FARGO — They're still young on the roster — the North Dakota State men's basketball team has no seniors — but in reality they're not young anymore. It's March and there is no room for pacifiers in college basketball.
It's the madness of the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., a time of the year when it's win or return to Fargo with the season over.
"I think everybody has grown up from the beginning of the year to now," said Bison junior Tyson Ward. "And there is no excuse of being young anymore."
Where that excuse came into play during the season for NDSU was in the second half. The Bison dropped a couple of games that were winnable down the stretch. That wasn't an issue with Oral Roberts, NDSU's first-round opponent at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. The Bison defeated Oral Roberts twice this season.
The Bison are one of nine teams in Division I basketball without a senior. It helped turn junior college transfer Vinnie Shahid into a team captain not long after he stepped on campus. Ward, the most veteran of the players, has had to play the part of a senior. Guard Jared Samuelson has assumed a starting role as a junior.
The Bison will take the No. 4 seed into the tourney with a resume of playing better as the season went along.
"It's our third season," said head coach Dave Richman. "Certainly it's an exciting time of the year. It's March Madness for a reason. We consider it the best month of the year."
It was the best month of the year in 2009, 2014 and 2015, the years the Bison won Summit tourney titles and earned the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. For the Bison to do it this year, they'll have to throw a few surprises at teams.
They've shown they can compete with the best, losing to No. 1 seed South Dakota State on a half-court buzzer-beater. The Bison have also lost twice to No. 2 seed Omaha but split with No. 3 Purdue-Fort Wayne.
"I feel like we're playing our best brand of basketball," Richman said. "That being said, we have to be more consistent with our brand. We've just had stretches (of letdowns) and that seems to be happening in the second half. Those are things we have to clean up. This time of the year, the margin for error is less and less."
In Oral Roberts, the Bison will see a team they beat twice in the regular season without leading scorer Emmanuel Nzekwesi, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, He has since returned to the Oral Roberts lineup. It's also uncertain if guard Sam Kearns, the team's third-leading scorer, will play because of injury.
"I don't think we'll change anything," Ward said. "We'll keep the same mindset going in and that is playing as hard as we can."
NDSU started February with four straight wins. The Bison dropped three straight, including the heartbreaker to SDSU, but rebounded wiht a 69-66 win at Fort Wayne to close the regular season. That was a game in which the Bison survived down the stretch.
If they're going to keep playing into March, that will have to most likely continue.
"I just think you have to grow through experience and we got tested," Richman said. "Now we've gotten to experience road games, now we've played everybody and now we understand we can compete against anybody on any given night. That helps build confidence in a young group."