BOZEMAN -- Montana State basketball coaches Tricia Binford and Danny Sprinkle boast plenty of new faces on their respective rosters entering this Big Sky Conference season, but with expectations high and still rising, the Bobcat mentors expect big things in 2020-21.
Last winter saw incredible hype surrounding the Montana State men’s and women’s basketball programs. Former Bobcat Danny Sprinkle returned home and seemingly had the MSU men on the rise, while Tricia Binford and the Bobcat women were enjoying one of the best seasons in program history. Then came COVID, shutting down the Big Sky Conference tournament and dashing dreams.
That moment is very much still on the minds of Binford and Sprinkle, who hope to raise the bar again this season at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Montana State women
Few teams in the country had reason to be more disappointed than Binford’s Bobcats, who owned the fifth-longest winning streak in the country when the novel coronavirus shut hoops down. MSU had won 17 consecutive games entering its scheduled Big Sky Conference championship, and the four teams above them? No. 1 South Carolina (26 wins), No. 22 Princeton (22 wins), No. 2 Oregon (19 wins) and No. 17 South Dakota (19 wins).
No. 4 Maryland was tied with MSU with 17 straight wins.
“We're still sitting on the fact that we didn't play in an NCAA Tournament last year with one of the best teams in program history," said Binford. "To not have the honor or opportunity to play in that (Big Sky Conference) championship game, obviously we would have had to do our job there and earn our right to play in the NCAA Tournament, but I don't think people realize, especially for our particular conference being a one-bid conference, moving forward, how hard that is to be that consistent every single day at that level. To be undefeated on the road, have one conference loss in the entire season, and yet you still have to win your tournament to go to the NCAAs when we did so many other things right.
"Our team was fired up for that game because it's really hard to explain what it feels like in a mid-major to represent your conference in NCAA Tournament.”
Fans familiar with the program will have to get used to new faces this winter. Gone are five seniors, including last year’s conference MVP Fallyn Freije.
“The biggest word to encompass all of those things you just addressed is experience. And there's no doubt we lost tremendous experience," agreed Binford. "We lost five seniors, pretty big pieces in our program, yet I think this team, when you think of what you have coming back, we have Darian White, and I would put her up there against anybody in this Big Sky Conference as a leader for this team, running the show, the ball is in her hands.”
“Obviously Darian is going to be a major part of who we are, but we've got six freshmen and we've got a redshirt transfer, so now you're looking at seven new faces that we're trying to build that chemistry in, and you're doing that in and out of quarantine and all those kinds of situations, so it's challenging," Binford continued. "But at the same time, winners face challenges and they find ways, and I love this team. I love the resilience, I love their chemistry. We might be very young, the first few months we might have some hiccups, but I'm pretty excited about what we're going to look like by the end of the season.”
Montana State men
Sprinkle and the Bobcat men were a game above .500 before tipping off at the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Like Binford, Sprinkle has multiple new faces and their accompanying games to incorporate into the system, but in a few short weeks of practice, he likes the developments he’s seen.
“The guys, they've improved. A lot of our incoming guys, we have eight new players on our roster, they've all kind of started to grasp a lot of the concepts that we started to teach and try to develop late summer, early in the fall," said Sprinkle. "They've improved a lot. I think the team chemistry and kind of the way the guys are playing together, offensively and defensively is improved. But, obviously, we still got a long way to go. We've got a long, long way to go.”
The Bobcats return three with significant playing experience — Jubrile Belo, Amin Adamu and Devin Kirby — and behind that trio, the goals are clear.
“I mean, obviously to get better every day, to improve, but obviously our ultimate goal is to win the Big Sky championship, and that's not going to change," said Sprinkle, who also got key minutes from forward Borja Fernandez. "That's the standard and we're going to work to that point until we get there. And once we do get there, then you got to keep working to stay there.
"That's the goal, I know that's probably the goal of every team, but, you know, we talk to them about it a lot and we talk about why we're doing certain drills, whether we're doing toughness drills or why we're guarding a certain way and doing things a certain way, is to get to where these guys say they want to get to and where this program wants to get to.”