Picture this: March 10th, 2020, The Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Fans are in the stands, enjoying cold beverages, high fiving their neighbors and rooting on their teams in person at a live sporting event. On the court the NDSU men’s basketball team is dismantling their rival UND in the Summit League Championship game en route to a 89-53 victory, the court is stormed and players, coaches, their families and fans all celebrate the fact that their team is going dancing in back to back seasons for the 2nd time in their D1 history. If that sounds amazing, it’s because it was, I was there and it was glorious. However, the very next night 2 NBA games were postponed and a night later sporting events across the country were cancelled, the COVID era of sports began and NDSU’s hopes of pulling an upset in the NCAA tournament came to an abrupt halt.
Gone along with those hopes are NDSU’s two senior leading scorers, Mid-Major All-American and First Team All-Conference player Tyson Ward who is now playing professionally in Germany and First Team All-Conference and Summit League Tournament MVP Vinnie Shahid. Fellow seniors Jared Samuelson (25 mpg/6.3 ppg) and Chris Quayle (11 mpg/1.7 ppg) have also graduated and NDSU parted ways with junior key contributor Cameron Hunter (23 mpg/6.6 ppg) who opted to transfer and will be playing closer to home for DII Central Missouri. If that sounds like a lot, well, quite frankly that’s because it is.
A new season is now just a month away and with a new season brings new hope. Hopes of a “normal” season are likely already dashed as both non-conference and conference schedules have seen significant changes. With that being said, even a modified college hoops season is significantly better than any alternative. Hopes are also high for the NDSU men’s basketball team as despite the losses noted above, the cupboard is far from bare for the Bison. NDSU does return 3 starters led by senior big man Rocky Kreuser who averaged a career high 10 ppg and 6 rpg a season ago. Rocky’s ability to stretch the floor by shooting the 3 while also being able to muscle his way around the rim makes him a tough matchup in the Summit League. While he has great shot blocking ability, he does have a tendency to be too aggressive with it and get himself into foul trouble. Coach Richman will likely want him to be a little smarter on the defensive end this season to keep him on the floor as much as possible as he will be relied on to score. He will be joined in the starting lineup by junior forwards Sam Griesel and Tyree Eady. Griesel has battled through his first 2 seasons as a Bison where he has missed 11 games each year due to injury. He has played well when available however and came on strong towards the end of last year punctuating his sophomore season with an appearance on the Summit League All-Tournament Team. He is fully healthy heading into this season and appears poised to pick up right where he left off as someone who is very difficult to stop from getting to the basket. Eady has been a steady presence in the lineup over his first two years playing every game as a true freshman and all but 3 games a year ago while averaging 6.5 ppg in both seasons. For this team to get where it wants to go, getting Eady’s points per game average into double digits will be vital. It is very clear that Coach Richman will be looking for a much higher level of contribution from these three returning starters heading into this season.
In addition to the three returning starters, NDSU also returns three players who played key minutes in the rotation last season. Junior Jaxon Knotek showed flashes in limited time last year and could be primed for a breakout contribution year after being buried a bit on the depth chart in his first two seasons. His shooting ability was well documented coming out of high school but last year he showed the ability to the rim and more growth in that area of his game could be big for the Bison. Sophomore Maleeck Harden-Hayes was fun to watch in his limited time last year, he is full of raw athleticism, hustled every second he was on the floor and was consistently around the ball. He has great length and quick bounce and it led to him leading the team in rebounds per minute played. With a full season under his belt and a chance to further refine his game, Harden-Hayes is another player that could really benefit this team in an increased role. Senior Tyler Witz is not a flashy player by any means but in his role of spelling Kreuser, he has been a great asset. He’s a big body who can finish around the rim and anchor the post on the defensive end. His role will likely not expand much beyond what it was last year but the NDSU coaching staff can rest easy that while Kreuser is resting for 8-10 minutes a game they have a solid option on the floor.
At point guard Coach Richman went back to the JuCo well that brought great success with Shahid and signed Donald Carter III from Scottsdale Community College. DCIII averaged 12 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a year ago and also started all 30 games as a freshman the previous year. He will have 2 years of eligibility left and will likely be handed the keys to make this engine go. DCIII did suffer an injury in the spring which could linger a couple of weeks into the regular season but with the start of the season pushed back he hopefully won’t be on the shelf for long. Potentially stepping into his role to start off the season and sharing the minutes going forward will be true freshman Desmond McKinney from Raytown Missouri. McKinney comes to the Bison after leading his team to #1 ranking in the Kansas City metro area and to the Missouri 4A state semifinals before the season was cancelled. With the lack of depth at the position McKinney will be the true freshman for the Bison most likely to see significant minutes.
