FARGO — A North Dakota State men’s basketball team that appeared to underachieve for a stretch in late November found something under its Christmas tree in December: A lineup that is working.
The Bison will take a run of four victories in their last five games into their Summit League home opener Thursday night, Jan. 2, against Western Illinois at Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex. It’s the back half of a rare doubleheader that has the Bison women playing the Leathernecks at 5 p.m., followed by the men’s teams at 8.
It took the nation’s leading scorer in Marquette’s Markus Howard to keep the Bison from winning five in a row. Howard had 32 points in an 82-68 victory over NDSU. Otherwise, the Bison have found their game in time for conference play.
“I think we’re starting off a little faster,” said junior guard Cameron Hunter. “A couple of those games early in the season we were starting off a little slow, and I feel like we’re picking that up and putting together a full 40 minutes instead of 30 or 32.”
Hunter was part of a lineup change after the Bison lost three of four games. He and sophomore Tyree Eady were inserted into the starting lineup along with senior forward Tyson Ward, senior guard Vinnie Shahid and junior forward Rocky Kreuser.
“It’s still the same old, same old,” Hunter said of his role. “Bring intensity and energy and whatever the team needs me to do. It’s a little switch up, but nothing really changes.”
The Bison, who struggled in November with their shooting, have seen the percentages rise. Hunter is shooting 42% from 3-point range and has 30 assists to just nine turnovers. The other four starters have gotten their overall shooting percentages to more than 40%.
“Cameron has great versatility, he can play the 1 or the 2,” head coach Dave Richman said of both guard spots. “He’s got the talent and athleticism to be a versatile player on both ends of the floor. I think his biggest asset is he’s just a basketball player.”
Injuries have also played a part in the new look. Sophomore guard Sam Griesel is out until at least the end of the month with a hyperextended knee and senior guard Jared Samuelson is sidelined at least two more weeks with a shoulder injury.
It’s meant a different look off the bench and that part of the Bison lineup has been productive, too.
True freshman Maleek Harden-Hayes, from Moorhead, sophomore guard Jaxon Knotek and senior guard Chris Quayle have bigger roles. Harden-Hayes has hit 5 of 9 3-pointers and has generally been a presence on the floor with his 6-foot-7 frame.
“He’s what we’re about on and off the floor,” Richman said. “As a coach, you can’t teach that length and athleticism. He has a terrific motor and because of injuries, has been thrust into a bigger role and he’s taken advantage of those things.”
So far in the Summit, nobody has the appearance of taking control of the league. Seven of the nine teams have between six and nine victories. Denver and Western Illinois have four wins, but the Leathernecks are coming to Fargo after beating the University of South Dakota.
“I don’t know if there’s that elite team,” Richman said.
On the women’s side, USD appears to be that elite team at 12-2 overall. Perennial contender South Dakota State is 9-6. The Bison are 3-10 after a league-opening 91-82 loss at Denver.