FARGO — It was early December and the North Dakota State men’s basketball team left Ames, Iowa, after an 81-59 beating at Iowa State. At that point, the Bison had a 2-7 record.
They were nine tough games. Eight were on the road; one was an overtime loss and another was at No. 1-ranked Gonzaga. Adding anxiety to the formula was the makeup of the NDSU roster: It had no seniors to help mend the ship.
At 2-7, was the boat ready to sink?
Not so, says point guard Vinnie Shahid.
“The guys in the locker room never lost track of what the mission was at the end of the season,” he said. “We knew everything that happened, happened for a reason. And we knew that going forward what we had to do to fix the record.”
A few home games helped the fix. NDSU defeated a pair of reputable mid-major opponents in Eastern Washington and Missouri State at Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex. The Bison opened the Summit League season with a solid win over the University of South Dakota, but closed out 2018 with an overtime loss at home to Purdue-Fort Wayne — a game where youth was evident down the stretch.
Once again, however, Shahid said the belief did not waver.
“We are a process-based team so we weren’t really worried about the results at that time in the locker room,” he said. “We knew that if we kept doing the right thing at the right time that good things would happen.”
Head coach Dave Richman pointed to one date in January where the corner turned — Jan. 24 at South Dakota State, a game in which the Jackrabbits laid the hammer down. The Bison left Brookings, S.D., with an 87-69 loss.
“The spark has been building since January 25th after we got our tails kicked at South Dakota State,” Richman said.
If Shahid said the players never wavered, neither did the head coach in his philosophy of building a team. Richman referenced the book “The Dream Manager” by Matthew Kelly, which uses a fictional company to address the problems of high employee turnover and low morale.
It’s not so much about the paycheck, or in the case of basketball wins or losses, but offering a path to dreams.
In the case of NDSU, a path to the NCAA Tournament. The Bison play North Carolina Central Wednesday at 5:40 p.m. (CST) in one of four “First Four” games in Dayton, Ohio. Both teams are considered No. 16 seeds in the official NCAA bracket.
“I think because we’ve stuck together — a family has their ups and downs, right? — is what makes it special,” Richman said. “We talk about our story, we’ve been writing our story for a long time. I don’t think many believed but this group — no matter the circumstances, no matter the record, no matter the injuries that we went through — they just kept believing. And that’s really tough for a young group without a senior to do. And for me to just sit back and watch it and be a witness; it’s been a lot of fun.”
Richman saw a few things on the court improve. He shortened his bench, which appeared to lead to a smoother substitution rotation. The Bison improved their field goal percentage defense, which at one time was among the worst in the country.
Shahid, the point guard and a team captain, kept improving since transferring from Western Nebraska Community College in the offseason. He was a rock star in the second half of the Summit title game against Nebraska-Omaha.
“This year has been a roller coaster,” said Shahid, a standout at Hopkins High School in suburban Minneapolis. "But I’m glad I made the decision to come to North Dakota State. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The guys did a great job of embracing me right away and accepting me as a family member and not just another teammate.”
This week is NDSU’s fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Each year, the Bison did it with a standout point guard. Ben Woodside led the way in 2009 and Lawrence Alexander was the leader out front in 2014 and 2015.
The four teams also appeared to have figured out the team chemistry issue. It’s a major element in what Richman looks for in a recruit.
“I think it goes by how close we are on and off the court,” Shahid said. “You guys hear us say it all the time: One through 14 and 14 through one. Our group is so close and I think you get to see a glimpse of that on the court.”