Photo By Zachary Hanby
Basketball was the only sport I ever felt confident in growing up. Granted, I will never admit to being good because I wasn’t. However, it’s the only sport my feeble young mind was able to understand from a schematic perspective. While there a few things I can hang my hat on from my hardwood days (I drained a three in Carson Wentz’s eye when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore, no fake), I stopped playing after my sophomore year of high school.
As a middle schooler, seeing a team from North Dakota State play Kansas in the NCAA Tournament gave me the hope to one day be on that stage. I remember we stopped school that day in 2009 to watch that game. Ben Woodside was electric, scored 37 points and I wanted to be him. Brett Winkelman was one of the most versatile players I had ever seen to that point and I wanted to be him (talking with him for our January magazine was surreal). Luke Moormann was holding his own with Cole Aldrich and I wanted to be him (oddly enough, Luke coached me as a sophomore at Century High School in Bismarck). I wanted to be on that stage.
Obviously, I never made it there as a player. However, I got to live vicariously through Dexter Werner over the next two NCAA Tournament appearances (Dex is a Bismarck guy and one of my best friends to this day). This included a game against Gonzaga in 2015 where Dex was trending nationally on Twitter, he was unreal. All of us were sitting around a television in Bismarck, North Dakota, watching Dexter Werner make every shot he put up, we were going nuts for our boy.
Now, there is this year’s team. My first season “covering” a hoops team. I got to see this team at their lowest and their highest. However, the message told to me by Dave Richman and Vinnie Shahid at the beginning of the season was how tight this team was, how cohesive they were. So when they started 2-7 and most gave up on them, I knew something was on the horizon for these guys. What I did not know is that they would streak through the Summit League to the NCAA Tournament.
Richman and Shahid were not giving me the runaround. This team was close, cohesive and ready. I never doubted it, but many others did. Coaches and players see more than we ever will behind closed doors. They knew they were poised for success this season and not next season as many common folks assumed.
I’ve long said this team took that doubt to heart and set out to prove everyone wrong. They did just that. An enormous amount of credit goes to Dave and his staff, this season was a coaching crown jewel from him. In turn, he proved those who doubted him wrong too.
I’ve never been a big video game player, especially as I’ve gotten older. However, back in 2008 or 2009, I had an obsession with one game, College Hoops 2K8 for PlayStation 2. For those who recall that game, it featured Ohio State’s Greg Oden on the cover and was the last in 2K’s College Hoops series.
As is customary with almost all sports video games, there was a legacy mode. You could pick any program across Division I college basketball and assume the duties of a head coach. You were in control of recruits, hiring staff, playing games, setting a schedule, etc.
To my knowledge, this was the only video game to feature North Dakota State. I’m pretty sure Ben Woodside was rated in the low 80s on that game, a very impressive number for a Summit League player. It’s worth noting that the North Dakota State players featured in that game were not referred to by their real names. You had the option to either randomize their names or have the game refer them to as “number 10” or “number 22”, you get the idea. This was due to, you know, NCAA things…
Needless to say, my most successful legacy mode was with North Dakota State. I changed all the randomized names to their actual names without having to check the roster, I had each Bison player memorized. I even made my legacy “coach” Saul Phillips (you could customize it to make yourself).
Now, I was never one of those guys who played on rookie mode and beat Power Five teams by 40. I played for keeps, on the “MOP” difficulty. Anyway, that game (and video games in general) fell by the wayside for me by the time I hit high school. I can say, I never lost a Summit League Tournament on that game though. If I recall correctly, I made it through eight seasons (yeah, I played a lot) and made the NCAA Tournament each year, winning a few games here and there in the big dance.
That was fake reality.
Where North Dakota State men’s basketball has gone in the last 11 years is not fake reality. Taking a step back and looking at it from a faraway perspective, this run may seem like something you only see on screen. Yet, as the NCAA Tournament appearances have piled up, it has become more and more evident: North Dakota State is a mid-major basketball powerhouse.
I think back to playing College Hoops 2K8 in my basement or watching the NDSU-Kansas game in 2009 and I get chills. I never would have thought I’d be sitting courtside at an NCAA Tournament game, covering the team on the floor. Nor did I think the opponent would be the country’s premier college basketball program with the game’s best player and a coach who has won more games than anyone. I was afforded that thanks to this year’s Bison team. So thank you for the fun ride, boys.
And here is the crazy thing, reader, they will be back again next year…