COLUMBIA, S.C. — The three North Dakota State men’s basketball players who left the post-game press conference after the loss to Duke on Friday night did so in an orderly manner. There was not much emotion; certainly, no tears that the season was over.
It’s probably because nobody’s college career ended at Colonial Life Arena. Junior Vinnie Shahid, junior Tyson Ward and sophomore Jordan Horn will return next season. So will everybody else.
What one of nine Division I teams that didn’t have a senior on the roster did this season was impressive from a maturity standpoint.
“This is a terrific group,” said Bison head coach Dave Richman. “Being a student-athlete is extremely tough. It’s a lifestyle. You give up a lot of things. You’ve got a head coach that’s on your tail all the time asking you to be better. These kids keep showing up.”
They showed up against Duke, leading for more than half of the first 20 minutes. The Blue Devils led 31-27 at halftime, but pulled away in the second half to take an 85-62 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It finished NDSU’s season at 19-16.
It finished a year of steady progress that saw the Bison being a vastly different team in March than they were in November.
“More so than anything, what our guys accomplished in the last three weeks in particular and over the last six weeks is tremendous,” Richman said. “But that doesn’t come close to what I’m really proud of. What I’m really proud of is how they did it. We talked a lot about representing a school, a community, a fan base, a state the right way and to me these guys did it.”
A young team and a tough non-conference schedule with eight of the first nine games on the road led to a 2-7 start. There were three straight losses in February after South Dakota State sank a game-winning halfcourt buzzer beater. But the Bison rebounded to win a key game at Purdue-Fort Wayne and won three straight at the Summit League tournament to earn the NCAA automatic berth.
They registered their second NCAA tourney win in program history with a “First Four” victory Wednesday over North Carolina Central. They had the attention of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said he watched tape of six NDSU games to help prepare his team.
“The last month of the season, I thought they were the best team in their league,” Krzyzewski said. “They lost a heartbreaking game against South Dakota State at home and really that knocked them back a couple games, I think. They got it back and they’ve been playing beautiful basketball.”
Besides Shahid and Ward, the Bison return starters Sam Griesel, Jared Samuelson and Rocky Kreuser. Key rotation players Deng Geu, Tyree Eady, Chris Quayle and Cameron Hunter are back.
Horn got into the mix in the postseason run with his shooting ability.
“They return everybody. Watch out, man,” Krzyzewski said. “Watch out. They’re going to be that team in their conference. That’s my prediction.”
Teams will have to watch out for Shahid, who developed into one of the top point guards in the Summit. He led the Bison in scoring, averaging 13.1 points per game. Ward averaged 12.4 points and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds.
“If you go back to June, we had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season,” Shahid said. “A lot of it was staying in the moment and learning and growing from those experiences.”
If the Bison stay the course, they’ll probably open next season as the Summit favorite. Regular-season champion SDSU lost four seniors including center Mike Daum, who finished his career as the seventh-leading career scorer in NCAA history.
Fort Wayne lost record-breaking guard John Konchar. Nebraska-Omaha, which reached the Summit title game, lost its top two scorers.
“To get through what we went through and do it all together as one, it’s special,” Horn said. “We all know we want to get back to this moment, to this stage, and make it even further. We know what we expect from ourselves so we’ll be right back.”