MSU Men's Hoops v. Providence

Montana State’s Amin Adamu guards Providence’s Marcus Stephens on Oct. 25 at Worthington Arena.

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Early in the season, Danny Sprinkle would have graded his team’s on-ball defense as a D-minus.

Montana State pulled its grade up to a C in the head coach’s estimation following wins against Portland, Incarnate Word and Southeast Missouri last weekend. He said at practice Tuesday he’d like for the Bobcats to be even better this weekend during a two-game trip to Northern Colorado and Sacramento State, a brief introduction to Big Sky play.

“We’ve gotten a little bit better, but we’re still a work in progress,” Sprinkle said. “Both teams present different challenges, and we’re going to have to respond.”

MSU (4-3) will take on the Bears at 6 p.m. Thursday and the Hornets at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The Bobcats put together the second-best shooting performance in program history against Incarnate Word last Saturday. They shot 66% overall and hit 15 3-pointers. But the highlight of the trip was the team’s progress on the other end.

“We had to really guard, I felt, those three games,” guard Xavier Bishop said. “We had multiple efforts, good contests, we just had to really lock in on the defensive end. Teams were pretty much earlier in the year doing whatever they wanted on us, and you’re not going to win many games like that at the Division I level.”

Fellow guard Amin Adamu pointed to MSU’s discipline in closing out and not getting beat down the floor last weekend as promising signs. Against both UNC and Sac State, that kind of diligence will be necessary.

“We know we’re capable of staying in front of our guys,” Adamu said, “and the way we can do that is just playing desperate.”

This week in particular, Sprinkle has stressed the importance of defensive rebounding and not getting hung up in ball screens.

Northern Colorado, which has a win over Hawaii and close losses to Texas, San Jose State and Colorado State, leads Big Sky teams with 10.4 3-pointers per game. MSU is second with 9.9. The Bobcats cannot afford to allow the Bears clean looks or second chances.

“It’s a huge concern. They’re one of the best shooting teams in the country, not just our league,” Sprinkle said. “They can break a game open at any time. The second you relax, they’re throwing it out for a 3.”

So far, UNC (3-5) has relied heavily on six players all averaging over 20 minutes per game with nobody else averaging more than 9.5. Montana State, by comparison, has nine players averaging more than 12 minutes per game.

Five of those players in UNC’s rotation — Daylen Kountz, Matt Johnson II, Bodie Hume, Dalton Knecht and Dru Kuxhausen — are who Sprinkle called “elite shooters.” Hume made 9 of 14 3-pointers on Monday against Colorado State.

The Bears’ sixth main rotation player is Kur Jongkuch, a 6-foot-9 senior leading the Big Sky in total rebounds (79) and offensive rebounds (29).

At Sac State (3-3), Bryce Fowler will be a defensive focal point. The 6-6 senior is averaging 15.2 points so far. And when he isn’t scoring himself, he’s likely creating a shot for a teammate.

“(Fowler) is one of the best players in the league,” Sprinkle said. “If you double him he’s finding somebody for an open shot. And if you don’t, he’s making plays one on one.”

The Hornets are led by interim head coach Brandon Laird, who took over the program following Brian Katz’s retirement on Nov. 5, just four days before the season started. Laird has been at Sac State for a decade, though, and Sprinkle said he hasn’t seen any drastic changes.

“They’re going to make you beat them. They don’t beat themselves,” Sprinkle said. “If you don’t match their physicality, you’re in for a long night.”

Sprinkle said he didn’t like having to fit two conference games in at the start of December. It takes away a week that could, conceivably, have two or three nonconference games instead. But he sees why it’s necessary.

“I don’t like playing conference games early and then taking three weeks off (from Big Sky games) and playing again,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of teams in our league, and you’re playing 20 league games. It’s hard to find dates or times to get all those in. It just kind of is what it is. It’s hard this year because our first eight Division I games are on the road.”

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Parker Cotton can be reached at pcotton@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @ByParkerCotton.

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