Having just won the Sun Belt Invitational Tournament and coming off a victory over Jamestown, the North Dakota State men’s basketball team appeared to be reaching conference play at the right time. That notion has not been further from the truth as the Bison have stumbled to open the Summit League campaign.
Wins over South Dakota and Oral Roberts have been the lone highlights in conference play. The victory over the Golden Eagles was followed by a loss to North Dakota, giving the Bison a 2-4 mark since the calendar turned.
Their play in the second half has been the make-or-break distinction in their recent skid. In their four losses, NDSU has shot just 39.6 percent from the field in the second half. By comparison, in the second half of their two wins the Bison have shot 47.8 and 60 percent, respectively.
Opponents have gotten the better of NDSU shooting the ball in the second half, connecting on 49 percent of their attempts. This disparity was evident in the Bison’s latest loss against Fort Wayne. The Mastodons outscored NDSU 52-37 in the second half; the product of a 10-0 run that took advantage of the Bison’s dry spell on the other end.
The ability to defend 3-pointers has also dipped for the Bison in recent weeks. Their latest four losses have seen NDSU allow opponents to make 42.3 percent of their shots from behind the arc. What was once a strength at the beginning of the season has become a weakness in 2018.
Ultimately, the Bison give the appearance of a team lacking an identity.
Since head coach Dave Richman was promoted in 2014, NDSU’s points per game mark has risen from 64.9 to its present rate of 75.2. The added offense has been more of a matter of necessity than a philosophical shift.
In order to keep pace with a conference that has become higher scoring, the Bison have drifted from their hard-nosed defensive style to match the Summit League’s evolution. Good, bad or indifferent, it is a strong departure from the squads that reached the NCAA Tournament.
The model the Bison have used to achieve this, though, is simply unsustainable. Senior Paul Miller has taken on the majority of the scoring output in the past two years. Last year, Miller led NDSU with 16.7 points per game. Three of the next four players behind him, Dexter Werner, Khy Kabellis and Carlin Dupree, all departed.
The time for the Bison to right the ship is now, as it has become increasingly clear that this may be the last year to make a serious run at a Summit League title.
Miller, who is averaging 18.9 points per game and is in line for his second first-team All-Summit League nod, will depart after the season. He will be joined by running mate A.J. Jacobson, who has shot 50 percent from the field this year.
Looking ahead, the only two players who appear ready to take over the scoring load Miller and Jacobson will leave behind are Cameron Hunter and Tyson Ward. Hunter has shown flashes of excellence in his redshirt freshman season, scoring a career-high 35 points against South Dakota. Ward’s second season has seen an uptick in many major offensive categories.
Beyond those two, it is anyone’s guess as to who else will step up for NDSU. Jared Samuelson has taken advantage of his limited playing time, but it is difficult to see how his scoring numbers — 4.6 points per game — will extrapolate.
Fortunately, having played less than half of their conference slate, the Bison have the chance to gain steam down the stretch. The remaining nine games, removing the cupcake against Mayville State, will be telling for the future of the Bison men’s basketball program. Of course, a deep Summit League tournament run would dispel most doubts regarding the horizon for NDSU.
How those contests, and the ensuing trip to Sioux Falls, play out, will give fans a glimpse into the direction of the program.