Editor’s note: Yes, we know, they’re the Bobcats, and your managing editor is being flogged 40 times for allowing this error to slip past him.
Not going to lie, right up until the point Coach Tang brought in Keyontae Johnson, I anticipated a rough season for the ‘Cats. The last minute addition of the former preseason SEC player of the year gave me some hope that this team could claw their way to a winning record, maybe snag an N.I.T. bid, and build a nice foundation for the future.
Instead, I’m writing an NCAA tournament preview for the Wildcats. Not only am I writing a preview, but I’m writing a preview for the #3 seed in the East. I’ve watched and written about college sports long enough that I’m rarely surprised by a season. Individual games still get me, but in general, over the course of a long season, water finds its level. Consider me shocked about the height of K-State’s level in Coach Tang’s first year at the helm.
Let’s take a look at Montana State.
#3 Kansas State vs #14 Montana State
GAME DAY— K-State Men's Basketball (@KStateMBB) March 17, 2023
Montana State - 8:40 PM CT
NCAA First Round
https://t.co/Y7UaW4i7if#KStateMBB x #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/oGQotkXL81
Head Coach: Danny Sprinkle
Location: Bozeman, Montana
Conference: Big Sky
Overall Record: 25-9
Conference Record: 15-3 (Second place behind Eastern Washington)
Conference Tournament: Big Sky Winner
KenPom Ranking: 110
Best Win (Per KenPom): Southern Utah (111)
Vs Power Conference
Oregon 81 - Montana State 51
Arizona 85 - Montana State 64
Heading Into the Tournament: 8 Game Win Streak (8th longest in the nation)
Montana State Starters
|Point Guard||10||Darius Brown||Jr||6'2"||195||Pasadena, CA||Cal State - Northridge|
|Shooting Guard||21||RaeQuan Battle||Jr||6'5"||190||Tulalip, WA||Washington|
|Small Forward||0||Caleb Fuller||Sr||6'5"||210||Ipsich, England||UC Davis|
|Power Forward||11||Tyler Patterson||So||6'8"||190||Snoqualmie, WA|
|Center||13||Jubrile Belo||Sr||6'9"||240||London, England|
Montana State Bench
|Guard||20||Robert Ford||Jr||6'0"||180||Portland, OR||Idaho State|
|Center||3||Great Osobor||So||6'8"||245||Bradford, England||Myerscough College|
|Forward||25||Sam Lecholat||So||6'7"||215||Sheridan, WY|
Montana State on Offense
Montana State wants to slow the game down. Their adjusted tempo of 66.5 (219) isn’t the slowest in the tournament, but they certainly aren’t running up and down the court. Their average possession length on offense of 18.3 seconds (271) is one of the slowest in the tournament. When they get the ball, they’re going to take their time and probe for a good shot.
Field Goal / Shooting Percentage
The Grizzlies, like most teams that take the air out of the ball, are relatively efficient on offense. Their 50.9%(165) effective field goal percentage is solid, but not spectacular. This number is a bit skewed because their 32%(291) three point shooting is the 5th worst in the tournament. When they get the ball in the paint, they hit 52.4% (77) of their shots. When they get fouled, they hit 76.3%(32) from the line.
This is a throw back team. Expect them to try and win the game from the mid-range and in the paint instead of chucking up as many 3’s as they can and hoping enough drop. In some ways, it’s nice to avoid playing a gimmick offense in the opening round.
For a team that does their work inside the arc, they don’t excel at collecting their own misses. They only rebound 25.7%(266) of their misses despite having a couple beefy dudes down low. In general, they are more concerned about getting back on defense and preventing transition buckets instead of crashing the glass.
Turnovers / Blocks
This is a veteran team, but they don’t particularly value the basketball. 17.6%(137) of their offensive possessions end in a turnover. That’s in the bottom 1⁄4 of tournament teams (still significantly better than Kansas State, who is dead last).
Fortunately for the Griz, only 8.2%(62) of their possessions end in steals. Live ball turnovers are killers, and they do a decent job of avoiding those. When they turn the ball over, it tends to dead ball turnovers. Their non-steal turnover percentage of 9.4%(235) isn’t great, but if you’re going to commit turnovers, those are the ones you want to commit.
Every now and again I run into a weird stat. This is one such time. Montana State is one of the best teams in the nation at avoiding shot blocks. Only 5.5%(4) of their shots get blocked, the only team in the tournament with a better percentage is Kentucky. That tells me that the take a bunch of jump shots, because those don’t tend to be blocked.
Junior guard Raequan Battle is their star. The Washington transfer was a 4*, top 100 player coming out of high school. After averaging a little under 5 points in his first 2 seasons at Washington, he jumped in the portal and landed in Bozeman.
His first season in the Big Sky was unremarkable. He didn’t start a game, and averaged 8.5 points off the bench. The light finally turned on this season, and Battle exploded upping his point production by almost 10 points a game. He finished the regular season averaging 17.4 points per game. As Montana State’s first, second, and third option, he attempted 306 two- point field goals, 72 more than anyone else on the squad. His 140 three-point attempts led the team by 64 attempts.
