Photo by Gabby Hartz
Shame on you if you didn’t pick North Dakota State to upset Oklahoma during last year’s matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
As you’ll recall, the Bison knocked off the Sooners in Spokane, Wash., one of three No. 12s to topple a No. 5 in the tournament’s opening weekend. It was the school’s first-ever win in March Madness. In the process, the Bison were dubbed “America’s Cinderella” by many observers. But, like Cinderella, midnight eventually struck.
This year was supposed to be different, and not in a good way. There was no way the glass slipper molded to perfection for the group that beat Oklahoma could possibly fit this year’s squad. If last year’s Bison were Cinderella, the experts thought this year’s bunch more resembled the ugly duckling.
Let’s recap. Last year, preseason favorite to win the Summit League. This year, picked to finish fifth. Last year, top-heavy team loaded with talented seniors that also beat Notre Dame during the regular season. This year, they start two freshmen and a sophomore, had to replace 70 percent of their scoring, and escaped with a one-point home win in November against Minnesota Crookston, a Division II opponent. Last year, veteran head coach Saul Phillips. This year, first year head coach Dave Richman.
If that doesn’t paint the picture of how different it was supposed to be, maybe this will help. The Bison don’t even have an arena to call their own this season. They are a basketball refugee, playing in Scheels Arena, a hockey arena without scoreboards capable of tracking points and fouls, located eight miles from campus. Their long-time home, the Bison Sports Arena, is being completely gutted and rebuilt into a new arena, the Sanford Health Athletics Complex (“SHAC”), scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.
Oh, and how about this. I should mention that the team practices in a warehouse located several miles from campus with a low-hanging, 20-foot high ceiling because their new, state-of-the-art practice facility won’t be completed until sometime between next winter and when the SHAC opens. Same goes for their weight room. How gritty is this team? They lift weights in an old grocery store converted into the team’s temporary weight room while their new training facilities are being finished.
You can’t make this stuff up. And there’s more. Not to be outdone, Richman and his coaching staff share office space with the rest of the athletic department in an industrial park near Grainger Industrial Supply on Fargo’s north side. The parallel is not lost. Grainger’s motto: for the ones who get it done. Like Grainger, the same can be said for this Bison basketball team: for the ones who get it done.
This team just gets it done. Period. No excuses. No complaints. “This group right here, we weren’t handed anything all year,” explained Richman. “We lift weights in a grocery store right now, our practice facility is a 20-foot high warehouse, our offices as a coaching staff are in an industrial park away from our campus and away from our guys.” For the ones who get it done. These obstacles could have derailed any tournament dreams before conference play tipped off. Nope, not this team. “Not one time did they complain; they made no excuses. I think adversity has really brought us together and we were able to deliver on a large stage.”
Simply put, the Bison are more hardhat and lunch pail than any other team in the NCAA Tournament. It’s hands down, not even close. Why should America love this team? Because they are quintessentially American – they are the ultimate workingman’s team. No home arena and temporary facilities? Whatever. Picked to finish in the bottom half of their one-bid league? Shove it. Replacing a senior-laden roster and head coach that won an NCAA Tournament game? No problem.
Talk about compare and contrast. If college hoops blue bloods like Kentucky and Kansas are living in the ivory towers on Wall Street, NDSU is your neighbor on Main Street. For the ones who get it done. And guess what? That’s perfectly fine with them. After beating Akron in mid-December, Richman summed things up. “We are who we are. We’re not pretty. We’re not a lot of things.” He’s right. The Bison aren’t pretty.
But, that’s the key. The Bison don’t care about style points or looking pretty. They just care about winning. That’s what makes them dangerous, that’s what makes them a team to watch this March. It’s what Richman said next that matters, and is carbon copy with last year’s giant killers that beat the Sooners. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who really like each other and really care about each other.” Forget the bells and whistles. If the Bison can turn things into a street fight, woe to the big boy that gets in their way.
Ask South Dakota State. The Bison beat the Jackrabbits in a 57–56 thriller to earn the Summit League’s automatic berth to March Madness. SDSU looked like the belle of the ball in winning their first two games in the conference tournament, leading by double digits for 68 of the 80 minutes in those contests. The Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., had the feeling of a coronation with the Jackrabbits poised to be crowned kings of the league and advance to the national stage. One of the largest crowds in South Dakota basketball history gathered for the occasion ready to celebrate. It was as hostile of an environment as you’ll find anywhere in major college basketball, with over 9,000 strong cheering against the Bison.
The Bison had their own plans. “We talked about keep fighting and keep swinging, our guys did that,” said Richman. That’s what this team does as good as any other team in March, they fight, and they keep swinging.
Despite that, people have picked against NDSU all year, and that isn’t going to change when the tournament brackets are announced on Sunday night. They won’t be listed among the lower-seeded teams that could pull off an upset or two and make a run to the Sweet 16. Most people are going to write them off.
But maybe, just maybe, there’s something more, something very special about this team that keeps finding a way to get it done. “Once the ball goes up, it’s anybody’s game and it’s on a neutral floor,” said their only senior, Lawrence Alexander, the conference player of the year who scored 28 points against Oklahoma in the upset last season, including the three pointer in the closing seconds that sent the game into overtime. “We got high expectations from last year and hopefully this year we can get to the Sweet 16.
Why wouldn’t the Bison have high expectations, even if no one else does? After all, they’re the ones that get the job done.