By Joshua A. Swanson
It took awhile to matriculate, but after years of planning, fundraising and probably even a little praying, North Dakota State basketball and wrestling finally has a new home. No more just a design, concept or fancy drawing on poster board, the Bison Sports Arena, the old airplane hangar on the corner of University Drive and 17th Avenue North, has undergone a dramatic renovation. This month, NDSU christens the crown jewel of the Summit League, the Sanford Health Athletic Complex/SCHEELS Center, aka, the “SHAC.” The SHAC gives NDSU the best arena in their league, and, perhaps, one of the grandest facilities in all of mid- major basketball.
“When I took the job in ’92 they told me they were going to do this,” chuckled Tom Billeter, who coached NDSU basketball from 1992-97, and is now the head coach at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I told probably 100 recruits this building was going to be built.”
From its sleek, glass facade running several stories high along the building’s eastern exterior overlooking University Drive, to the state-of-the-art practice facility bookending the complex’s southwest corner, it’s like trading in that beat up, old rambler your parents got you in high school that had what they called “character”– code word for cassette player and working breaks–for a Mercedes.
Goodbye to the days of making sure recruits don’t see the locker rooms at the BSA and hello to parading recruits and their parents through every nook and cranny at the SHAC, replete with everything from an athlete nutrition bar to an upscale players’ lounge and study area. Any disadvantage the Bison battled in recruiting because of their facilities becomes an instantaneous advantage over their competitors, particularly against the league’s other perennial powerhouse, South Dakota State.
Saul Phillips, who led the Bison to two of their three NCAA Tournament appearances, including the upset win over Oklahoma in March Madness in 2014, explained how the BSA presented its own unique set of challenges.
“Tim Miles brings in Mike Tveidt for a visit, and he says whatever you do, do not let him see the locker room,” began Phillips. Miles ushered the Bison into Division I and, after coaching NDSU, moved on to Colorado State before landing at the University of Nebraska. The Bison ended up getting Tveidt, the sharp-shooting forward from Pierre, South Dakota, who would be an all-conference performer.
“The whole visit, Tveidt’s like, can I see the locker room, can I see the locker room. We ran him all over the place. Tveidt commits. His first day on campus, he says ‘can I get changed, I want to shoot a little bit.’ ‘Sure, I’ll show you the locker room,’ [an assistant coach] opens the door, says too late sucker, pushes him in,” laughed Phillips, who himself left Fargo for Ohio University after guiding the Bison to the Round of 32 in 2014.
The new arena is also a first true “home court” for Bison head coach, David Richman, who was an assistant under Miles and Phillips. In his first two years, Richman and the Bison played at the SCHEELS Arena on the south side of Fargo while the BSA was being turned into the SHAC. In one of the most impressive stats in college basketball, NDSU was an incredible 26-1 at their temporary home.
“With the success that we’ve had, our brand is expanding a little bit,” said Richman after announcing this year’s recruiting class last April. While the SHAC is part of that, Richman cautioned that it won’t change NDSU’s approach or culture. “You add the renovation to the arena, those things are making us more appealing on the front side, getting us into some conversations. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure they understand what it’s about to be part of our culture and fit in here.”
The Bison are one of a handful of teams in mid-major basketball that have four straight 20-win seasons.
Remarkably, NDSU has played in the Summit League Tournament championship game each of the last four seasons, winning it twice to advance to the NCAA Tournament. “Our program is at an all-time high, four straight 20-win seasons, I think we have some good things going now, we want to keep feeding it,” Richman said. It’s the most successful stretch in program history as the Bison have piled up 93 wins during that span.
The Bison are picked to finish third in the conference this year, returning four starters in juniors Paul Miller and A.J. Jacobson and sophomores Khy Kabellis and Dylan Miller. The Bison also have the league’s best sixth man in senior Dexter Werner, and senior guard Carlin Dupree made strides in his playmaking ability and defense and is poised for a strong season.
The SHAC should only add to NDSU’s success, just as improvements to the Fargodome and football facilities have elevated the Bison football program. Now, it’s up to the fans, to Bison Nation, to do their part and support this team. Great teams have great fans. We’ve witnessed how the Fargodome has created a home field advantage that rivals any place in all of college football. Bison football has become an event, more than a football game. That must be the aim for the SHAC. Between the team’s recent success, a strong nucleus of experienced players returning, and, to top it off, a new arena, the Bison are well positioned to vault into the upper echelon of mid-major basketball programs and stay there—a perennial contender not just to make the NCAA Tournament, but to win a game or two in March Madness. It’s a long, long ways from having to hide locker rooms from recruits.
“For the fans out there that haven’t had a chance to walk in here yet, the bottom line is that it’s unbelievable,” said Phillips. From an idea to a reality, it’s a new day for Bison basketball, a day that was years in the making. “I was here through 65 different meetings about what this was going to look like. This was an idea, man, just an idea. It’s kind of weird to walk around here and say it came true.” Everyone up for the tip-off, the march is on!