Richman-led Bison are in their “element”
The Bison closed out their regular season with a bang last Saturday after Boden Skunberg hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Western Illinois 71-69. The Herd has now won four out of their last five games with their only loss coming on the road to Oral Roberts, the league’s top team, in a closely fought game in a tough place to play.
Despite the recent success, NDSU Head Coach David Richman and the team were not satisfied with their second half against the Leathernecks. As March is now here, despite the piles of snow on the ground, the 3rd-seeded Bison will have some fine-tuning to do before taking on the 6th-seeded South Dakota Coyotes, a team that has already beaten the Bison this season.
North Dakota State has had great success against South Dakota since the Coyotes joined the Summit League in 2011-12. In 26 meetings, the Bison are 19-7 against the Coyotes including eight of the last ten meetings. While the Herd used a big second half to knock off South Dakota on their home floor in early January, the Coyotes got to the Herd in Vermillion 71-62 on February 2nd.
The Bison were led in that game by Grant Nelson’s 13-point, 13-rebound double-double and Boden Skunberg’s 23 points. Meanwhile, South Dakota was led by seniors Kruz Perrott-Hunt and Tasos Kamateros who scored 23 and 15 points respectively.
Despite playing in the same league for 11 seasons prior to this season, the Bison and Coyotes have only met one time in Sioux Falls. That one matchup was in 2021 where #3 NDSU knocked off #2 South Dakota 79-75 in the semifinals. Rocky Kreuser, Sam Griesel, and Tyree Eady spearheaded the offensive load and combined for 50 points on the night. That win ultimately took the Bison to the championship game where they fell to Oral Roberts 75-72.
With such a young team, North Dakota State has very few players that have Summit League Tournament experience aside from Grant Nelson and Boden Skunberg. Nelson started all three games last season and averaged 15 points and 6.7 rebounds. His best performance was in the Bison’s 92-72 semifinal win over Oral Roberts dropping 20 points and 8 rebounds on 9-11 shooting. Nelson also played a good amount in the 2021 tournament averaging 23 minutes per game.
After playing sparingly in the 2021 tournament as a true freshman, Boden Skunberg saw increased time in last year’s tournament. Averaging 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds, Skunberg played 24 minutes per game off the bench over the three games last year. Aside from Nelson and Skunberg, only Andrew Morgan and Joshua Streit have seen postseason action. Morgan scored 3.0 points per game on 8 minutes a game in last year’s tournament while Streit played just a total of 4 minutes.
The Bison may need to rely on Nelson and Skunberg not only for their experience but also due to their incredible play as of late. Nelson is now averaging just a tick under 20 points per game in league play and is 2nd in the league behind ORU’s Connor Vanover in blocks at 1.7. Nelson is also leading the league in rebounds per game at 9.8.
The 6’11” forward was not only named the Summit League Peak Performer for the month of February but was also named 1st-team All-Summit League and All-Defensive Team. Nelson is just 16 points shy of 500 points on the season and would be the 21st player in NDSU history to accomplish the feat. Also, the junior is just nine points away from reaching 1,000 points for his career.
Skunberg is also a dynamic two-way player that has played well as of late. In league play, Skunberg is averaging 15.4 points per game on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits and has shown his skills with Saturday’s game-winner and a 30-point performance against Denver back on February 11. The 6’5” guard was named to the Summit League Honorable Mention team.
No matter whom they have on their roster, Richman and the Bison always show up in March. Since Richman took over as head coach in 2014, North Dakota State is 16-5 in the Summit League Tournament including 10-2 in their last 12 games and is 23-9 overall. The Bison have been to the Summit League Championship game in eight of the last 10 seasons, including four in a row. A Summit League title this season would be the 6th in program history, the most recent in 2020.
In 2014, Richman took over for Saul Phillips, who left to coach at Ohio, and the Bison lost their top three scorers in Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, and TrayVonn Wright to graduation. In Richman’s inaugural season, returning starter Lawrence Alexander stepped up by scoring 18.9 points per game and led them all the way to a Summit League title. Another example is 2019 when the Bison finished the regular season as the fourth seed but managed to win the Summit League Tournament and then went on to win a game in the NCAA tournament before falling to Duke.
With many departures after the 2022 season including five of the Bison’s top seven scorers to either graduation or transfer, the Bison had a lot of pieces to fill. Not only have Nelson and Skunberg stepped up, but the younger players have as well. One of the four true freshmen who has played a big role is guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas. Wheeler-Thomas is just the second true freshman for the Bison to start every conference game. There other was, coincidentally, Lawrence Alexander in 2011-12.
The Bison will look to make another run to a Summit League title by playing the final quarterfinal game on Sunday evening. The Bison and Coyotes will tip off at 8:30 from the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+ and can be found on the radio at Bison 1660AM and 107.9 The Fox.