Two distinctly different North Dakota State men’s basketball teams were on display in the season’s opening week.
The first team, playing its season opener nearly 2,000 miles from Fargo, was sluggish and out of sorts. That team scored a mere 20 first-half points en route to a 73-56 dredging at New Mexico State.
Back at the Scheels Center this past Sunday, the second Bison team was explosive and lively, thumping UC-Santa Barbara by 19 points.
In the first two games of the season, it’s been two sides of the same coin for the Bison.
As was so often the case in the 2017-18 campaign, the NDSU offense was stagnant against the Aggies. Save for sophomore forward Rocky Kreuser, no one on the Bison cracked double-digits. The native of White Bear Lake, Minnesota shot 9 of 11 from the field and 5 of 6 from distance to pace NDSU with 23 points, the only firepower to speak of in the Southwest.
That edition of the Bison bore an uncanny resemblance with the aforementioned 2017-18 squad. A year ago, the offense frequently relied on moments of magic from Paul Miller when the rest of the team floundered. The same was the case Nov. 6 in New Mexico, with Kreuser reprising the role of scoring talisman.
Outside of Kreuser, only Sam Griesel, Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward found the scoresheet in a dismal first half. NMSU led by as many as 28 points midway through the second half, putting the game out of reach.
The Bison connected on a respectable 37 percent of their 3-point attempts, but the Aggies out-rebounded the Herd, outscored the NDSU bench and scored 17 points off turnovers.
The script flipped on Veterans Day against the Gauchos, as NDSU blew out the visitors 82-63.
Four Bison recorded double-digits, as Ward and Deng Geu paced NDSU with 16 points. Cameron Hunter and Jordan Horn chipped in 11 and 10 points, respectively. It was the type of balanced attack NDSU and head coach Dave Richman will need to see as the season progresses.
Throughout the contest, the Bison were more cohesive offensively. NDSU shot north of 49 percent from the field, an improvement of more than 13 percentage points from their opening loss.
A 15-point rally across the final 6:14 of the first half gave the Bison an eight-point lead at the break. The lead — which NDSU never relinquished — ballooned to a high of 22 thanks in large measure to a 15-0 second-half run.
“I think we shared it really well. The ball wasn’t sticking at any particular point,” Geu said afterward. “We kept swinging it back and forth and getting good looks.”
Without the luxury of a high-volume scorer, ball movement is imperative for the Bison to generate high-percentage looks. NDSU is at its best when its sharpshooters can take uncontested shots while the defense scrambles to recover. Fortunately, the roster is filled with players who can connect from distance. Jared Samuelson was sharp from 3 last year, with Hunter, Kreuser, Ward, Tyree Eady and Chris Quayle also proficient. Horn — who transferred from Siena — led the Saints in triples last year and will be a vital contributor as well.
“I like the way we all play. I feel like our games play well together, and I think we can really do some damage toward the end of the year,” Ward commented.
While the offense shined, the key for the Bison was an inspired defensive performance. The Gauchos led the Big West in scoring last year, but NDSU held them at bay.
“This was a Bison basketball win. (There are) two staples of our program: valuing the basketball and defending, and we did that at a high level against a very good offensive team,” Richman stated.
Moving forward, the next step will be for NDSU to coalesce and continue to develop its depth. Players such as Eady, Griesel and Horn appear to be settling into their bench roles. Meanwhile, Geu and Hunter will push for starting minutes. It won’t be an easy process, but it is a necessary growing pain for a team without a senior.
“We knew — win, lose or draw — these first couple of months, there are experiences these kids have to grow through on the court,” Richman explained.
The Bison have seven road games before they return to the Scheels Center Dec. 8 to face Eastern Washington. Between then and now, the Bison will continue to solidify their identity in anticipation of the Summit League season.