SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Rocky Kreuser, 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds (245 pounds, .3 ounces if you count the sweet mustache Rocky's sported much of the season) dove for a loose ball midway through the first half of North Dakota State's Summit League semifinal victory over South Dakota on Monday night and did his best to destroy a table and some folding chairs sitting courtside.
One of the few lucky breaks of this stinking pandemic we're slopping through is that fan and media attendance at the Sanford Pentagon is severely limited, so nobody was sitting at the table. In a normal year, we might be talking about casualties this morning. Leaving a trail of demolished middle-aged bodies is not the way you'd want to make ESPN SportsCenter.
The play, though, is one reason the Bison might end up on SportsCenter. They will surely be on ESPN2 tonight when they play Oral Roberts in the conference championship game, with another berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line. Kreuser, the team's leading scorer and rebounder as a senior, was doing the dirty work less than 8 minutes into a game that at the time had a two-point difference.
Style points? No. Grind points. Dang right.
The Bison beat the Coyotes 79-75 to earn their ticket to the title game, doing what they've done best for seven years under head coach Dave Richman: Forgoing artistry for results, with results winning out even if the slog getting there leaves you wondering what on God's green earth just happened.
Here's what happens, year after year: NDSU wins Summit League tournament games under Richman. This will be the Bison's fifth title game appearance in seven years. They are seeking their fourth NCAA berth under Richman, including their third straight.
While the first semifinal Monday was a fast-paced, entertaining, spirited offense-fest between South Dakota State and Oral Roberts (won by ORU on a last-second tip-in by Kevin Obanor), the Bison victory was — to use my favorite word to describe Richman's team — a meat-grinder. NDSU led only for 8:58, and almost half that came at the end of the game when it finally clawed back from a deficit that hung around 6-10 points most of the second half.
The Bison struggled offensively for long stretches and, in a rarity, allowed South Dakota to keep its shooting percentage above 60% for about three-fourths of the game. Sam Griesel, along with Kreuser one of the heroes of the contest, shook a slow shooting start to the tournament (2 of 14 against Kansas City in the quarterfinals, 1 of 4 in first half against USD) to score nine of NDSU's final 19 points. (Kreuser had the other 10.)
The Bison just keep grinding. Drain the clock, play defense, rebound, don't make turnovers, don't take bad shots. Force the opponent to make the mistake, to take the ill-advised 3-pointer, to throw away a pass. Flashy as wet cement. The results, though, are indeed flashy.
Whether this style endears Richman and his team to the football-crazed masses in Fargo, perhaps even some at the university, is an open question. Even pre-pandemic, the Bison drew OK but didn't pack the Sanford Health Athletic Complex like early Bison Division I teams under Tim Miles and Saul Phillips packed the old Bison Sports Arena. InForum's digital analytics show a decent readership for NDSU basketball articles, but nothing like football.
Would the sporting public get on board in big numbers if NDSU was running and gunning for its victories, and Richman did the stand-up comic act like Miles and Phillips? Dave's go-to phrase has become "be a better version of ourselves." Not exactly Tonight Show material.
I asked Richman on Monday night whether he's tired of almost having to apologize for his team's style of play and method of winning games. It's funny. Nobody seemed to question Bo Ryan's methodical style when he was leading Wisconsin deep into the NCAA tournament every year, but in persnickety Fargo fans and media sometimes get owly about how the Bison play. Myself included, by the way.
"You're never going to hear me apologize," Richman said. "Now listen, I get too much credit when we win and not enough blame when we lose. I'm smart enough to surround myself with really good players and, more important, really good people and that's the reason we're having success."
He shouldn't apologize. Instead, maybe it's time for Bison fans and those who cover the team — myself included — to appreciate without qualifiers what Richman and NDSU men's basketball have become. The Bison are a relentlessly successful mid-major Division I basketball program in a market that didn't see much men's basketball success in NDSU's Division II days.
What more can you ask for? If the Bison win tonight, they will have more NCAA Tournament berths than South Dakota State — which is viewed unquestionably as a "basketball school."
Richman took a team he inherited to the NCAA Tournament, he twice took a team he built to the tournament and now he's on the verge of taking a second team he's built to the Big Dance. This is consistent success that was not supposed to happen in men's basketball in Fargo.
It's time it's respected, no matter the style points or lack of pithy quotes. No apologies necessary.
Appreciate what you're seeing while you can. If the Bison win tonight, or maybe even if they don't, a bigger suitor will come calling for Richman eventually. College basketball is all about winning, after all, no matter the lack of artistry that enables it.