How about our friends to the north? No, I’m not talking about Canada. I’m talking about the North Dakota State Bison heading back to the Big Dance!After seven years under Saul Phillips, including the only two trips NDSU has made to the Tournament, the Bison is headed back to the Tournament for the second straight year and the first under new coach Dave Richman.
North Dakota State won a thrilling Summit Conference Final over its biggest border-state rival, South Dakota State University, Tuesday night.
If anyone can remember back to last year, NDSU upset Oklahoma in the Tournament, 80-75, to win its first NCAA Tournament game in the history of the program.
That team heavily relied on four seniors to shoulder most of the scoring (64 percent) and rebounding loads (49 percent).
The team is much different this season, and almost exactly the opposite of last year’s team.
Lawrence Alexander is the only senior on the roster and while he is a good one (18.9 points per game and 4.6 rebounds), the Bison relies heavily on underclassmen to fill the void.
Of the seven players who play at least 20 minutes per game, sophomores and freshmen account for 51.8 percent of the points and 54 percent of the rebounds.
Freshman A.J. Jacobsen leads the charge. He is a 6’6 guard and averaging 11.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds.
After tying a school-record with 26 wins last season, the Bison sits at 23 wins this season. They have drilled 220 three-pointers (95th-most in the country) and shoot 38 percent from distance.
NDSU does a lot of things well, and I mean a lot. For being such a young team, the Bison averages 9.75 turnovers per game and that ranks them 12th in the nation. They better their opponents in rebounds (offensive and defensive), turnovers and fouls committed, shots made, three-pointers made, free throw attempts and makes, steals, blocks, and total points scored and averaged.
It helps that NDSU plays at such a slow pace, too. It averages only 51.8 shot attempts per game. It scores 64.5 points per game, but only gives up 61.6. Playing at a slow pace helps subtract from some of the mistakes young players usually make, like playing too fast and committing live-ball turnovers.
Clearly the Bison is going to be the underdog, again, when the brackets come out. But weren’t they the underdog last season, too? Even with a veteran-laden squad? And isn’t it interesting that the man who helped NDSU beat Oklahoma (Alexander) is still on the team? I can guarantee you that he will be just as hungry, if not more hungry, this time around. Alexander scored 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting last March.
The two things that might hurt the Bison are: youth and pace-of-play. Very few young players are ready for the bright lights of March Madness, much less a whole team of young players. Not even Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins could lead their teams to success last season. If the Bison gets down early, I think they’ll have trouble keeping pace with the opposition because they play a very methodical brand of basketball. If they have to abandon their style of play, it could lead to a bevy of mistakes and an early exit for the Bison.
But hey, you always have to root for the underdog.