FARGO — Saturday is the final regular season men’s home basketball game for the North Dakota State men, which will tie an unofficial record of sorts for shortest Senior Day introductions in program history. There are no senior players.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a senior on the bench. Spencer Wilker has been a part of team history in his own right. He’s most likely the first NDSU student who is also a full-time coaching staff member.
When director of basketball operations Casey Matthews left for a position at Creighton University before the season, Bison head coach Dave Richman turned to the 21-year-old Wilker, his student manager, to assume those full-time job responsibilities.
“It seemed like it would be an easy transition at first,” said Wilker, saying Matthews constantly prepped him on the job before he left. “Then as I got going, it was a little more difficult than I thought it would be.”
The director of operations position carries a myriad of responsibilities from team travel and compliance paperwork to film breakdown. Then there is the constant interaction with players, like being on call for anything and everything college related.
For instance, if a freshman is wondering where the building is for his first class in the fall? Contact Spencer.
“I will say I’m the most-texted person on where a building on campus is,” he said.
At the least, he needs to make sure his phone has plenty of power. Like the trip in November when the Bison played at East Tennessee State on the 24th and at Gonzaga on the 26th, with a storm causing travel problems on the 25th.
NDSU flew to Asheville, N.C., on Thursday, Nov. 23 and bussed to East Tennessee State. In the meantime, Wilker was constantly checking the radar on his phone, wary of weather issues sweeping the country.
The Bison lost the afternoon game in Johnson City, Tenn., and bussed to the Asheville airport afterward to catch a next-day flight to Chicago.
“I’m checking the radar and making sure we can get out,” Wilker said.
One of the Bison assistants, however, alerted Wilker the connecting flight from Chicago to Spokane, Wash., later that night was canceled.
“In the next 10 minutes, we have to make a decision whether or not to go to Chicago and try and get out of Chicago or completely change different airlines,” Wilker said.
NDSU decided to bus 125 miles to Charlotte, N.C., and stay the night. The next day — game day against Gonzaga — half the team flew to Salt Lake City and the other half to Minneapolis. Both connecting flights landed in Spokane early in the afternoon for the 6 p.m. tip off.
Facing the No. 1 team in the country at the time was difficult enough. Throw in the travel problems and the Bison were predictably soundly beaten 102-60.
Wilker had his first difficult taste of the real world of a full-time job.
“Honestly, he’s done everything and he’s handled it seamlessly,” said NDSU head coach Dave Richman. “It’s just not what he’s done but how he’s handled the situations.”
He also has to deal with the world of being a full-time college student. Wilker will graduate in May with a degree in strategic communication and a minor in wellness. When was asked about how he found the time for school work, Wilker took a deep breath.
“I go to class every day, whenever I have class I go,” he said. “It helps being a senior, I’m only taking 13 credits both semesters so that lightens the load a little bit but I take my academics pretty seriously.”
Richman said he’s recently had Wilker helping him with preparing the Bison budget for next season. His goal is to become a head basketball coach some day, so he’s probably ahead of the curve in getting there.
He was an average high school player in Burlington, Wis., getting a couple looks from NAIA and Division III schools. He had a couple Division III offers in football as well.
He ended up at NDSU when his high school basketball coach, Eric Henderson, landed an assistant coaching position with the Bison. Henderson has since moved on to South Dakota State.
Wilker, meanwhile, hopped on the fast track to wearing a suit coat on the bench this year instead of a green manager’s polo shirt.
Whatever happens this season, he’ll relish seeing the toughest trip in the Summit League - at Western Illinois - turning into one of the easiest. The Bison chartered a plane from Fargo that landed at the Macomb, Ill., airport.
That trip by commercial airline requires a connecting flight and a decent chunk of bus time. Plus planning for all the meals along the way.
“We clapped when the plane landed,” Wilker said. “To be able to land in Macomb was great for our guys. That’s the most important thing that I was paying attention to - making sure that they’re comfortable.”