With Coach Richman historically starting the season off with a 10 or 11 player rotation, he will be looking to fill a few spots in that rotation from a variety of potential options. Topping the list will be redshirt sophomore Jarius Cook. Cook was a highly regarded recruit for the Bison coming out of Brooklyn Park, MN but after playing limited minutes as a freshman due to depth ahead of him at the position and staring a similar situation in the face going into last season, Cook took a redshirt year last year leaving himself 3 years of eligibility. Richman has mentioned they still expect big things from Cook and this year could be his chance to make a splash. Also returning from a redshirt season will be 6’9” freshman forward Noah Christensen out of Breckenridge, MN. Christensen is a stretch forward with the ability to shoot and handle the ball and his style of play should fit this offense well. 6’6” sophomore bruiser O’dell (Biggs) Wilson will likely still be buried on the depth chart with Richman rarely playing more than one post player at time but with Kreuser and Witz being seniors this year, he will certainly have an opportunity to contribute in the near future.
The wild cards in what could be a wild card of a season in general while navigating the COVID-19 situation will be the other two freshmen joining McKinney on this year’s roster. Richman did a terrific job of keeping the local talent in state by signing the North Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year Boden Skunberg and North Dakota Mr. Basketball Grant Nelson. Both players were unanimous All-State selections. Skunberg is a 6’5” guard who was a scoring machine at Jamestown High School. As a 4 year starter he set the school record in both points (1,732) and rebounds (622) while averaging 28 points and 11 rebounds per game his senior season. Nelson is a 6’10” forward from Devil’s Lake who averaged 25 points, 18 rebounds and 5.7 blocks in his senior season while also leading his team in 3-pointers made and assists. He recorded 9 games his senior season with 20 plus rebounds and was also a state place winner in the high jump. There’s no doubt that both of these freshmen will be key players in the future of the Bison program but with what could be a very interesting season upcoming and no exhibition game currently scheduled to test the waters, whether either player contributes day one will be a storyline to follow. With the NCAA granting all winter sports players an additional year of eligibility due to COVID affecting the season, both players could contribute this season and still have 4 years of eligibility left going forward so everything is on the table for Coach Richman this year.
As of the writing of this article the preseason coaches poll has not yet been released and most major outlets haven’t released their preseason conference rankings. I can expect that we’ll see SDSU at the top of every preseason prediction and rightfully so as they return the conference player of the year Douglas Wilson along with the rest of their top 5 scorers from their conference record 13-3 team a year ago. Despite their regular season success the last two years however, the Jackrabbits only have two first round exits in the Summit League tournament to show for it. Coach Henderson will no doubt be hoping to change that this year. Outside of SDSU the conference looks pretty open for the taking with NDSU, USD, ORU, UND and Omaha all returning some key pieces but also losing some valuable players. Denver is a young squad that could develop but lost their leading scorer in Murkey so they will likely continue to struggle in conference as will Western Illinois who’s leading scorer Kobe Webster transferred out to Nebraska. The returning team to the Summit League this year in UMKC had a respectable 16-14 record last season but lost 4 of their top 5 scorers so will also likely not compete for a top seed. With all that being said NDSU should definitely have a fighting shot at the 2 seed, I expect the team to struggle a little bit out of the gate as all of the players adjust to their new roles on the team but Coach Richman’s goal is always to have his team playing their best basketball come March and once the team arrives in Sioux Falls for the 4 day Summit League Tournament anything can happen. While that mentality has not always been the most enjoyable for fans, myself included, as Richman has yet to secure a marquee regular season win, it has been effective guiding the Bison to a 13-3 Summit League tournament record and 3 NCAA tournament appearances in his 6 seasons at the helm.
NDSU’s full revised schedule has yet to be released but as of today they are slated to kick off the season in Milwaukee on November 27th with a multiple team event. The format of the event has also not been released but my assumption would be a round robin with Milwaukee, Ball State and Southern Miss being the opponents. The beginning of every college basketball season is exciting and this one will be no different, can’t wait to get it started. Go Bison!