Bison head coach proves himself with conference championship
As recently as two-and-a-half months ago, the thought of winning three games in Sioux Falls was far off anyone’s mind. The calendar had turned to January, and the North Dakota State men’s basketball team stood 4-8 against Division I opposition.
The Bison looked stagnant and lacked direction. A second-half meltdown against doormat Denver Jan. 16 meant a 2-3 start to Summit League play. In other words, it looked like the 2018-19 edition of Bison basketball was a repeat of the season prior.
To make matters worse, the hot seat that head coach Dave Richman sat on was warming. Entering the season, legitimate questions lingered regarding NDSU’s trajectory in the face of Richman’s swirling contract uncertainty. A 2-7 start to the season only fanned the flames, as the Bison teetered closer to Summit League dormancy than supremacy.
NDSU gave up a whopping 50 second-half points to a Pioneers team that was well on its way to a 3-13 record in league play. The loss was seemingly emblematic of the larger issues plaguing the Bison: the team was too young, and too undisciplined to contend in the conference.
Internally, Richman’s faith never wavered. The stoic head coach knew long before anyone else that he had a championship caliber roster, even without any senior leadership.
Richman isn’t the type of coach to light up a room with a bombastic personality. Quite the opposite, a press conference with the head coach is strong on nebulous, esoteric terms such as “process” or “moment.” While such language projects as aloof or terse, it served as the basis for NDSU’s ethos for the season: embrace the journey.
That journey didn’t begin in Fargo; it started in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The town of 15,000 is home to Western Nebraska Community College, where Richman discovered his de facto senior leader, Vinnie Shahid.
“When Vinnie Shahid walked on campus, things changed,” Richman explained after Shahid’s 20 second-half points against Omaha clinched the Summit League title. “He brought joy to a lot of situations, whether it’s an early morning workout or a tough loss. Not that there’s joy in that, but you can bounce back quicker from that.”
If any player could serve as the figurehead of Richman’s process, it was Shahid. The Minneapolis native’s road to Division I hoops was more sinuous than his teammates’, with a two-year stint in Scottsbluff between Hopkins High School and NDSU. Shahid embodied the process, and as a result, his teammates voted him team captain. Fast forward to March and Shahid was named the Summit League Newcomer of the Year.
The roster assembly still needed a final key cog. For that, Richman went back to Nebraska, this time targeting Lincoln’s Sam Griesel.
The only issue was Richman wasn’t alone this time. Among others, South Dakota had targeted Griesel. Coyotes head coach Craig Smith sealed the deal with Griesel, but once he defected for Utah State, Griesel’s recruitment reopened.
All Richman needed was another shot to sell Griesel on his process. Richman said he “swung and missed” in his initial recruitment of the Nebraskan, but the coach was rewarded for his patience. In Griesel, Richman unearthed a gem. Griesel made an immediate impact as a starter and is a bona fide centerpiece moving forward.
So too is Griesel evidence of Richman’s difficult to define process. Throughout the season, shooting was a main focus for Griesel. In Sioux Falls, his efforts culminated in a 20-point performance against Western Illinois in the semifinal.
With the roster in place, the process was in full swing. The 2-7 start and the Denver debacle gave critics ample ammunition against Richman in what was effectively a contract season. Still, the head coach knew that while fans were concerned with the destination, the journey was moving in the right direction.
Knowing that the accumulation of experiences, positive and negative, would be critical to his team’s growth, Richman took the long view. The loss in the Mile High City was no doubt a backbreaker. Worse yet, David Jenkins Jr.’s buzzer-beater seemed a debilitating blow. Still, even when it looked like the dam might blow, the program still revolved around the process.
Richman’s patience was rewarded in the Summit League tournament, where he pushed all the right buttons en route to his second conference crown. At every turn in Sioux Falls, Richman delivered. Be it the rotation of bench players such as Deng Geu and Jordan Horn or a critical timeout to quell Omaha’s momentum in the final, Richman was nothing short of masterful in his coaching.
Of course, the players still needed to execute. The season-long journey was an exercise in maturation, and the Bison’s development showed. Tyson Ward and Jared Samuelson buried Oral Roberts with a combined 40 points. In the next two days, Griesel and Shahid paced NDSU to their next two wins.
Omaha would not go down easily though, as a second-half surge drew them within a basket of the Bison. NDSU had seen this story unfold before though.
“The same exact situation happened at Denver. At the time, we weren’t mature enough, weren’t experienced enough to handle that. It just spiraled out of control,” Richman explained. “In our biggest moment, we were able to execute with poise, stay the course and not let that run affect us.”
In the end, the process won out, vindicating what Richman had preached all year. By securing the title, Richman proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a deft recruiter, savvy tactician and capable of molding 18 to 22-year-olds.
Questioning abated, Richman’s performance clearly warrants a contract extension. That discussion can be tabled for another day, however. The journey has been embraced and the nets have been cut. Now — as Richman would want — it’s time to enjoy the moment.