At the center of the men’s basketball team, both on and off the court, is senior forward Dexter Werner.
Taking up the role of the sixth man in his sophomore and junior campaigns, Werner became a vital contributor for the Herd. Now a senior, Werner’s role has increased.
While sharpshooting guards Paul Miller and AJ Jacobson do the most scoring, Werner hangs in the paint, scoring when called upon. His 11 points per game do not jump off the stat sheet, but his contributions go far beyond offensive production.
Defensively, Werner hunkers down below the net, drawing opponents’ largest players and gobbling up rebounds. His 7.5 rebounds per game leads NDSU and is seventh in the Summit League. His defensive prowess, while not easily quantified, doesn’t go without notice and is something the Bison could not do without.
Having won two Summit League titles and beaten No. 5 seed Oklahoma in March Madness, expectations for the Bison men’s basketball team have been elevated. Big Dex, as he is known to students and fans, takes a slow approach to handling these expectations.
“We have a very young team, so obviously we’ve been going game-by-game and just getting a little better,” Werner said.
Werner has also noted a culture change in the program.
“I think the culture has changed here. As far as being a mid-major school, it’s changed from having that good team every four or five years and then having to rebuild and get back. The expectation is to have those successes every year now,” he said.
The program’s culture change revolves around sustaining success.
“As the program’s gotten better, we get those better players in as freshmen, and so I think that helps us rebuild faster and the expectation is to maintain the level of success instead of rebuild it,” Werner said.
A seasoned veteran with the accolades to prove it, Werner explains the importance of experience by saying, “It definitely just helps you (to have) been there and done it.”
He noted that building success is like a chain reaction, that as older players succeed, younger players observe and learn, better equipping them to succeed down the line.
Dexter’s experience was on full display in the Bison’s recent matchup against the University of South Dakota. NDSU built up a sizeable lead, but the Coyotes rallied back in second half, tightening up the game into the final seconds. Werner was fouled with only seconds remaining, and he nailed both of his free throws to seal the game. Although he was the one with the ball in his hands at the stripe, it was all a team effort.
“They were really rolling, in that second half, and we were kind of cold,” Dexter said. “We had a couple of big shots from some guys, and then some defensive stops at the end. We got some stops that kept us in it and that’s what set us up for that last play. I was shooting the free throws, but it was 100 percent a team effort.”
After the victory over USD, head coach Mark Richman was filmed in the locker room celebrating with the squad and telling them they had a chance to be something special. Werner explained this, putting into context the other teams on which he has played at NDSU.
“I think all teams are different. They’re all special in their own way. Obviously we had that team in 2014 that beat Oklahoma and that’s a pretty special team because we (had) all those seniors and four of them are one thousand point scorers,” he said.
This year’s iteration of the team is very different though.
“We’re a very young team, so for us to be having the success that we’re having so far is what makes us special. I think that’s what he meant, to just keep building on it and keep improving,” he stated.
The Bison are currently 4-1 in conference play and sitting in first place, with USD and Fort Wayne nipping at their heels. But Dexter isn’t concerned much by what other teams are doing.
“I think it’s all about us, just keep doing what we’ve been doing, keep improving,” he explained. “Obviously, we’ve been 4-1 to this point, but there’s a lot of stuff to improve on, so just keep building on little things, just finding those nitpicky things that we can improve on as a team and not really focus on what other teams are doing.”
The Herd welcome the Mastodons and their high scoring offense to the SHAC on Thursday night. IPFW boasts the top scoring offense in the conference, averaging 84.6 points per game. NDSU’s defense is stout though, and Werner explained what type of performance it’ll take to bottle up their attack.
To stop the Mastodons, he said, “It’s definitely going to be a team effort, that’s gonna be a point of emphasis for us, so we’ve got to crank up our D. It’s gonna be a lot of group defense. It’s hard to guard people one-on-one, so (we have) to tighten up our game plan, and make sure we’re locking in on our defensive assignments and personnel.”
Dexter Werner has developed a cult following during his years in Fargo. But it wasn’t always easy for the big man.
“That redshirt year, and your first year or two in the program when you’re not seeing the court, that’s a big change from high school when you’re used to playing all the time. So, that’s definitely a tough mental challenge; to go into a program and then not see the floor. You start to doubt yourself a little bit, and it’s a long year, especially at college,” he commented. “It’s definitely paid off. It’s been enjoyable. I’ve just been soaking it in as much as I can.”
When asked to say if he was pretty popular, Dexter shrugged modestly and simply said, “Yeah.”
Hailing from Bismarck, Werner shares a hometown with Bison legend Carson Wentz. So as not to irk his teammate Jacobson, a graduate of Fargo’s Shanley High School, Dexter took the high road to answer whether or not he thinks NDSU’s best athletes come from the state capital.
“I’ll leave that one up for debate,” he said.
Undebatably, Dexter Werner is the most vital asset of a team poised to play in March.