Were you to see the list of teams Oklahoma lost to in the NCAA tournament with Buddy Hield in their starting lineup, two of the three would emit little more than a bemused nod. After all, being knocked out of the big dance by Villanova or Michigan State is no shocker, but there was a time, prior to the national accolades and rotating door of NBA scouts, that Hield’s Sooners were ousted by the upstart Bisons of North Dakota State and a classic 12 over 5 upset.
Since then, Saul Phillips uprooted to the MAC to guide the Ohio Bobcats to a 33-32 record in two seasons and the Bisons failed to replicate their showing against Oklahoma, losing the San Diego St. in the second round in 2014 and Gonzaga in the first round of 2015. Last season was another step backward with an 8-8 showing in the Summit League, but hopes are high that this team can make it back to the big dance where, as they showed three years ago, anything can happen.
Dave Richman inherited the program from Phillips, having served as his assistant, and has adopted a strategy of slowing the game to ponderous pace in an attempt to make opponents fall asleep or get bored and quit. The Bison ranked 325th in the nation in pace his first season and, hearing the cries of fans for more action, the wild man took off the shackles and saw his boys stampede all the way to 324th last year. They take care of the ball well and cede the offensive glass like Northern Iowa, but do not shoot the ball nearly as well, being middle of the road in EFG% and shooting just 68% from the line.
Defense was their hallmark last year, holding opponents to at 47.7 EFG% and pulling down close to three quarters of their opponents’ misses. They did very little in the way of forcing turnovers last year and, while opponents only shot .324 from deep, the Bison were vulnerable inside the arc with 55% of the points they gave up coming from 2 point field goals.
The upside for North Dakota State is that they lost exactly one useful piece from last year’s squad in 6’4” small forward Kory Brown. Brown did it all on defense for the Bison, coming second on the team in defensive rebounding rate, block percentage, and steal percentage. His short frame was supplemented by a healthy dose of tenacity as he threw himself into everything he did, resulting in roughly 4 fouls committed and drawn per 40 minutes. He was also was capable of scoring efficiently, although his ability to finish inside the arc and make free throws was a lot more useful than his outside shooting most of the time. In the end, 10.4/6.5/2.5 on .488/.304/.753 is a good line, but it won’t gut the Bison lineup moving forward.
A pair of true freshman guards arrive to help the Bison’s already busy backcourt. Tampa native Tyson Ward will bring some length at 6’6” and was awarded a host of Tampa-area awards after his senior season, which saw him develop a solid outside shot and on ball defense. Jared Samuelson comes in as Nebraska’s Mr. Basketball and is known for his three point shooting and scrappy play.
The other scholarship player arriving is Ugandan big man Deng Geu, who also received interest from South Dakota State, having attended high school in Sioux Falls. Deng is 6’8”, but only tips the scales at 210 which is likely what led to his redshirt last season. He comes with a reputation for tenacious dunks and excellent game above the rim, while needing to fill out a body ready for the physicality of the college game.
NDSU have some good pieces coming back to campus this season. Leading the way will be 6’6” guard/forward AJ Jacobson, who led the team in minutes and ORtg a year ago. Jacobson had a line of 12.7/3.9/1.5 and got there without even using 19% of his team’s possessions, shooting .437/.347/.780 in the process. Shooting guard Paul Miller was the leading scorer for the Bison last year, posting a line of 15.3/4.8/1.8. Miller missed time with knee problems and struggled with turnovers, but got past all that to shoot on 27% of his team’s possessions to a line of .410/.414/.776. 6’6” forward Dexter Werner showed a penchant for dirty work last season, leading the team in rebounding and shot blocking. Werner was top 100 in offensive rebounding and 105th in defensive. He came off the bench to the tune of 8.4/6.7/0.8 and converted 50% from the field, but was let down by a .595 mark at the line.
6’3” point guard Khy Kabellis is also back and hoping to improve on his lackluster return of 99 assists to 72 turnovers. Kabellis posted a line of 8.7/3.1/2.3 but when you consider his .409/.327/.704 shooting line to get there, it really limits his upside. 6’3” guard Carlin Dupree has a fun name and plays for a potential bracket buster, should be a great player to watch, right? Only if you really like defense. Dupree had a line of 8.2/3.3/2.0 but shot only .457/.281/.592 and gathered 55 assists and 52 turnovers. He did lead the team with 1.5 steals per game and was in the top 100 nationally in steal rate, so he has value as a defender.
This is a squad that can go either way this year, depending on if Richman can find the right mix of guys like Werner and Dupree who will mix it up on defense, and Miller and Jacobson who can put points on the board. There are some intriguing pieces here and the fact that most of the team is back from last year might help them get the most out of those pieces. For whatever it is worth, KenPom has them ranked in the top 100 and projects them to win the Summit League, which one can definitely see. This is a promising group for NDSU and they will almost certainly be in the mix for an automatic bid come March, but will have to get out of their own way to get there.