It’s a classic matchup – irresistible force meets an immovable object. The metaphor is fitting for North Dakota State’s third round NCAA Tournament showdown with San Diego State. The irresistible force, the Bison offense. The immovable object, the Aztecs defense. Something has to give. “They’re very big at all the spots, very athletic,” said Lawrence Alexander, NDSU’s junior point guard who had one of the best games in the second round of the tournament with his 28-point effort against Oklahoma. “I know we’re going to have our work cut out for us on the rebounding. That will be one of the toughest things for us is boxing out.”
The Aztecs are second nationally in scoring defense, giving up 56.6 points per game, and are ranked in the top ten in both three-point field goal defense and in field goal percentage defense. “I think that our climate’s mirror our strength and weaknesses. Cold and warm and offense and defense,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips. Phillips and his players expect a physical game with SDSU. “It’s going to be physical. It is. There’s no way around it.”
It will be the second straight physical bout for the Bison. NDSU’s postgame locker room had the feel of a MASH unit after their thrilling 80 – 75 overtime win versus Oklahoma on Thursday night. “Last night the locker room looked like Chuck Wepner after a fight,” Phillips quipped, drawing comparisons to the heavyweight boxer that stood 15 rounds in the ring with Muhammad Ali in 1975. “There were cuts and – how about this, do you know what our trainer used to close the cuts? Super glue.” A widely circulated Twitter photo of Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund in the locker room after their win over Oklahoma shows Braun with a five-inch cut on his right arm and shiner on his forehead next to Bjorklund, who was sporting a matching shiner under his left eye and had his shoulders wrapped in ice.
If that visual gave Bison fans pause for concern, Braun quickly dispelled any worries on Friday. “We’re fine. We’re a tough group. We have been through worse. It’s not going to be an issue,” said Braun. Bjorklund agreed. “It’s just a few scratches, I guess. Nothing too serious that will keep us out of the game. We’re feeling good.” Braun says NDSU will need to do a better job taking care of the ball if they hope to advance to the Sweet 16 next week in Anaheim. “They pressure a lot, so we’ll need to do a better job than we did yesterday with handling pressure,” explained Braun. “They really crash the offensive glass. Rebounding and limiting our turnovers I think will be the two big factors for us.”
For his part, SDSU head coach Steve Fisher recognizes NDSU’s offense will present a challenge. “Very, very, very impressed. They play exceptionally well together. They’re expertly coached. They know what they want to do, how they want to do it, and do it,” said Fisher. Fisher is no stranger to tournament success. He’s amassed a 23 – 12 career record in March Madness, led Michigan to a national championship in 1989, and recruited the iconic Fab Five, who appeared in back-to-back Final Fours in 1992 and 1993. “They make it hard for you to score easy baskets and they find ways to limit you to one shot when you go down,” explained Fisher.
The numbers back Fisher up. NDSU leads the nation in field goal shooting percentage, shooting 51 percent from the field. Against the Sooners, the Bison were a blazing 52.9 percent from the field, connecting on 27 of 51 attempts. The Bison also hit 20 of 22 free throws, including all six in the overtime session. “This is not a team doing it with smoke and mirrors, they’re talented,” Fisher noted. “They can score in the post, they can score when you come to double them, they can make open shots, they can attack you off the bounce when you run at them.”
Like Fisher, Phillips knows his team is in for a battle. “We’re in the third round of the tournament, it’s supposed to be a tough opponent, it is,” said Phillips. “They have got our attention. I can promise you this, North Dakota State is not overlooking San Diego State.” If the irresistible force that is the Bison offense can move the immovable object that is the Aztec defense, NDSU will likely find themselves dancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. “We’ll have our work cut out for us, but it will be a fun game,” concluded Braun. “We have a Sweet 16 berth on the line, so both teams are going to be fighting and it should be a very good, fun atmosphere.”