Photo By Xavier Bonner
Great basketball teams are built on many different things. First and foremost, the team must have the talent, both on their roster and on their coaching staff. Next, a team must strive to consistently improve regardless of how talented they are. Chemistry plays a vital role in the success of a basketball team as well.
Within all of that, specific players carve out roles for themselves. Truly great basketball players and teams are willing to sacrifice individual accolades or glory for team success. Finding that role can be difficult for many players as they look to find a way to utilize all of their talents adequately.
North Dakota State men’s basketball has many of the qualities that make a great basketball team. They have the talent, they have the chemistry and they have the drive to improve and succeed. It’s what has made them one of the top teams in the Summit League in 2019-20.
On top of that, none of them care who gets the credit for the team’s successes. Each player and coach has their role and they stick to it. Thanks to the veteran nature of this year’s team, many players have been in the same role for multiple years.
But not Cameron Hunter. Due to circumstances out of his control, the junior has been forced to take on a new role each of his three seasons on campus. For most players, that would be frustrating and perhaps debilitating at times. Yet, Hunter’s growth on and off the floor has never been impeded. He continues to be one of the most vital assets for Dave Richman on a nightly basis.
As a redshirt freshman, Hunter was thrust into action almost immediately. A shake-up on the Bison roster led to the team not having a point guard in 2017-18. Hunter stepped in and played in all 32 games for the Bison, starting 21 of them. He completed the season on the Summit League’s All-Newcomer Team by averaging 10 points per game and shooting 47 percent from long range.
Last season, NDSU added a junior college point guard to its ranks in Vinnie Shahid. Hunter was moved from starter to bench player. He played in only 23 games and was hampered by a nagging wrist injury. That injury caused him to miss 11 games in 2018-19. However, Hunter was still solid, averaging seven points per game and shooting 40 percent from deep.
“It’s all about moving on. There are going to be some hard times and some adverse times,” Hunter said of his mindset following last season’s frustration. “Whatever I can do next to help not only myself but this program, that is what I try to keep my mindset at.”
Now, in his junior season, Hunter has found himself another new role. That role is one of being a sparkplug of energy for the Bison off the bench. He has elevated his play on the defensive end which paves the way for success offensively. Hunter has scored in double figures eight times in 2019-20, including a 20-point takeover against Purdue Fort Wayne on February 1.
Hunter was known for his defense in high school and he has stated in the past that it helped him get to NDSU in the first place. While the rest of the Bison roster is pretty much set in their role on the team, Hunter’s is always changing. For him, it’s all about providing whatever is needed for the team.
“I do talk to coach every year and all I ask him is ‘what can I do to help this team the best way I can?’,” Hunter said of establishing his role on the team. “He sits down and explains it to me and what he wants from me and I try to execute it to the best of my ability. It’s all about doing whatever it takes.”
It is that attitude that has made Cameron Hunter such an important piece to the 2019-20 Bison, who are looking to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this season. However, many are expecting the Bison to return which is a far cry from a year ago. Hunter says the team has not once changed their mindset despite the team’s expectations changing radically.
“Our mindset has kind of been the same as last year. We still have that chip on our shoulder, we’re still hungry and we still feel like we left more out there than we should have last year,” he said. “We come every day ready to work, ready to get better. We have to know that even though it says we’re number one on paper, we still believe there is more for us to do and prove.”
Along with enhanced expectations come a more engaged fanbase. Bison basketball fans are as loyal as they come, but there is a renewed sense of energy inside the Scheel Center these days. For Hunter and the Bison, there is nothing better than a big, engaged crowd.
“It’s big time. We feed off their energy, especially at home games,” Hunter said of Bison fans. “When they are there and they’re loud and getting into it, that makes us play better. Fans are a big part and we love seeing the SHAC packed.”
Anyone who watches this year’s Bison team will see Hunter’s defensive ability. Not only is he often tasked with guarding the opposition’s best guard, but he routinely frustrates his opponent thanks to his physicality and pesky defensive ability. While Hunter is one of the driving forces on defense for NDSU, the Bison as a team have a renewed sense of energy defensively.
Statistically speaking, North Dakota State is the best defensive team in the Summit League. The Bison are only giving up 66.4 points to opponents this season, the best mark in the conference. They are also holding opponents to just 43 percent shooting.
Hunter says defensive improvement was a key focus before the season.
“In the summer, we talked about our defense a lot. Last year, we thought we could have pressured teams a lot more and play a lot better defense overall. This summer, we all kind of had a talk, especially with the guards about pressuring a little more and focusing a lot more on our gaps and help,” Hunter said of the team’s attitude towards defense. “When we took the trip to Puerto Rico, we got to experiment with things on defense. From the summer, we’ve come a long way and we’re actually putting what we learned into action. We’re priding ourselves on defense.”
All of NDSU’s success so far this season will be moot at the Summit League Tournament. It is always the three most important and competitive games of the season for the Bison. Not only that, but any team can win on any given night in Sioux Falls. There is no better evidence of this than Western Illinois, an eight seed beating South Dakota State, a one seed in last year’s tournament. Hunter believes the Bison are ready for the moment and expects them to be at their peak in Sioux Falls.
“That’s what I like about this team a lot. We’re all a lot of basketball players in a sense where maybe we weren’t highly recruited coming out of high school or this or that,” Hunter said. “So when that big game comes, we’ve all dreamt about it and put in the work to be ready for that moment. We just have to keep that chip on our shoulder and never be satisfied, honestly.”
In the end, great college basketball teams are defined by what they do in March. There are plenty of elements that help make a team great, but anything can happen in March. In 2019-20, it’s hard to deny that Bison men’s basketball has greatness inside of them. They have the talent, work ethic and chemistry to thrive in Sioux Falls.
With players like Cameron Hunter providing much-needed services off the bench, the Bison are certainly primed to shine this March.
NDSU Men’s Basketball In March
– 10 North Central Conference Championships
– 4 Summit League Championships
– 4 NCAA Tournament appearances
– 2 NCAA Tournament victories