For the first time under Brian Fish, Montana State entered a season with lofty expectations.
The head coach didn’t ignore the hopefulness surrounding his program. After starting the year 11-6, the excitement swelled.
Then it all came crashing down.
The Bobcats (13-19, 6-12 Big Sky) finished the season with 13 losses in their last 15 games, including an unceremonious exit in the Big Sky tournament’s first round, blowing a 19-point lead in the last 11 minutes against North Dakota.
The final two months leaves the program at a crossroads after it experienced one of its worst stretches in at least 50 years.
The Bobcats signed three recruits during the fall period and still have three open scholarships since four will graduate and two left the team mid-season. Tyler Hall, MSU’s leading scorer the past three seasons, has until May 30 to decide whether he’ll return for his senior year or remain in the NBA Draft.
Fish, entering his fifth season with the Bobcats, has one year remaining on his contract.
“I thought maybe we lost a little bit of our confidence when it kind of started going (poorly),” Fish said. “And then the other thing that I was kind of worried about to start the year, it was the first time around here in a few years that we've had expectations and I thought when it started going a little bit sideways, I thought the expectations got on top of them a little bit and wore them down.”
If Hall turns pro, at least half of MSU’s roster would be filled by newcomers. If he returns, the entire starting lineup would be intact. It’s too early for Fish to have a read on his squad, but he learned his lesson. His team responded better to being under the radar than the one for which others were gunning.
The increased turnover has become a trend nationwide and Fish said instead of planning years in advance, the roster likely has to be restructured each offseason. He’s targeting shooters and bigs during the spring recruiting cycle (the spring signing period begins Wednesday).
The Bobcats were often exploited inside as their tallest regular contributor was 6-foot-7 Sam Neumann, who opponents overmatched. Only 6-6 Keljin Blevins averaged more than five rebounds.
Meanwhile, MSU struggled shooting, knocking down 63 fewer 3-pointers than the year before and its 42.4 percent field-goal percentage ranked second-to-last in the conference.
“If we make one or two recruiting adjustments and develop the guys we have ... I think we'll get back to where my expectation of where our program is,” Fish said. “We're in this together. They're not happy. I wasn't happy and the only way to fix it is we all get back in the boat and fix it.”
The Bobcats also bring back 6-10 center Devin Kirby, who played as a freshman in 2016-17 but approached the coaching staff and requested to redshirt this past season. After a horrific injury in which he broke both legs in high school, Kirby had several pins in each leg removed last May.
Each week throughout the season, Kirby lifted weights three times and rehabbed four times. He developed more leg strength since November and could become more of a factor than when he averaged 7.8 minutes and 1.3 points as a freshman.
“He's had a good redshirt year,” Fish said. “Now it's back to getting back into expectations and doing those things, but we're excited about what DK can give us. ... He's more of that skilled passing, scoring big guy that can stretch the floor and do some things.”
Despite the brutal stretch to end the year, Fish maintains MSU wasn’t far from finding a groove. He said the final regular-season game against Weber State, which went into overtime, and the first 29 minutes against UND were among the Bobcats’ best stretches of the season.
“As the head coach, you're the one paid so it's your fault,” Fish said, “but when I actually look at it and analyze it, the train didn't go into the ditch, the train just came off the tracks a little bit.”