As it was, the 2018-19 North Dakota State men’s basketball season was going to be a challenge. With A.J. Jacobson and Paul Miller graduating, the Bison had anticipated losing over 3,000 career points of production.
Then the floodgates opened.
It began with NDSU’s starting big-man Spencer Eliason announcing he would pursue medical school and forgo his final season of eligibility. Then junior Dylan Miller was suspended for a violation of team rules and as a result did not appear in a single game after Feb. 24. Miller’s suspension set in motion a downfall that ultimately led to his departure for Minnesota State-Mankato after the season concluded.
That wasn’t the end of it though: freshman Jake Mertens and Nnamdi Van Dulm also left the program at season’s end. Mertens will play for Minnesota State-Moorhead and Van Dulm has not committed to another school. The program had gone from planning on losing two stars to hemorrhaging and watching six players walk out the door.
Factor into these inauspicious circumstances that head coach Dave Richman is in the final season of his contract and needs to prove his worth and you have a tonic for drama.
In truth though, this year’s slew of departures is just indicative of the new normal that has taken hold during Richman’s tenure in Fargo — and in fairness, across college basketball. The advent of what is essentially free agency in college hoops has hit mid-major programs such as NDSU particularly hard.
A number of noteworthy players have left NDSU since Richman was hired on April 8, 2014. His first recruiting class took the floor in the following year, after which the dominoes began to fall. After the 2016-17 season, Malik Clements, Blaze Irwin, Khy Kabellis, Zach Rammelt and Evan Wesenberg transferred. The subsequent departures of Mertens, Miller and Van Dulm bring the number of players departing before graduation in the Richman era to 13, eight of whom were his recruits.
The fact that players are transferring from NDSU isn’t the issue, it’s that players are leaving for inferior schools. With the exception of Kabellis, who left for Pacific of the Western Athletic Conference, all have moved to non-Division I universities. Irwin, who is studying architecture, remains enrolled at NDSU.
This stern reality calls into question the quality of recruiting taking place on Richman’s watch. While non-basketball reasons may have factored into their respective decisions to leave NDSU, the fact that six of his own recruits eventually wound up leaving for Division II or NAIA institutions represents a failure to properly assess top-shelf talent.
With North Dakota joining the Summit League in the upcoming season, acing the scouting of in-state talent becomes even more imperative. Bringing in the best local talent will directly impact wins and losses in conference, pushing the stakes even higher.
In the immediate wake of Miller’s defection, the Bison find themselves with a hole underneath the basket. Deng Geu and Rocky Kreuser are the tallest returning contributors at 6’8″ and 6’9″ respectively. Weighing 20 more pounds than Geu likely makes Kreuser the superior option at power forward in Richman’s three forward lineups. The head coach seldom features a true center in his rotations, and the only one on the roster is seven-foot redshirt freshman Jordan Meidinger, who nursed a leg injury all season.
The Bison are in dire straits with respect to their roster construction. Departures have left NDSU a perpetually young team, which will be especially true of the roster for next season which presently does not feature a senior. The cycle has been vicious: bring in new prospects, watch them leave, then fill their void with more young players.
After winning the conference title in 2014 and 2015, the Bison appeared to be a program on the rise in the Summit League. However, the team has regressed the point that they posted a losing record last year and are stuck in a mire in the middle of the conference.
With the South Dakota schools racing away as two of the best teams in the mid-major scene, NDSU is left behind to play catch-up. The season feels lost even before the balls have been rolled out for the first time, and with Richman’s future in limbo, it’s possible the Bison will be back to square one ten months from now with a new coach at the helm.
This season may prove to be the most foundational in the Division I era for the Herd. Whether the Bison continue their Summit League free fall or begin climbing back to the top ought to be indicative of the program’s success for years to come.