Who knew? Maybe the North Dakota State men’s hoops team had a chat with their buddies on the football team about how to turn that chip on your shoulder into high-octane fuel after everyone says your season is over before the first game even tips off. Or, maybe new head coach Dave Richman called another new head coach across campus that did pretty well, Chris Klieman, for some sage advice. Whatever happened, Bison hoops caught lightning in a bottle.
Actually, maybe the lightning was already in the bottle and we just didn’t see it. Before the season, it was easy to say this team was in rebuilding mode. NDSU lost program heavyweights like Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, TrayVonn Wright, and everyone’s favorite crazy uncle, Saul Phillips. The three-man firm of Braun, Bjorklund, and Wright accounted for 56 percent of the team’s scoring. Throw in the contributions from the other departed seniors and 69 percent of your scoring is gone. The same goes for the rest of the statistical categories and production. The symbolism of the new basketball arena under construction, the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, provided a rich irony to it all.
The conventional wisdom said Richman was walking into a full-scale rebuilding project on the same scale. That’s exactly what folks covering the Summit League thought, too. They picked the defending league champs, the first team under the Summit League banner to win an NCAA Tournament game, to finish fifth in the conference. A familiar refrain – maybe the underlying theme for 2014–15 for Bison athletics – was that they simply lost too much. It was supposed to be a rebuild all over campus. New coaches and players, a new athletic director; in short, the Summit League poster boys, like their Missouri Valley Football brethren, were down and prone to a full-scale takeover.
But here’s the funny thing about conventional wisdom. It produces conventional results. And if there is one thing you should know by now about NDSU, we’re not a university satisfied with conventional results; no, sir. Conventional results are for conventional universities. We’re about extraordinary results. No stage is too big, no task too impossible, no glass ceiling unbreakable.
Here is what the conventional wisdom – which, if you think about it, by definition, isn’t very wise at all – missed about this basketball team. Culture doesn’t leave, and this “program” has established a winning culture. A “program” is not a flash in the pan, one-and-done run. Remember when Ben Woodside and Brett Winkelman brought the Bison to our first NCAA Tournament in 2009? The conventional wisdom then said “enjoy the ride” because that was the greatest team we’d ever have and it would be years before the Bison returned to March Madness. Turns out that was just the start of something big – the start of a culture.
Culture is both the cornerstone and proverbial brick and mortar. It can, and does, withstand the storm. Apple has thrived without Steve Jobs. Coca-Cola survived “New Coke.” The United States weathered the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and has notched 59 consecutive months of private sector job growth. Why? We can rehash the data forever, but behind all the data, is a culture. Culture doesn’t leave.
What did the data tell us? NDSU lost a majority of its production in all statistical categories. Ergo, the team was not going to be good. Yet, here we are, on the brink of postseason basketball in March. That is why you can lose 69 percent of your scoring and 55 percent of your rebounding, and still be in position to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Culture didn’t leave our football team, and we now know our men’s basketball team is building a similar, championship culture, i.e., we don’t rebuild, we reload. There was a winning foundation firmly established with two consecutive – three if you count this year – 20 win seasons. No matter what happens in Sioux Falls at the Summit League tournament, NDSU will be playing in its fourth straight postseason tournament. Lawrence Alexander had superstar capability, but was overshadowed by Braun, Bjorklund, and Wright. So much so, Alexander, known as “LA” to the Bison faithful, should win the Summit League Player of the Year award.
We didn’t see that. His former coach, Phillips, knew LA was a superstar. Richman knew what LA was capable of. Yet, again, nobody outside of the Bison locker room saw it. Just like nobody outside of that locker room saw A.J. Jacobson developing this early into a double-digit scoring threat. Same goes for Carlin Dupree, who has turned into one of the most athletic guards in the league. And what can you even say about Dexter Werner? The big man from Bismarck has become a fan favorite by tormenting opponents with his hustle and energy. Add in the veteran presence from Kory Brown and Chris Kading, this is a team that gets every ounce out of its parts.
The data could never have told you that. But culture could have, and culture is all too often overlooked. There’s an old adage that says culture eats strategy for lunch. It does. Well, the same goes for data. You can glean many valuable insights from data, hence the current love affair in sports and business with “big data.” Let me tell you something. Data is nothing more than the culture behind it. Data doesn’t sustain itself, nor does it exist in a vacuum. Data doesn’t make someone push harder in the weight room, or spend their summer nights shooting three-pointers or practicing post moves in a sweltering gym. Culture does that.
The Bison have established themselves as a perennial contender because of their culture. Who knew?
Everybody up for the tip off, the March Madness is on!
Swany Says is written by Maddock, N.D. native, proud NDSU alum and life-long Bison fan, Joshua Swanson.