BOZEMAN — Montana State coach Brian Fish kept things pretty close to the vest Tuesday during his weekly news conference, avoiding specifics of how his team is approaching its rivalry matchup against red-hot Montana.
“They’re really good. Really good,” Fish said of the Grizzlies, the only unbeaten team in the Big Sky Conference. “Well coached. Playing really well. Very impressed with what I see on film.”
Fish wasn’t being disingenuous. He knows his Bobcats will have their hands full Saturday when Montana visits Worthington Arena for the first of two regular-season matchups between the teams.
The Griz (13-5, 6-0) are thriving, in particular, on the stellar guard play of Mike Oguine and the strength of big man Jamar Akoh, and are fresh off a road sweep over Sacramento State and Portland State, which stretched its road record in the league to a 4-0.
When last week began, MSU (11-8, 4-2) was on par with Montana and tied atop the league standings, having won four in a row to begin Big Sky play. But the Bobcats were swept on the road at PSU and Sac State, with each game decided by 19 points.
Fish was fairly noncommittal about that, too.
“Wasn’t the greatest trip,” he said. “Got a lot of work to do.”
He added: “It’s no different than when you win four, you keep moving forward. We’ve got to move forward. It’s not surprising that we have a weekend like that. We’ve just got to make sure that we get better.”
Very little of what the Bobcats do in practice revolves around offense, and it was no different Tuesday inside Worthington Arena as they began ironing out the defensive details of trying to contain UM’s Oguine and fellow guard Ahmaad Rorie, as well as Akoh, a powerful 6-foot-8 transfer from Cal State Fullerton.
Oguine scored a career-high 39 points (and had eight rebounds) in a 92-89 victory at Portland State. He was named the Big Sky’s player of the week on Monday. Akoh, who through six conference games is averaging 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, was named player of the week the Monday prior.
“He’s a big, strong player that’s playing at a high level that’s had some really good games, and obviously his presence strengthens things and influences how they play,” Fish said of Akoh. “Very impressed with him. They don’t have many weaknesses, and he’s a big reason for that.”
Last Feb. 25 at Worthington Arena, the Bobcats snapped a 13-game losing streak to the Grizzlies with a 78-69 victory. Star guard Tyler Hall couldn’t miss, and finished with 37 points. That point total was the third-most for a Bobcat in the long history of the rivalry with Montana.
“Honestly, I was just being aggressive and attacking,” Hall said that night. “The rim looked big at times, but really it was just about attacking.”
Historically, Hall has played lights-out against the Grizzlies. In four games versus UM, the junior from Rock Island, Illinois, is averaging 26.5 points on 56 percent shooting with 17 3-pointers.
Fish said he thought Montana guarded Hall very well in Bozeman last year, though he did say the Bobcats “got a little lucky” at times — a reference to an off-balance 3 that Hall banked in during a second-half surge that put MSU ahead by 14 points.
Still, luck only carries a team so far. Especially in a rivalry game.
“It’s a big game, and we’ll have to play extremely well,” Fish said. “(The Griz are) going to play extremely well. It will be a packed atmosphere in that house.
“It means a lot to the people in this state, it means a lot to our players, it means a lot to their players, and I think that’s what makes college basketball great, when we get a chance to play these type of games. It will be fun.”
Beyond the rivalry, Saturday’s matchup is big for MSU because it is the first of a three-game homestand as the Big Sky inches toward the midway point of its schedule. Next week, the Bobcats host Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, teams they beat on the road at the end of December.
At 4-2 in the league standings, Montana State is alone in second place, two games behind Montana and one game ahead of Idaho, Weber State, Idaho State and Eastern Washington, which are all 3-2.
Neither the Bobcats nor the Grizzlies play Thursday night, which gives them extra time to balance rest and preparation. MSU took Sunday and Monday off before returning to the practice court Tuesday.
“We got away for a couple days. You do try to balance that,” Fish said. “What we do with it and how we take advantage of it is yet to be seen.”