The Summit League men’s basketball season is drawing to a close as the North Dakota State Bison end their campaign with two road games against Western Illinois and Omaha. While the seeding for the approaching conference tournament is largely set, the upcoming week is critical for each of the eight teams seeking a March Madness bid.
Perhaps for none more so than the Bison.
The Herd squandered a chance at a top four seed — and a chance to seize late-season momentum — when they lost 84-72 to Fort Wayne on senior day.
A win would have kept them in contention for the No. 3 or 4 seed, but the loss saw them fall to 4-8, confirming a sub-.500 conference record for the first time since 2010-11. The defeat stung even further because it cemented a position in the lower half of the bracket for NDSU.
The Bison are in a hotly contested battle for the No. 5 seed, with both Omaha and Oral Roberts in play for the spot. The Mavericks are tied with the Bison at 4-8, and ORU sits a half game back at 4-9.
Omaha has two more games remaining, hosting both Oral Roberts and NDSU. The Golden Eagles’ final game is against UNO. The only way for the Bison to surely lock up the No. 5 seed is to win both of their last two games.
Tiebreaking scenarios become particularly mind-boggling if the Bison split their final two games. When it is all said and done, the Bison would win an individual tiebreaker with Omaha or Oral Roberts thanks to their win over South Dakota earlier in the season. The triumph would ultimately differentiate the Bison if they find themselves tied on head-to-head record with either side, which they already are with ORU.
A three-way tie rears its ugly head if the Bison defeat Western Illinois but fall to Omaha, and if Omaha loses to Oral Roberts Thursday night. In that instance, each of the three sides would finish the conference slate 5-9. It would be the Golden Eagles, with a 3-1 record against the Bison and Mavericks emerging as the fifth seed. NDSU and Omaha would rank sixth and seventh, respectively.
Beyond the convoluted seeding scenarios, the Bison’s two last games are far more significant in that they offer one last chance to right the ship heading into the tournament. NDSU has failed to gain any traction in this tumultuous season, never winning more than three conference games in a row.
Five straight Summit League losses, broken up by a win against Mayville State, took the wind out of the sails for the Bison. NDSU had been 4-3 in conference play with a high caliber win over the Coyotes, but have since been unable to find their footing.
The last chance to end the season on a positive note comes this week. A win over the Leathernecks is fairly likely, but far from a guarantee given NDSU’s recent string of results. After that, a critical game with Omaha lies Saturday to end the season.
If the Herd are unable to win the upcoming contests, it will not matter which seed they earn because without any momentum it will be nearly impossible to pick up steam in the tournament.
Paul Miller told what remained of the 3,348 Bison fans after the loss to the Mastodons that, “We’ll all be dancing together in a couple weeks.” His prognostications will fall short if NDSU fails to assert themselves in the stretch run.
In the 2017-18 Summit League season, where all eight teams receive berths to the conference tournament in Sioux Falls, there is no such thing as a must win game — that is until March 3. With that being said, the final two games of the Bison’s season are millimeters from falling into the do-or-die category.
The conference crown is still very much attainable for NDSU, but an uphill climb awaits them. Entrenched in the midsection of the conference means the Bison will have to play — and win — three games in three days to do so.
The best way to conclude what has been an up-and-down, roller coaster ride of a season is to finally take control and put together a win streak. As far as the Bison are concerned, the season starts now.