North Dakota State’s basketball teams open conference play tomorrow night as the real season begins for each team. For the Bison men, the non-conference was a mixed bag of results, highlighted by the season opening win over Arkansas State at the SHAC, a comeback win over UC Davis at home and an impressive road win at North Dakota. NDSU fell to Xavier and Arkansas, but the home loss to UND still serves as an eye opener for this team. Dexter Werner was tremendous, scoring a career high 30 points, but the rest of the team was non-existent on that night. Dave Richman changed the lineup after that, as Werner returned to his sixth man role and the Bison found a rhythm after that.
Now it’s on to conference play and a place where many teams have struggled in the past, Frost Arena and South Dakota State. The Bison last won in Brookings in 2014, losing the last couple of years by 10 and 12 points. This Jacks team is a different group, led by a new head coach in TJ Otzelberger. SDSU challenged themselves by playing some quality opponents, California, Murray State, Northern Iowa and Wichita State. Last year’s freshman of the year, Mike Daum is playing like the player of the year, averaging 21 points a game. NDSU couldn’t contain Daum last year, scoring 15, 18 and 20 points in the three matchups. I’m curious to see how the Bison adjust to try and slow down Daum tomorrow night.
The Bison women host the Jacks tomorrow night, a team that despite losing the best player (Macey Miller) in the Summit League, is still the team to beat in my eyes. NDSU enters conference play with a 2-11 record, the two wins against non D-1 teams. With six freshmen being counted on, there were going to be growing pains with this team, but there have to be even more than head coach Maren Walseth was counting on. Taylor Thunstedt has been great, averaging nearly 17 points a game, Emily Spier and Sarah Jacobson have been solid, but the team’s inexperience has shown in the second half of games. From the Western Michigan game to the tournament in Texas, NDSU has had leads in the second half only to see those games slip away. The Bison need someone to step up and take over a game. That hasn’t happened yet.
The matchups with the Jacks have been as one-sided as you can imagine. Over the last 19 games, South Dakota State has won 17 of them, by an average of 24 points. The disparity between the two programs is stark, Aaron Johnston has built a mid-major powerhouse, going to the NCAA Tournament seven of the last eight years. He’s done it with South Dakota and Minnesota high school standouts, and he’s been able to get whoever he’s wanted. If NDSU wants to make this a rivalry again, first they need to win off the court, in the recruiting battles. SDSU and USD got two players out of NDSU’s backyard over the last couple of years, Madison McKeever from Win-E-Mac (Minnesota) is averaging 8 PPG as a freshman, while Wahpeton’s Tylee Irwin is on pace to become a three-time all-state first team player. She signed with SDSU in November.
NDSU is young now and will be again next year. But Walseth needs her youth to grow up. And fast.