It was the outcome in the Summit League tournament that was expected for the North Dakota State men’s basketball team. The Bison took their season as far as they were capable, but in the end they ran up against a fresher, more rested and simply all-around superior South Dakota State team. By the time an ugly basketball game ended, the Herd fell to their bitter southern rival, 78-57.
The Jackrabbits, who had nearly been upset by Western Illinois two nights before, came out an inspired side. SDSU opened the contest with 10 unanswered points, half of which came from star Mike Daum. While the Bison eventually got on the scoreboard, it wasn’t until Cameron Hunter’s layup at the 7:31 mark of the half that they broke double-digits. By then, the Jacks had built a 15-point lead.
“We came out and ran into a buzz saw tonight,” Bison head coach Dave Richman explained afterward. The buzz saw came in the form of David Jenkins, Jr. and Daum, who combined to score more than half of their team’s points. Jenkins, Jr., like the Jackrabbits, rebounded from a rough game Saturday to post 23 points. The Summit League Player of the Year, Daum posted 19 points and 11 rebounds, a pedestrian double-double by his standards.
NDSU doubled their point total by the end of the half, but the Jackrabbits led by 18 when the horn sounded. Still, a miniature 6-0 run was cause for optimism for the exhausted Bison, who had trailed by as much as 24 at points in the half.
Coach Richman emerged from the locker room with a tactical change, which paid immediate dividends. Both Spencer Eliason and Rocky Kreuser had matched up with Daum in the first frame, but Richman deployed senior A.J. Jacobson to cover the big man. While Daum had a three-inch and 40-pound advantage on Jacobson, the forward defended admirably in NDSU’s small lineup.
The change paid off immediately for the Bison. An 11-1 run ensued, with Jacobson, Paul Miller and Tyson Ward contributing. The blitz forced SDSU skipper T.J. Otzelberger to call a timeout, and within two and a half minutes, the Jacks sprung back out to an 18-point edge.
“Coach Richman did a great job of switching things up. (It was) something that we haven’t seen, five guards start up there,” Daum commented. “I thought they did a great job when they switched it up, but our guys did a great job of just sticking to our game plan and doing what we do best,” he continued. Otzelberger echoed the same sentiment as well.
The Bison never drew back within single-digits. In a span of four minutes beginning with under 10 to play, an 18-2 Jackrabbits run saw a 14-point lead balloon to a 30-point lead.
The singular highlight — if one can be taken from a 21-point loss — came on a meaningless basket in garbage time. Miller contorted his way across the lane as he had done countless times in a Bison uniform and sank the floater. The two points vaulted him out of a tie for fifth place with Joe Regnier on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,719 points. It was his final collegiate bucket.
In truth, the outcome against the No. 1 seeded Jackrabbits was about all that could have been expected of the 2017-18 Bison in the tournament. The team was chronically inconsistent this season, and it was clear from the early going against SDSU that there was nothing left in the tank for the 15-17 squad, the first losing team the school has had since 2010-11.
Richman boiled the season down to one adjective. “How would I describe this year? Frustrating,” the fourth year head coach said. “You saw what we’re capable of last night (in the quarterfinal victory over Fort Wayne). Plenty of excuses and plenty of things to go around why I think we weren’t able to maintain that consistency.”
In spite of graduating two 1,000-point scorers and a player with a year of eligibility remaining in the form of Miller, Jacobson and Eliason, Richman expressed anticipation to turn the page and begin a new season with up and coming players. “I like the parts we’ve got coming back; I like some of the parts we’ve got coming in,” he stated. “I’m excited about Tyree (Eady). I think you’re going to see a really talented, really better version of Rocky Kreuser next year. I think Deng Geu gained some confidence this year. We’ve got some parts we feel good about.”
Still, next year will be critical for Dave Richman. He’ll be entering the final year of his five-year contract, needing to prove his worth as the program has seen a dip in wins in each of his four seasons at the helm. The North Dakota native will have returning players Eady, Hunter, Geu, Kreuser, Ward, Jordan Meidinger, Jake Mertens, Dylan Miller, Jared Samuelson, Chris Quayle and Nnamdi Van Dulm at his disposal to chart NDSU’s next ascent in the Summit League.
Additionally, Jarius Cook and Jaxon Knotek have signed on with the Bison for the next season. Vinnie Shahid will transfer in from Western Nebraska Community College as well. Richman hinted that he will be seeking to stabilize the post for NDSU, using his two available scholarships to do so.
“I’m very confident in the direction we’re moving. Nothing needs to be fixed, just a couple things need to be cleaned up a little bit,” Richman believes.
With room to improve and a suddenly young squad, all eyes turn to 2018-19.