An offensive force, MSU senior guard Xavier Bishop leads the Cats to new heights after committing to defense

BOZEMAN, Montana – Nearly 700 points, 201 assists and 45 steals after Xavier Bishop Coming to Montana State, his career as one of the most prolific point guards in Bobcat history seems natural, almost predestined. Bishop sometimes makes things look easy.

But that has never been the case. In fact, his ability to just survive Montana State comes down to a simple statement.

“If you’re the point guard, you won’t be guarding,” says Bobcat head coach Danny sprinkle, “you’re not going to win games.” And not winning games was something neither Sprinkle nor Bishop were prepared to endure.

Bishop arrived at Montana State in the summer of 2019, weeks after Bobcat’s current head coach Danny sprinkle, after being transferred from Kansas City. He had enjoyed individual success, but the only winning team he played for was 18-17.

A long relationship between Sprinkle and former UMKC coach Kareem Richardson, and Sprinkle’s recruitment of Bishop out of high school, helped lead Bishop to Bozeman. Sprinkle quickly learned something about his lightning-fast guard. “He wasn’t too high on defense before he came here,” Sprinkle said. “It was great that he had a year off because he actually became a very good defender. And he’s proud of that, which I’m very proud of.”

NCAA transfer rules at the time called for Bishop to serve a year in order to play his final season. And while that final season falling into the Covid season of 2020-21 led to Bishop retaining his eligibility for this season, it was his first season at MSU that led to a transformation in Bishop’s game. Not only did he improve defensively, but he also became the kind of point guard Sprinkle knew he needed.

“Before he got here, he was just a goalscorer,” Sprinkle said. “(We) got into it in training even when he was sitting. I had to make it clear to him: ‘You get so much attention when you drive and put the ball in the paint. Yeah, you can score, but you have to make other players better. That’s what I think he (improved) the most. He made Jubrile (Belo) better, he made Tyler (Patterson) better, he made Amin (Adamu) better because of the attention he gets.

Bishop scored 1,055 points in three seasons at UMKC, leading the team in goals and assists in 2018 and 2019, but when the coach who signed him, Kareem Richardson, was fired in 2019, Bishop felt it was time for a change. And it was not easy. “We didn’t have much success there, but it was difficult (to leave) because I had built so many relationships and I didn’t want to leave my teammates who I had been with for three years. But I really felt like I could take a chance and find a better program and a better school in general when my coach was fired It was a hard decision, but at the same time it was an easy decision because that I felt I could help another program succeed.”

While Bishop knew he needed a year of development, things didn’t always go smoothly. “I felt like it was the most important year for me as far as basketball goes. I had to work on a lot of things, a lot of weaknesses, and turn some of them into strengths.”

Sprinkle said it was on purpose. “You have to be demanding,” he said. “There were times when I knew I had to take him out of his comfort zone. I love him, but I had to push his buttons. I had to piss him off. Sometimes I had to go to training and pull the better off I knew how to do that right after I got to know him, the more I coached him the more I learned to get under his skin I know how to (push) him a little bit to get him going When he does that , he’s a completely different player, and he locks in on a completely different level.”

The process, Bishop said, worked. “I just become more of a playmaker,” he said of his main goal. “I think some people might have argued before I came here that I was a 5-8 shooting keeper, but certainly my leadership, my passing ability, and also I feel like I’ve done a great not defensive since I got here. Those are the things I can see the staff helping me take a huge leap.”

Sprinkle had one factor on his side throughout Bishop’s redshirt season – the presence of All-Big Sky guard Harald Frey, then an elderly person. “I didn’t want to play him and Harald together,” Sprinkle said of the importance of Bishop and Frey working together in training for a season, “I wanted him to replace Harald. I knew he needed a year to develop, he knew it took him two years to graduate and everything fell into place.”

Frey, now a professional player in Germany, said the competition was often heated. “We had a special relationship where we were super competitive on the court, making each other better,” Frey said, “even to the point where we got mad at each other and it’s exchanged words. But just after practice we would be best friends again.”

Bishop lights up at the mention of Frey. “He’s my guy,” he said with a broad smile. “We still communicate, we talk to each other, almost every day.”

While acknowledging that he needed the year of improvement offered by his redshirt season, he also offers without hesitation that it was by no means child’s play. “I feel like my redshirt year was something I needed, but it was really tough, training and training and then you have to go and put on a polo shirt and khakis and watching the team play. It was a great year, it was a fun year, but it was definitely tough.”

After the challenge of a redshirt campaign, which ended prematurely with the onset of the global pandemic, Bishop and the college basketball community had a season of empty gymnasiums and erratic schedules.

“Saturday’s games were the toughest games,” he said. “We played at noon, very early, sometimes at 11. Sometimes we tried to get up and go knowing there were no fans and no one to get you going. That was the hardest part because it was like practice, like scrimmages.

“Saturday’s games were the toughest games,” he said. “We were playing at noon, very early, sometimes at 11. Trying to get up and go knowing there are no fans and no one to get you going, that was the hardest part. It was like practice, like scrimmages, all the time.”

Bishop faces his second and final Cat-Griz game scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. — the teams didn’t meet last season due to Covid protocols in the UM program — and Bishop is a little bittersweet. “I wish I had more Cat-Griz experiences, but the first one was kind of fun. Hopefully I can leave Montana State undefeated against them. Really enjoying it, looking forward to it.”

Bishop also carries a personal connection in his latest rivalry contest. His father, William Bishop, played football at UM for one season in the 1980s. He ended his career at Arkansas-Pine Bluffs, but “he really loved it here and was really big on the quality of people, support and the community”. Xavier Bishop said. “He really enjoyed his time here.”

His father’s passion for football led Xavier Bishop sport in his youth, a traumatic event put an end to it. “I broke my arm in eighth grade and that was it,” he laughed. “I was all about basketball after that.”

Privately, he thought, he had fallen in love with the game years before. “My dad started an AAU team for my big brother and his friends, so I would be two, three, four, traveling around the country with them, going to different tournaments. I actually thought I was part of the team because I would have on their jersey, the headband. If they were playing badly, I would be on the bench talking to them in a crazy way. I’ve talked about a lot of things since I was two, three years old , I actually thought I was going to be in (games). So (his love for basketball) definitely came from watching my big brother play.”

While Bishop has made his mark on the court, averaging 13.4 points and 4.2 assists per game in his two seasons as a Bobcat, he’s been utterly comfortable in his new environment. “I could send him to an elementary school in Bozeman,” Sprinkle said, “and after an hour he’d know everyone in the building.”

Sprinkle said Bishop has really taken on a leadership role, which is confirmed by his teammate and senior colleague Abdul Mohamed. “It’s amazing to play with him,” Mohamed said. “He’s got so much heart and he’s got so much fight in him. When you have that from one of the leaders of your team – and look out, he’s not 6-6, he’s 5-8 or 5-10 – everyone on the team loves him, I love him, and it’s easy to play with a guy like that, I think he’s Big Sky player of the year, him or (Bobcat Center) Jubrile BeloIf you ask me.”

That tone is set by the Bobcat coaching staff, Bishop said. “They allowed me to be me, they didn’t try to change me or who I was,” he said.

And Bishop being Bishop has taken the Bobcats to near-untold heights. MSU has already won 21 games, tying a program high during the Big Sky era, and carrying a two-game lead into the final four games of the regular season, the Cats seek the program’s first Big Sky regular-season title in 20 years.

But none of that matters to Bishop now. He’s having too much fun.

“That was awesome,” he said, his million dollar smile saying more than words. “A lot of pleasure.”

#GoCatsGo

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