Air Force came back home after winning the All-Military Classic Tournament to face the two DII teams…
Scouting Report: Montana State
So far, so good… but so much left to improve on. That's the quick summation of Air Force's basketball season after four games that have produced four wins. The Falcons went outside Division I-A in their past two games, and those cupcakes need to produce a mentally fresh team – plus an accordingly strong effort – on Wednesday night against the Montana State Bobcats of the Big Sky Conference. Dave Pilipovich, in his first full year as the universally acknowledged leader of the Air Force program, wants to use this game as a springboard to a stronger identity, a moment in which the Falcons can develop better habits so that they will be ready when Mountain West competition starts in the second week of January.
The Falcons are still very much an unknown entity at this point. Contests against lower-division teams only serve to mask the true nature of a basketball squad in the uncertain month of November. This is a game in which Air Force doesn't have to make a loud statement – that would be a bit hyperbolic, to say the least. What should the Falcons aim to achieve on Wednesday, in addition to a victory? They need to show better habits, improved instincts, and ultimately, the ability to play lockdown defense so that they know they can win when shots aren't falling.
MONTANA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Head coach Brad Huse has been on the job in Bozeman since 2006. In that period of time, Montana State has not been able to break through in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Weber State, Portland State, Northern Colorado, and Montana have punched tickets to the NCAA tournament, but the Bobcats have been kept outside the candy store. In the 2009 season, they made a darkhorse run to the championship game of the Big Sky Tournament but lost to Portland State. In 2010, the Bobcats attained their best regular-season finish in the Big Sky under Huse, placing third in the league, but Portland State – a clear nemesis – knocked Montana State out of the Big Sky Tournament in the first round. There is a sense in and around the program that the 2012-2013 campaign needs to bring about a stronger Big Sky finish, a more legitimate run at the brass ring. Another fifth-place showing in the league – which has been typical of Huse's tenure – would only entrench the sense that Montana State basketball is a stale program, going nowhere slowly. The expression "going nowhere fast" lacks a positive connotation, but the idea of remaining adrift over the course of seven years seems even more painful and disillusioning for followers of Montana State basketball.
The need for a breakthrough in Bozeman, Mont., is acute.
The Bobcats are 1-1 so far this season. They played two Catholic-school opponents from the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland. The Bobcats were waxed by Seattle but came back to pop Portland by 19 points. To the casual college basketball observer, those results might seem surprising. Didn't Portland average 20 wins per season from 2009 through 2011? Didn't Seattle University just begin to re-create its program after decades of dormancy?
One must simply realize that while Seattle is far from a finished product, the RedHawks are certainly in a better spot than Portland at the moment. The Pilots crashed and burned last year, going 7-24 overall and just 3-13 in the West Coast Conference. Montana State can't think that it has somehow turned a corner due to that win over Portland. Air Force will give the Bobcats a much truer test on Wednesday night.
Center – Paul Egwuonwu – Junior, 6-9, 235; 2011-12 STATISTICS: No stats
You will notice, as you research Montana State, that this team's starting five is almost entirely comprised of transfers. Four of the five MSU starters did not play for the Bobcats last season. This is a clear indication of the sense of urgency Huse feels as he tries to make something of his program… and his career as a coach. The returning players on the 2012-2013 Montana State roster have not been good enough to win starting jobs. Huse does not yet feel comfortable using them at the start of a game. This is an issue to monitor for the Bobcats as they go forward. It also makes this team a bit harder to scout. The Air Force staff is fortunate in that it does have two games from this season to go by. If MSU had been an opening-night opponent, it would have been much more difficult to get a composite view of what this roster can do when thrown together on the floor.
Egwuonwu – like Montana State's other post players – is not particularly quick. However, he is muscular and alert. He compensates for a lack of explosive athletic ability with his court sense, positioning and footwork. If Air Force can keep Egwuonwu off the boards and limit his impact in the realm of hustle plays and 50-50 balls, the Falcons should be satisfied.
