GREENSBORO, N.C. — With nine days off since its Big Sky clinching win over Northern Arizona to earn an automatic bid to March Madness, Montana State makes its return to the big stage Friday night.
The 14-seeded Bobcats are playing No. 3 Kansas State, which is another postseason matchup against a Big 12 opponent, but the stark difference this go-round is Montana State's ability to now lean on experience.
“You know, I think some of the guys, we have more confidence this time around because we've been at this stage before," senior forward Jubrile Belo said during Thursday's press conference. "I'm excited to see how we're going to produce.”
For Belo, Friday night is an opportunity for redemption.
The senior battled a knee injury during last year’s tournament loss against Texas Tech that required surgery directly after, but as he heads into Friday's game, Belo shared he's "feeling good” and that he believes his team is ready to fight.
“Last year I kind of feel like I had a different mindset towards this game because I was really hurt, so, you know, rather than just soaking it in, I'm trying to focus on the game," Belo explained. "I'm excited to compete against these guys.”
Belo will have the tall task of shutting down Keyontae Johnson, who is college basketball’s comeback story of the year.
The 6-foot-6 forward collapsed during a basketball game in 2020 while playing for Florida. Johnson transferred to Kansas State this season after being sidelined the last two years and leads the Wildcats in both scoring (17.7) and rebounding (7.0).
“They hit the portal really hard also last year," Bobcats head coach Danny Sprinkle said. "You know, (they) probably did as well as anybody in the country attacking the portal. To get those guys to play together and to mesh and to have the season they've had is phenomenal.”
Under first-year head coach Jerome Tang, the Wildcats not only brought in an entirely new staff but also 13 new players.
However, the one constant within the program has been fifth-year senior Markquis Nowell. The point guard ranks third nationally in both assists per game (7.6) and total assists (243) while also averaging 16.8 points.
“Obviously their point guard, he is tremendous," Sprinkle added. "Watching film of him, he has some of the quickest hands I've seen. If you cross over or you put that ball in front of him, it's gone.”
“Really great pick and roll, ball handler," junior guard Darius Brown II described. "(Markquis can) shoot it from anywhere. It's going to be a test for me. You know, that's what we're here for. Play on the biggest stage. I'm excited.”
The senior duo earned third-team All-American Honors earlier this week and has been a big piece to the Wildcats' storied success this season along with their new head coach finishing tied for third in Big 12 with an overall record of 23-9 despite preseason polls expecting them to finish last.
Tipoff is set for 7:40 p.m. Mountain time Friday on CBS.