Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
The concern about North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team was understandable, to a point. NDSU had seen their overall record drop for three consecutive seasons. They’d even seen their first losing record since Saul Phillips guided the Bison to a 14-15 record in 2010-11.
Still, though, such concerns were and remain short-sighted. Both head coaches of NDSU’s Division I era, coaches so good they were lost to bigger and better contracts with larger universities had the blood of losing seasons on their hands. It happened once to Tim Miles and twice to Phillips. Miles is considered by many to be the architect of the program and Phillips coached what is, to this point, the greatest Bison hoops team of all time.
Despite not having a senior on the squad, North Dakota State took on all comers in the non-conference portion of their schedule. New Mexico State (league champion), East Tennessee State, Gonzaga (league champion), UC Santa Barbara, Iowa State, Montana (league champion) and Missouri State (currently tied for 1st in the Missouri Valley) were (aside from what happens with Iowa State of the Big 12) all top three or better in their respective conferences. The Bison played ’em all, Missouri State was the only one of those games in Fargo.
That trial by fire left the Bison with a win/loss record that left much to be desired but toughened up these young members of The Herd.
A huge part of that turnaround was the play of JuCo transfer point guard Vinnie Shahid. Shahid’s presence on the team was perhaps a direct result of the transfer decision of former point guard Khy Kabellis. The Bison obviously missed their point man in ’17-18. It showed with a rough assist to turnover ratio and a 5-9 league record. That was NDSU’s worst mark in their league since ’01-02.
Shahid started out a little shaky, but as of this writing (two games left in the regular season), Shahid leads The Herd in points per game, assists and steals. He is the consummate point guard. As rare as it may seem for a JuCo transfer junior player to be selected as a team captain, Shahid accomplished just that. He was voted a leader in the offseason by his teammates, all of whom had basically just met him.
Leading this turnaround was an excellent stretch of basketball, starting with a home victory on January 6 over Dickinson State and finishing with a home win over Oral Roberts on Valentine’s day. Over that period the Bison won seven of nine, including three road victories. Road wins had been hard to come by.
It is the expectation that this season will not be treated like a stepping stone to next year, that the Bison will show up in Sioux Falls with winning on their mind. Dave Richman, after all, has a very impressive 6-3 record in the Summit League Tournament despite that tournament being a de facto home arena for South Dakota and South Dakota State.
Huge strides were made this season. The Bison beat Missouri State, who could be an NCAA tournament team in the Valley, they beat UCSB by 19. They were 10-3 in the SHAC and those three losses included 17-point (SDSU), 16-point (Purdue Fort Wayne) and a 12-point (Omaha) leads against the top teams in the conference. The Bison swept the Fighting Hawks for the first time since the schools started playing each other twice a season in Division I.
If the Bison don’t (or didn’t) accomplish their goal of winning the league and moving on to March Madness, if they stay together they’ll be the favorites in the Summit League next season and set up for the future moving forward.
The Bison have three teams ahead of them in the standings. South Dakota State loses multiple time Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum, Tevin King and Skyler Flatten. Omaha will say goodbye to their best guy in Mitch Hahn and starting wing Zach Jackson. Purdue Fort Wayne also says goodbye to the franchise, Jon Konchar. Joining Konchar in graduation will be Bison-killing sharpshooter Kason Harrell.
Certainly transfers out of NDSU or into other teams could affect the balance of power next season. Shoot, the Bison might be the number one or number two seed in the tournament and falter. That does happen. The overarching point is, though, that the corner has been turned. They’ve immediately returned to competitiveness in the Summit after a one-year absence and their future is extremely bright.
As I’ve mentioned, no one from this year’s team is projected to graduate or leave, but even beyond that, the future is exciting. Breckenridge High School’s Noah Christensen had interest from Creighton and Nebraska but chose to shut down his recruiting and stay “home” at North Dakota State. He’ll arrive on campus in the summer of ’19.
Key contributors Rocky Kreuser, Sam Griesel, Tyree Eady and Cam Hunter all have at least two more seasons to give the Bison, which is to say nothing of young talents Jordan Horn, Jaxon Knotek, Odell Wilson and Jarius Cook, the latter being one of NDSU’s biggest recruiting “wins” in program history.
The slogan from the marketing department (a slogan that came directly from the head coach) was to Embrace The Journey. I can understand why that has been difficult for some. Coming into this season, it was unclear where that journey was going. The team’s defensive identity, recent struggles and certainly the dominance of South Dakota State in the conference has not helped matters.
I pleaded with the good people of BisoNation to Pack the SHAC just a few months ago in this very column. Asked them to indeed embrace this journey. I would ask now that folks agree and buy in. It’s pretty clear to me where that journey is headed.