Bring on Duke. Or perhaps just as compelling, bring on the exposure that comes with playing one of the most storied programs in the history of college men’s basketball.
That is what suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly is facing North Dakota State. After Wednesday night’s NCAA Division I tournament First-Four win over North Carolina Central, the Bison earned the right, or the privilege or the colossal task — however you want to look at it — of playing No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Duke.
This will be NDSU’s most meaningful basketball game in the 11-year history of its Division I existence. This is much bigger than its 2007 game against defending national champion Florida, or its 2009 NCAA tournament game against Kansas, or its 2012 game against No. 1-ranked Indiana, or its 2014 NCAA tournament win over Oklahoma, or this season’s game against then No. 1-ranked Gonzaga.
And it can easily be argued — as far as national exposure goes — that this will be NDSU’s biggest game in any sport during its Division I existence. Yes, bigger than any of NDSU’s national football championships — especially with this game scheduled to be televised prime time Friday on CBS with recognizable announcers Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson.
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“We have an opportunity to showcase our great university, our excellent community, just the people of the Red River Valley and the Upper Midwest and North Dakota,” Bison head coach Dave Richman said. “It’s a great state and we get that opportunity to represent all of that. And I know our kids will do it the right way and they will compete and fight to the bitter end.”
As renowned as Duke’s program is, this year’s team carries a certain legendary status with it already — even though it still has to win six more games to claim the school’s sixth national championship.
When you think of this year’s Duke team, you think of Zion. Freshman sensation Zion Williamson is already somewhat of a folk hero. His shoe literally ripped apart when he suffered a knee sprain a few weeks ago. When he returned after a six-game absence when Duke suffered three of their five losses, Zion made all 13 of his field goals and pulled down 14 rebounds in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament win over Syracuse. He followed that with 31 points against North Carolina and 21 against Florida State.
The 6-foot-6, 272-pound Zion is likely to be playing in the NBA next year.
“He’s a really great player,” said Bison point guard Vinnie Shahid. “They’ve got a lot of great players. They’ve got a great coach. But at the end of the day, basketball is a team game so we’re not really worried about individuals too much. We know we have to slow specific guys down. It’s Duke vs. North Dakota State, no more than that.”
Now, it has been amazing that NDSU has made it this far considering it doesn’t have one senior on its roster. But take a look at Duke, which has only two seniors — who, combined, average only eight minutes of playing time per game.
In addition to Zion, the Blue Devils start three more freshmen.
There is 6-7 RJ Barrett, who with his 23 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and Zion’s 22 points and 9 rebounds per game, make them the most dynamic duo in college basketball. Throw in 6-7 freshman Cam Reddish who averages nearly 14 points.
And then there is freshman point guard Tre Jones, who led Apple Valley to two Minnesota Class 4A high school titles in 2015 and 2017. He is the brother of Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones, who led Duke to its last NCAA title in 2015.
“A lot of people are thinking we are going to go in there and lay down and roll over,” Shahid said. “But, we’re really going in there to compete. People laugh when we say that, but we’re so serious when we say that.”
We haven’t even mentioned Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K. The 72-year-old Hall of Fame coach has been at Duke since 1980. That’s 39 seasons of 2,144 wins, five national titles, 11 championship game appearances, 16 Final Four appearances, 11 national players of the year and 71 players who were selected in the NBA Draft.
It will be the 40-year-old Richman matching wits with Coach K.
“It’s really cool,” Richman said. “This is our 11th year of Division I eligibility. And in so many ways, we are still in our infancy. To have this success, to now have two wins in the NCAA tournament, it’s a credit to a great bunch of guys, terrific leadership and great administration. When you have those high expectations and have great support, you can do these things in March.”
Maybe, just maybe, against Duke? It's a long shot.
Welcome to March Madness. Welcome to prime time.