COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sam Griesel's 19th birthday party will be the biggest of his life. It will include 18,000 fans inside Colonial Life Arena, his North Dakota State men's basketball teammates and some new friends named Krzyzewski and Williamson. Oh, and a worldwide television audience numbering in the millions.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. And good luck.
That Griesel's birthday falls on Friday, March 22, is a happy coincidence. It's the same day the Bison play Duke, the top-seeded team in the NCAA Division I tournament and one of the most powerful programs in the sport's history. And those guys mentioned earlier? That'd be Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest Division I college basketball coach of all-time, and Zion Williamson, the Blue Devils freshman sensation forward who will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NBA draft.
"Hey @SammyG_22, what do you want for your 19th birthday? 'Um... how about playing Duke in the NCAA tournament?' Done! And I’ll throw in some new DANCIN’ shoes, too," his mother Kathy Griesel tweeted, using Sam's Twitter handle, after the Bison beat North Carolina Central on Wednesday in a First Four game to earn a berth against the Blue Devils.
That the Bison have the opportunity — that's what they are calling it — to play Duke is in large part to the birthday boy himself. After rallying from an early season knee injury and shedding his freshman jitters as the season wore on, Griesel became a key player late in the season.
He scored a season-high 20 points in the Summit League semifinals against Western Illinois and his 3-pointer with 3:51 left against North Carolina Central tied the game 68-68, as the Bison rallied to win 78-74. Griesel, always doing the little things, also grabbed two key offensive rebounds in the game's late moments.
Bison head coach Dave Richman has told anybody who will listen that the 6-foot-6 guard from Lincoln, Neb., "is something really special."
"Confidence has been a big thing for me this year," Griesel said. "Just getting in the gym every day. At the start I lacked a little bit of confidence and just needed to get acclimated to the Division I level of the game."
Griesel originally committed to South Dakota during his high school senior year, but re-opened his recruitment when coach Craig Smith left the Coyotes to take the job at Utah State. Griesel had already taken an official visit to NDSU and, after visiting again, signed with the Bison in the spring of 2018.
He started the first four games, with mixed results, before tearing the meniscus in his right knee. He missed nine games over six weeks in November and December after having surgery, but came back against Omaha in early January looking strong.
"He didn't play great, but he didn't play with fear," Richman said. "If you think about it, sitting there for five, six weeks with a knee injury like that, he could've been hesitant. He's grown. He's come out of his shell a little bit socially, been more comfortable, getting outward. I think a big part of that is Vinnie and his teammates just breathing confidence into him all the time."
That was a reference to junior point guard Vinnie Shahid. Griesel said he's been taken under Shahid's wing both on and off the court, with the junior-college transfer from Minneapolis giving guidance on what it takes to play in Division I. It might come from personal experience, considering Shahid had to spend two years at Western Nebraska Community College before getting a chance at NDSU.
Three of Griesel's five games in double figures have come in the past five games, all of them must-win. He's also averaged five rebounds over those games, above his season average of 3.8.
"He's been big-time. You can tell he's been in the gym a lot this year," junior guard Tyson Ward said. "A couple of the guys have taken him into the gym personally and just hammered some things with him. He's willing to listen and get better and do everything it takes to help this team out."
Griesel keeps going back to his expanding confidence. He said the big 3-pointer late against North Carolina Central, off an assist by Ward, felt "routine" even though it came in the biggest moment of his young career.
"We shoot those inside-out threes every day in practice and it felt really routine for me. I just stepped into it really confidently and it fell," he said.
It's led to a very special birthday, no matter the outcome against Duke.
"When we were able to get Sam in late May, we knew we had something really special," Richman said. "That's a young man that looks the part, just attacks his job with great resolve every day."