at all.
“They want more playing time, which I completely understand. They’re competitive kids,” Sprinkle said. “I thought it’d be better for them if they wanted to play more minutes and get the experience they wanted on the court, that would probably have to happen somewhere else.”
While Sprinkle indicated he was supportive of these transfer decisions, he also expressed concern about the future of college basketball. The NCAA is mulling a one-time transfer rule, which, if approved, would grant immediate eligibility to every athlete in the transfer portal. Currently, only graduate transfers have immediate eligibility. Other transfers must sit out a year of competition unless they can obtain a waiver from the NCAA.
The NCAA could vote on the transfer rule later this month. If ultimately approved as Sprinkle expects, he said it will have a big impact on the Big Sky Conference and other mid-major programs.
“We’re basically going to be like a farm system for the Power 5 schools (if the one-time transfer rule is approved),” Sprinkle said. “It’s good because the kids have options. I know they complain a lot about coaches leaving and things like that, and I think the NCAA does need to make a rule where, if there is a coaching change that the kids can transfer right away and be eligible. But other than that, it would probably be better for them to sit a year, because now we don’t know what our roster’s going to look like year to year. You do a great job recruiting a high school kid and you develop him for two years, you’re basically developing him for the Pac-12, because they’re just going to come take him. That’s what’s scary.”
Sprinkle said Montana State is still seeking to add a few games to its 2020-21 non-conference schedule, but the Bobcats will open the season at UNLV. They’ll also have non-conference games with Wisconsin Green Bay, North Dakota, Nebraska Omaha and University of Portland.
“It’s tough because we have to cramp our schedule in this year, because we play the two Big Sky Conference games the first week of December this year,” Sprinkle said. “Basically that takes a week out of our non-conference schedule, where now we’ve got to pack those either 10 or 11 games into a smaller window, so we’ll be playing more games on more days in the non-conference.”