Forward – Flavien Davis – Junior, 6-5, 225; 2011-12: No stats
This might not be Montana State's best player, but Davis is MSU's most effective and impressive frontcourt player. At 6-5, he's undersized, but Davis plays a blue-collar game with a simple and unvarnished intensity. He likes to face up to the basket more than he likes to post up, and while not lethally quick, he is able to attack the paint because his body is so strong. Davis has the most aggressive mentality of anyone on the Bobcats' roster. He loves to drive into the lane from the elbow and wing areas, not so much the baseline. He possesses good body control and doesn't make rash decisions as a ballhandler. Davis will test Air Force's defensive footwork. Taking charges requires a certain degree of fortitude, but the Falcons will need to be ready to absorb a lot of contact from this chiseled, attack-minded player.
Guard – Jamie Stewart – Senior, 6-4, 200; 2011-12: 9.1 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists per game
Stewart is the one starter who played for Montana State last season. It's instructive to note that Stewart, despite his size, doesn't look for his shot. The big guard has attempted just 11 shots in his first two games this season. He tries to make more of an impact at the defensive end of the floor. Stewart could shoot over the top of some of the other guards he faces; the fact that he's not a volume shooter is quite telling in this regard.
Guard – Marcus Colbert – Freshman, 5-11, 180; 2011-12: No stats
What's the scouting report on Colbert? Stephen probably doesn't have time to focus on what Marcus has been doing this season. For a player who isn't even six feet tall, Colbert definitely plays without fear. He has averaged four rebounds a game for MSU to this point in the season. He also averages two assists per game. His quickness to the ball must become a major concern for Air Force when the Falcons try to execute their halfcourt sets. Colbert is a defensive threat more than anything else.
Guard – Antonio Biglow – Junior, 6-0, 165; 2011-12: No stats
This is Montana State's best player, but therein lies part of the problem for the Bobcats. Make no mistake, Biglow is a volume shooter who has hit 50 percent of his shots this season and scored 38 points in two contests (for an average of 19 per game). He knows how to create offense, and his active presence on the perimeter at both ends of the floor makes him a player the Falcons have to contain. Yet, Biglow is a containable player if a defense can make proper rotations.
One thing that became apparent in looking at footage of Montana State's season opener against Seattle on Nov. 11 was that Biglow has a big takeback on his jump shot. Biglow's release is a slow, extended process, the antithesis of a quick-snap catch-and-shoot technique that elite shooters possess. It's true that Biglow is appreciably accurate, but that accuracy emerges only when he's able to carve out enough space for his shooting hand. If you take away the shooting hand and don't buy any of Biglow's ball fakes, you will prevent him from pulling the trigger. If you work around screens and can stay in front of him, he will not be able to establish any appreciable degree of rhythm as a shooter. Sometimes, you need to defend an opposing guard for the drive, while on other occasions, you need to defend a perimeter player for the shot. With Biglow, you definitely want to make him drive and not shoot. If you take away his shot, you force him to make tougher plays in traffic. Don't let him tee up a wide-open three with ample space, because that's the shot he'll make.
As mentioned above, Montana State's starting lineup is mostly the product of transfers, but its bench is also inhabited by players who were not on MSU's roster last season. In what amounts to a nine-man rotation at this point, only guard Michael Dison (3.7 points and 2.1 assists per game last season) saw playing time for the Bobcats in the 2011-2012 campaign. He is not a particularly accurate shooter, meaning that unlike Biglow, he should be given more of a cushion when Montana State has the ball. Eric Norman, a 6-9 forward, receives spot minutes, while the two most prominent bench players are power forward Danny Robison and small forward Calen Coleman. Robison gained 23 minutes in MSU's recent win over Portland on Nov. 18, while Coleman logged 25 minutes. Coleman posted 12 points against the Pilots on 4-of-6 shooting. Robison earned six foul shots against Portland, making five.
Keys to the Game
1) Take away Biglow's shooting hand. This point requires no further elaboration.
2) Move those feet on defense, especially when Flavien Davis thinks about driving to the bucket. Montana State also has a reserve named Steven Davis, which is why the name Flavien Davis needs to be set apart. When the Bobcats' more formidable Davis gets ready to attack the tin, the Falcons need to head him off at the pass with nimble footwork and proper positioning. A strong defensive showing should be able to smother Montana State, a team that is active and hard-working but not particularly quick or dynamic. If Air Force matches MSU's effort level, it should win, and the defensive end of the floor is where effort (or a lack thereof) is most commonly revealed.
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