There would be no easing into it. As if replacing six seniors, and practicing in temporary facilities while $50 million in renovations to their new arena are completed, wasn’t daunting enough, North Dakota State faced an early season schedule that could shake the core of even the most seasoned of mid-major teams.
In their first four games, NDSU played three teams that ultimately qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The first two, against Texas and Iowa, didn’t go so well. The Bison were outscored by a total of 66 points. Not exactly what you’d call a confidence builder. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody outside of their locker room in November that thought the Bison would be playing in a second straight NCAA Tournament come March.
“A lot of ups and downs, we started in Iowa and Texas and got it handed to us pretty bad. No one thought we had a chance after that,” said A.J. Jacobson, who, after going a combined 1-for-19 against the Hawkeyes and Longhorns, has emerged as a key offensive weapon for the Bison. The freshman was named honorable mention all-conference and earned a spot on the Summit League all-tournament team for his performance in Sioux Falls, S.D., that helped send NDSU back to March Madness.
“We just kept getting better every day, that was our motto all year long, it was just a little bit better each day.”
After a bumpy 6–5 start, the Bison, picked fifth in their conference preseason poll, surprised everyone, roaring back to win 17 of their next 21 games. “There weren’t many expectations on this group,” said NDSU coach Dave Richman during an interview on The Jim Rome Show before the team left to play No. 2 seed Gonzaga in Seattle, Wash. “From what we lost last year with a team that won a game in the NCAA Tournament, there weren’t many expectations outside our locker room.”
How does a team go from such a rocky start to the blazing finish culminating with March Madness? Like Jacobson said, by getting a little bit better each day, that’s how. The players bought into Richman’s message. “We had a motto, just keep getting better and better, every day, little by little,” explained Richman, a native of Wahpeton, in his first year as head coach. “It’s a credit to why we’re here today.” NDSU is not the same team as it was in those early season losses.
For example, Lawrence Alexander has evolved from a ball-distributing point guard in his first three seasons to the leading scorer in the conference his senior year, averaging 18.9 points per game. Alexander is capable of putting up 25 points a game, which he’s done six times this season, including a pair of 31-point efforts. New players have also stepped up. Dexter Werner came from nowhere to become the conference Sixth Man of the Year. Paul Miller adds a perimeter threat to go along with Alexander and Jacobson.
While the daily improvement is visible, no more so than during their victory in the Summit League championship where they beat South Dakota State in front of 9,000 screaming Jackrabbit fans, it has been a grind, nonetheless. That grind, though, expedited the maturation process of an otherwise young team that has only one senior in Alexander.
“Definitely been a grind,” said Alexander. The Bison have received national attention for making the tournament despite lifting weights in a grocery store, practicing in a warehouse, and officing in an industrial park until their new facilities are finished in the fall of 2016. “We have weights in one area, practice in another. It’s always back and forth, we really didn’t have a consistent home to practice. But that’s one thing we wanted to do this year, was eliminate excuses. That’s a reason why we’re going back to the NCAA Tournament, we really didn’t complain.”
And there are no complaints from anyone in Fargo, or the rest of North Dakota, for that matter. Long gone is the team that was demolished by Texas and Iowa. In their place is a confident bunch that plans on giving the Gonzaga Bulldogs a run for their money. Sitting at the dais with the nets from the Premier Center draped around his neck after clinching a second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Alexander wasn’t about to back down. The Bison have come too far for that. “Once the ball goes up, it’s anybody’s game and it’s on a neutral floor. We got high expectations from last year and hopefully this year we can get to the Sweet 16.”