Montana State men aim to shift into higher gear in Danny Sprinkle’s 2nd year

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MSU Mens Hoops v. Green Bay

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle directs players from the sideline on Nov. 30, 2019, at Worthington Arena.

BOZEMAN — If Year 1 under Danny Sprinkle was dedicated to establishing his desired culture around the team, Year 2 will be focused on moving toward his preferred on-court style.

Montana State’s head coach spent the offseason adding players to the roster who fit that. The Bobcats are more likely to space the floor with players better at 3-point shooting and more suited to play up-tempo.

It starts with MSU’s eight returners, who already had a feel for how Sprinkle operates.

“They know how we practice. They know how we expect things done in the weight room, in the classroom, from a practice standpoint getting ready,” Sprinkle said. “Them taking ownership has been nice because I don’t have to teach every single thing.”

With that out of the way, and more players who Sprinkle brought in himself, the Bobcats have more flexibility for the coach to mold. Only one player on the team — redshirt senior Devin Kirby — remains from 2018-19, former head coach Brian Fish’s final year at MSU.

While Fish often attracted athletic transfers or overlooked high schoolers with offensive potential to piece around guards Tyler Hall and Harald Frey, Sprinkle has put a premium on shooting.

In Sprinkle’s first season, the Bobcats shot 32.9% from 3, which ranked ninth in the Big Sky. He wants that mark to improve, and he’s made clear his preference is to play with four players spread around the perimeter. Now, he has players who can better execute his vision when the season begins Wednesday at UNLV.

“He always talked about how he wanted to space the floor and have shooters on the floor,” senior point guard Xavier Bishop said. “He wants to find guys that are very skilled, that can pass, dribble and shoot. To be good at basketball, you have to be able to do all those things at a high level, and he’s definitely found guys that do that.”

Bishop, who sat out last year due to transfer rules, pointed to freshman Tyler Patterson and junior college transfer guards Mike Hood and Nick Gazelas as some of the team’s top shooters. Bishop himself averaged 15.4 points and shot 35% from 3 in 2018-19 at Missouri-Kansas City.

Abdul Mohamed, a senior graduate transfer wing, made 63 3-pointers as a sophomore at Gillette College in Wyoming. Bilal Shabazz, a forward, made 74 3-pointers last season at Trinidad (Colorado) State.

The newcomers capable of shooting the 3 reflect what Sprinkle focused on in recruiting. During practice, Kirby said, the team tracks shooting percentages, another example of the Bobcats’ priorities.

“Definitely a huge emphasis with this team is just to make sure we’re a good outside shooting team,” Kirby said, “and that we’re diverse when we’re out on the court.”

While the Bobcats are tasked with replacing sharp-shooting guards Frey (33.7% from 3) and Ladan Ricketts (40%), who both graduated, their shooting depth across the roster may have improved.

Sophomore forward Borja Fernandez made 17 of 46 (37%) from 3 last season, accounting for the fourth most 3-point attempts on the team and the second highest percentage among players with more than five attempts. With Sprinkle saying the 6-foot-11 Kirby could play more often at his more natural center position, Fernandez will likely have opportunities to shoot from deep as a stretch-4 in Sprinkle’s four-out offensive system.

MSU v Weber State Men's Hoops

Montana State forward Borja Fernandez hits his first of three first-half 3-pointers against Weber State on Feb. 15 at Worthington Arena.

“I think we’re going to be able to play more free, more four-out-one-in motion,” Sprinkle said. “And at times even playing five-out motion. Really opening up the court for some of these guys to use their talents.”

Since Day 1 on the job, Sprinkle has also said he wants the Bobcats to play loose and without constant intervention from coaches.

With lots of players adjusting to Division I last year, Sprinkle frequently had Frey organize set plays because the Bobcats knew their limited offense needed to reduce possessions in a game in order to grind out wins. This year, Sprinkle feels Bishop and Hood may perform best when allowed to freestyle in transition or drive to the basket outside of specific plays.

That duo could help the Bobcats play at a faster pace, putting pressure on opponents to keep up. It would be a shift from a year ago, when MSU ranked 234th in the country in adjusted tempo, according to Kenpom.com. It’s the Bobcats’ slowest adjusted tempo ranking since 2009-10 under Brad Huse. Under Fish, MSU’s average adjusted tempo ranking was 107th.

“(Bishop’s) speed with the ball, his quickness with the ball are absolutely crazy,” Kirby said. “When you have a guard like that that can really accelerate the pace, that’s been a main emphasis of ours.”

Throughout the preseason, the Bobcats have battled challenges related to COVID-19 protocols. The quality of their practices has been significantly reduced, Sprinkle said.

But based on the construction of the roster, the groundwork for MSU’s stylistic shift has already been laid.

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.