FARGO — The nonconference men’s basketball narrative for the North Dakota State men’s basketball team was supposed to go something like this: Veteran team, defending Summit League tournament champions, life was supposed to be predictable on the court.
The 5-4 Bison still have a winning record, but it hasn’t come without a couple of issues. Most notably: shooting. They’re 308th out of 350 teams in Division I basketball in field goal shooting at 40 percent.
“I’m really careful with it, especially careful on Dec. 6 because I don’t want to get too far in anybody’s head,” head coach Dave Richman said. “We’re built as a team that shoots the 3 and you look at the successes we had in January, February and March (last year) we made the 3s. This team is a very capable 3-point shooting team.”
The Bison started 2-7 a year ago, trying to get a young team with a few injuries up to speed. That’s exactly what happened when the Bison found another gear. After losing to Nebraska-Omaha on Jan. 2 and sitting at 1-2 in the Summit League, NDSU went 13-6 from there, including the Summit tournament title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
With most of the team returning (83% of its scoring and 87% of minutes played), the expectation was the team would pick up where it left off.
It hasn’t happened.
“No, 5-4 is not OK,” Richman said. “We’re disappointed in that standpoint, yet there’s a big picture perspective.”
The picture at 7 p.m. Saturday involves playing one of the best mid-major programs in the country, if not one of the better teams in all of Division I. East Tennessee State comes to Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex with an 8-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 poll.
The Buccaneers’ only loss was 75-63 to No. 4-ranked Kansas. This game is the back end of a home-and-home agreement with East Tennessee beating NDSU 79-61 in Johnson City, Tenn., last year.
“With all due respect to Kansas State and Marquette, this might be the best outfit we play all year,” Richman said.
Going in, it’s a tale of two different shooting teams. ETSU is 33rd in the country in field goal shooting at 48 percent. It shot 55 percent from the field in its most recent victory, 96-84 over The Citadel.
Meanwhile, of the Bison players averaging double digits in minutes, the leader is forward Tyson Ward hitting 34 of 80 shots for 43%. Notable sharpshooters off to subpar starts include senior point guard Vinnie Shahid (38 percent) and senior guard Jared Samuelson (35 percent).
“I think what you see with us is we get out of the league, out of the region and there are some different level athletes, different level talent and it’s taken us some time to adjust,” Richman said. “It’s taken us a little longer than anyone of us would have wanted. The game is faster than we can simulate in practice.”
The problems for NDSU for the most part have started before the first media time out. For instance, the Bison were down 9-0 earlier this week in a 71-60 loss at Indiana State.
“If I had a great answer for that, we wouldn’t be down 9-nothing,” Richman said.
It didn’t help that starting forward Rocky Kreuser missed the loss against Utah Valley with an injury. As for the starts, Richman said it’s on him to figure it out. Not much appears to be off the table.
“I think you would be insane to keep going with the same thing,” he said. “We’ll continue to evaluate all those things. … Make no mistake, we have perspective and we have a plan and a vision where we’re going and are we going to keep working the plan? Absolutely.”