Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
Back when I was a student at Bismarck Century High School, boy’s basketball coach Darin Mattern had plenty of witty one-liners. I recall reading one of his famous quips in the Bismarck Tribune after a particularly stingy defensive effort from the Patriots. He claimed that he didn’t care if the final score was 8-6, as long as his team won. Obviously, Mattern was exaggerating slightly, but it drove home his commitment to winning games with defense.
If you were to ask North Dakota State head men’s basketball coach Dave Richman if he agreed with Mattern, he would likely concur. While he might not want to live in a world where his Bison score eight points, Richman could surely survive in a society in which NDSU only gives up six points. Most importantly, Richman would enjoy the end result, a Bison victory.
There have been plenty of instances in 2019-20 where North Dakota State has had to win games with their defense. A poor shooting day or a lack of offensive execution can be remedied on defense. While the Bison men are enjoying a successful 20-8 season this year, the casual fan may not understand just how dominant Richman’s crew has been defensively this season. You must take into account how poorly this same team played on that end of the floor at times last year. Only then will you realize that there is a basketball renaissance occurring inside the Sanford Health Athletic Complex.
“You go back to last year and one of the areas where we really struggled in was defensive efficiency ratings and pretty much everything on the defensive end,” junior big man Rocky Kreuser said with a slight laugh. “We shot the ball a little bit better last year, but it comes down to defense. Spending more time together, learning more about each other in the offseason and in preseason continuing to grow that chemistry. Our communication is getting better and I think it is just a clicking thing that has happened over the course of two years with the same group. It’s helped us quite a bit this season.”
And when you piece through the numbers, Kreuser is right. North Dakota State was abysmal on defense at times last year. The Bison gave up close to 73 points per game last season, forced fewer than 10 turnovers and their opponents shot an efficient 46 percent from the field. According to hoops guru Ken Pomeroy, NDSU’s 110.6 adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) was one of the worst in the Summit League. Only Oral Roberts and Denver had a lower rating in 2018-19. Not only that, the Bison finished 292nd in the country in that stat last year. That was out of a possible 353 schools in KenPom’s rankings.
Obviously, much of this is may seem moot as Richman and the Bison found themselves in the NCAA Tournament last season. Yet, there was plenty of internal discussion about defensive improvement heading into this season. A year in which the Bison had enhanced expectations.
“Defense is what coach Richman prides himself on and we put a lot of emphasis on that throughout the summer and fall,” said senior Jared Samuelson, who is regarded as one of NDSU’s best overall defenders. “With the chemistry that we have and the players we returned, it kind of gelled together. We finally got it clicking a little bit.”
And indeed the Bison have gelled on the defensive end. They are statistically the best defensive team in the Summit League, only allowing 66.3 points per game. No other Summit League team is allowing less than 70 points per game this season. Opponents are also only shooting 43.6 percent on the Bison, another league-best. Perhaps the best barometer of NDSU’s defensive improvement is the adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Currently, NDSU sits at an impressive 101.7 adjusted defensive efficiency mark per KenPom, a near nine-point improvement from last year. The Bison are also the best in the Summit League in that particular category.
What does that mean? The Bison are getting more consistent and timely stops on defense. With the Summit League Tournament right around the corner, the Bison still feel they have room for growth too.
“We don’t think we’ve hit our peak and we’re trying to remain humble and hungry. We know we are not playing our best basketball yet which is good,” Samuelson said. “Our best basketball is going to be needed coming up here so we need to stay in the film room, practice hard and get in the gym on our own to keep doing those little things.”
Before the Bison head to Sioux Falls, they must first jump over two major hurdles. Their final two regular-season games will be against league-leading South Dakota State tomorrow and Omaha on Saturday. North Dakota State can still win the regular-season conference title, but they must beat the Jackrabbits first. In their first meeting in Brookings, the Jackrabbits jumped out to an early advantage, leading by 12 at halftime. While the Bison clawed their way back into the game, South Dakota State’s post pair of Douglas Wilson and Matt Dentlinger held the Bison off. The Jackrabbits won 78-73.
“We came out a bit lackadaisical and they got up big. Against a team like SDSU who is really talented, that just cannot happen,” said Kreuser of their first match-up. “We’ve fixed that over the past couple of games, but we know this game has a lot behind it so I think our guys are really wired up and will come out with a lot of energy.”
While the Bison have been stellar defensively all season, one of their worst overall defensive performances came against South Dakota State in that loss. “You got to have your ducks in a row, your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed because they can put you in some compromising situations. We’re not going to pitch a perfect game defensively, they’re playing at an elite level,” said head coach Dave Richman. “We have to do a good job of taking a couple of things away and we didn’t do that in the second half against them. As poor as we were offensively in the first half, we weren’t very good defensively in the second half. There are plenty of things we can clean up.”
For the big man Kreuser, it will be limiting the post play of Wilson and Dentlinger. The two combined for 41 of SDSU’s 78 points back on January 22 and the Jackrabbits are sure to rely heavily on them again. Eric Henderson’s crew does not lean on the three-point shot as much as North Dakota State and opts for a rough-and-tumble, physical brand of offense.
“Basketball, in general, has evolved into a three-point shooting game. Back in the 2000s, you did play with two posts and they do kind of resemble that a little bit. With them, I think you have to set your jaw a little bit,” said Kreuser when asked about defending SDSU’s posts. “We know what’s coming having watched film of countless games on them and we know how to defend it, we just have to go out, set our jaw and be physical. The mentality we have to have is that we won’t let them get to their positions.”
Thursday’s game will not end with the Bison winning 8-6. However, with their radical improvement on the defensive end, Dave Richman and the Bison have added a needed weapon in their arsenal. That weapon is the ability to get defensive stops when it matters most. In big games that will decide conference championships and who goes to the NCAA Tournament, that is a nice weapon to have.