When Battle isn’t taking a shot, center Jubrile Belo goes to work in the paint. Belo, a burly, banger from Britain hits 61.2% of his field goal attempts and has a knack for drawing fouls. He draws 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes, good for 15th in the nation. When he gets to the line, he hits 75% of his free throws. Once he gets position, it’s impossible to knock him off his spot. K-State needs to do their work early and keep him from hunkering down on the block.
2 Man Game
Battle and Belo are the focus of the offense, and why not, they’re clearly the best players on the team.
Nothing complicated about this set. Montana State clears out the weak side for the Battle and Belo 2 man game.
Battle runs his defender off the Belo screen.
Battle’s defender gets stuck behind Belo’s screen because he’s approximately 1 1⁄2 people wide, forcing his defender to jump out on Battle. Belo sees a clear path to the goal and rolls to the hoop.
Battle finds Belo wide open under the goal.
Belo punishes the rim.
Look for the majority of the Griz possessions to run through their two best players. Kansas State must find a way to disrupt this duo, otherwise they will eat all game long. Belo, in particular, is a tough match-up for K-State’s slender post players. N’Guessan and Iyiola give up at least 30 pounds to Belo, and Belo is the type of player to take advantage of that mismatch.
Battle runs the entire show. If he doesn’t score, Montana State doesn’t win. This is a job for Desi Stills. He’s a tough, experienced defender capable of fighting through screens and staying attached to Battle. The Griz will do everything in their power to hunt out Markquis Nowell and try to punish him on the defensive end by getting him matched up on Battle and slamming him into a Belo screen over and over again.
Montana State runs multiple sets, but they all have the same goal. Get the ball to Battle or Belo. They are laser focused on getting their best players shots. The only way I see this going Montana State’s way is if Battle goes nuts. He went off for 20 points against Oregon, 30 against North Dakota, 32 against Sacramento State, and 25 in the Big Sky Championship against Northern Arizona.
Belo is a solid player, but he’s not a guy that’s going to go off for 20-25 against Kansas State. However, if Battle gets going, Belo can provide enough secondary scoring to get the Griz over the hump. If the ‘Cats hold Battle to his average, they win, and probably win going away. Montana State’s only path to victory runs through Battle’s scoring ability. It would behoove K-State not to let him get hot.
Montana State on Defense
The Griz lock up on defense. Opponents average 17.5 seconds(134) per possession. That’s about average. They play sticky man to man defense, and do a good job of getting back in transition to prevent quick baskets.
Field Goal / Shooting Percentage
Their adjusted defensive efficiency of 99.5 (74) is solid, in fact, it’s better defensive efficiency than teams like Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Baylor (among others). They’re good inside the three point line, with teams only shooting 48%(77) on two-point attempts. That doesn’t extend to their perimeter defense, where they allow teams to shoot 35%(325) from deep.
I’ve watch a few games, and they have a bad habit of going under screens and losing shooters. At the same time, that makes me a little nervous. I don’t want the ‘Cats to fall in love with the quick 3, even if it’s open. Montana State would happily make this a referendum on the Wildcats ability to knock down 3 point jumpers.
While they aren’t interested in crashing the offensive boards, they are solid on the defensive glass. Belo and fellow burly British brute Great Osobor control the defensive glass. They only give up offensive rebounds on 25.5%(56) of their opponent’s shots. That’s better than Alabama, UCLA, Houston, and Kansas. I don’t expect the Wildcats to get many second chance opportunities.
Turnovers / Blocks
For playing somewhat conservative defense, the Griz force a surprising number of turnovers. 20.1%(74) of their opponents possessions end in turnovers. That could be trouble for a K-State team that haven’t found a turnover they don’t enjoy committing.
The good news for the ‘Cats is that they tend to create live ball turnovers. Their 9.5%(150) isn’t anything special, and those are the killer turnovers. They are better at causing non-steal, dead ball turnovers. 10.6%(40) of their opponents possessions end in a dead ball turnover.
Osobor and Belo block a few shots, but not enough to keep teams from trying them. They block 8.7%(168) of their opponents shots.
I’m not going to provide any clips, because I need to get this article out, and they play standard man to man defense. The only slight wrinkle they employ is jamming the opponents point guard full court, but I don’t anticipate that bothering Markquis.
Other than that, they are an experienced, well-connected defensive team that does a good job of guarding the paint. As I mentioned above, they will go under screens and give shooters open perimeter looks.
This all comes down to Battle. He’s Montana State’s only chance to win this game. He’s capable, but it’s going to take a legendary performance, and he’s at the top of Kansas State’s scouting report. They’ll hound him all over the court and make his life miserable. He’s going to wear Desi Stills like a cheap suit.
If Battle goes off for a big number and the Wildcats are loose with the ball and take bad early 3’s this thing could be close, but I don’t see it happening. Montana State’s style of play will keep this thing close for a while, but they have no answer for Markquis and Keyontae. If the ‘Cats get an average game from their stars, it’s a wrap
Kansas State 74
Montana State 65
Kansas State - 82
Montana State - 71
I see the ‘Cats rolling in this game. They’ve got too much talent, and play with too much energy to get knocked off by Montana State. The Griz keep it close, but don’t have an answer for Markquis and Keyontae. They combine for 40+ points, and the Wildcats roll into the next round felling good about things.