Less than one calendar year ago, 336 days to be exact, Dave Richman was named the 23rd head men’s basketball coach in North Dakota State history. On April 8, 2014, the Bison were not yet a month removed from their historic NCAA Tournament win over Oklahoma, but faced with what looked like a massive rebuilding project. Gone were three all-conference players in Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund and TrayVonn Wright. Gone was veteran coach Saul Phillips.
If that wasn’t daunting enough, the Bison would be displaced for the next two years. Their home, the old Bison Sports Arena, is in the process of being rebuilt into the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. New arena, new coaches, young team; no big deal.
To the surprise of many, with the exception of themselves, the Bison are on the cusp of another trip to the NCAA Tournament, the iconic March Madness that saw NDSU become America’s favorite Cinderella last spring. “You hear those expectations from a lot of different places, but I think there has been a culture established not just within Bison basketball, but within NDSU athletics,” explained Richman, a native of Wahpeton, who graduated from NDSU in 2002. That culture has propelled the Bison to league heavyweight status as they’ll play in their fourth championship game in only their seventh year in the league.
Richman started his coaching career with the Bison as a student assistant under Ray Giacoletti. In his 11th season in Fargo, he’s climbed the ranks from student assistant to graduate assistant, assistant coach to associate head coach, and now, head coach. Richman was elevated to head coach by then athletic director Gene Taylor, after Saul Phillips left for Ohio University.
At Richman’s introductory press conference, Taylor said that after talking with Phillips and former Bison coaches Greg McDermott (Creighton), Ben Jacobson (Northern Iowa) and Tim Miles (Nebraska), their recommendations were unanimous. “They all kept telling me that if I didn’t hire this guy, it would be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” Taylor’s decision has paid immediate dividends as NDSU tied South Dakota State for the regular season conference championship. Richman, like Phillips before him, was named the Summit League Coach of the Year, a rare achievement for a rookie head coach.
“Expectations are one thing, but I think our guys have a different level of expectations,” said Richman after beating Oral Roberts to advance NDSU to the conference championship game for the third straight year. The expectation for the Bison, far from the fifth place preseason poll position bestowed upon them, was to get back to the NCAA Tournament. “Dave asked me at the beginning of the year, ‘What goals do you want to accomplish?’ And I said, ‘As a team, I want us to get first place in the conference and get back to the NCAA Tournament,’” said Lawrence Alexander, the team’s only senior.
For his part, Richman knew early in conference play that his team was capable of something special. In the first eight days of 2015, the Bison reeled off three straight wins against ORU, SDSU, and Omaha by a combined total of 12 points. The victories gave NDSU a fast, 3–0 start to league play and set the tone for the remainder of the season. “You go back and look at the first three games in the league, we play these guys [ORU] in a tight one, we play South Dakota State in a tight one, then we go to Omaha in a tight one and we win those games,” Richman said, describing each win as a confidence builder. “As a young group, you start building confidence in that.”
While the Bison grinded out two wins to reach the title bout, the Jackrabbits have won with ease, demolishing Western Illinois 87–50 in the quarterfinals and beating South Dakota 78–65 to reach the championship in a game that was much more lopsided than the final score. The teams split their regular season games, each winning at home. To beat SDSU, Alexander says defensive stops and free throws will be key. “We’ve got to stick to our routine, most importantly, I think it’s going to come down to defensive stops, 50-50 balls, and making free throws.”
Keeping the Jackrabbits from getting off to another blazing start will also be critical for the Bison. SDSU built double digit leads early against both WIU and USD with each contest effectively over by halftime. The Jackrabbits led the Leathernecks by 29, and the Coyotes by 19, at halftime of those contests.
“They’re obviously playing very well, I think they’re feeding off the energy in the arena and they’re a tough card always,” said Richman when asked what the Bison need to do to take down SDSU in their backyard. The Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. is only 57 miles from SDSU’s campus in Brookings. “We’ll have to do a tremendous job locking in, contest some shots. The longer we can keep it a close one and make some plays down the stretch, which we’ve been fortunate enough to do this year.”
The game tips off at 8 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.