At 3-9 with only 1 of those wins coming against a D1 opponent, saying the NDSU Men’s Basketball team’s out of conference performance was underwhelming would be putting it lightly. Coach Richman nor his players are ones for excuses and obviously would have preferred better results but if you’ve watched this team from the beginning of the season until now, there’s some reason for optimism as we head into the start of the conference season.
First, let’s look at what led to a 3-9 start. It was going to be an uphill battle for the Bison regardless of anything else going on just with the schedule that awaited them to start the season, opening at #10 Arkansas and #5 Kansas was a tall task in itself and with a team relying on some true freshman for some heavy minutes and the returning players in completely new roles things went about as you’d expect in those games. When it started trickling forward into additional games is when Bison fans started to wonder where this team might be headed this season. There was long stretches of poor defense, a lot of turnovers, many of the mental mistake variety and then compounded on top of that were long scoring droughts where the team couldn’t seem to buy a bucket. It wasn’t all bad as there were definitely flashes of what this team could be, like scoring 57 points in the 2nd half against Pacific and many of the guys on the team had themselves a good individual game here or there but there were never enough consistent individual performances to counteract the inconsistencies of the team performance.
There were a ton of tough circumstances this team went through early on, Demari Wheeler-Thomas was out nearly the entire offseason with an injury and only was able to start practicing late in camp, didn’t play until the 2nd game of the season and when he did hit the floor, looked very rusty his first few games in a Bison uniform but has turned the corner and played very well of late. Tajavis Miller also had a foot injury early in camp and was still coming back from that. 3 of the 5 returning players in Grant Nelson, Boden Skunberg and Andrew Morgan were going from being role players to the focal part of the opponents defensive game plan and also in doing so Grant missed multiple games with an ankle injury and Boden missed one game with a hand injury. Dez McKinney still hasn’t played this season coming off an ACL tear near the end of last year. All of this left the team with inconsistent rotations and different guys trying to do more or less night in and night out. Jacari White did not play well early on, was relegated to the end of the bench for a few games but then when given an opportunity with Boden out with the injury came back into the lineup with a flurry. His return to playing well has left Lance Waddles with significantly less minutes than he had been playing but with Tajavis Miller out against Waldorff he got in the game and scored 14 points in 20 minutes leading the team with 4 three pointers made. Coach has mentioned that at some points throughout this season weather it’s due to injury or foul trouble or illness or whatever it might be, any one of these guys may need to be relied on for important minutes so it’s really good to see everybody start to settle in. We’ve reached that time of year where Coach Richman starts to shrink the rotation and really rely on the top players to play a more significant chunk of the minutes so it becomes even more important that these guys that lose some minutes when the rotation shrinks stay ready to go and locked in at all times.
As we head into conference play it’s looking like the 8 man rotation will be as follows:
Dez McKinney / or Luke Yoder until Dez is ready to roll
Sam Hastreiter – Grant Nelson is going to play significantly more minutes during conference play but he does have a tendency to get into foul trouble here and there so Sam’s minutes will vary with Grant’s ability to stay on the floor
Lance Waddles – may see spot duty if somebody else is having an off night or if there’s foul trouble or an injury at one of the guard spots
Luke Yoder – has been decent in spots but Dez is definitely going to take his minutes away as he works back
So what can we expect out of this rotation heading into conference play. Well if you want to know what this team is capable of, go back and watch the Montana game from about the 15:30 mark until about the 2 minute mark of the first half. During this stretch NDSU outscored Montana 34-17 and played very well in all phases of the game. Unfortunately, the slow start and poor end to the first half coupled with a long scoring drought in the 2nd half and being without Tajavis Miller is what led NDSU to losing that game and those inconsistencies are what this team is trying to avoid. But if this team can play 40 minutes the way they played those 14 minutes, everything they want to achieve is out there in front of them. We saw a great display of it as well in the game previous against Portland, it was the teams most complete game of the season and they got a great road win all with Grant Nelson on the sideline. I expect this team to continue to grow and develop the rest of the season and there’s no doubt this team is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when they opened the season on November 7th.
The other big positive going for this team is that it appears many of the other Summit League teams have been going through similar growing pains. Oral Roberts seems to be hitting their stride as of late but SDSU, USD and Denver who were the other teams expected to contend at the top have all had their issues to start the season. St. Thomas has looked good in spots and not so good in others and most of the rest of the Summit League is facing lots of change either with coaching staffs, rosters or both and are having a lot of the same inconsistencies NDSU has had. What it should do is make for one heck of a conference basketball season, the teams that figure it out the quickest will definitely have a leg up but it’ll all come down to the team that peaks in March as to who will go dancing and if history has anything to say about it, don’t count out the Bison in December. It’s officially conference basketball season all, let’s get it started!!!