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Growth by younger players has Bison men righting its basketball ship

Second place NDSU, which looked lost earlier this season, hosts first place Oral Roberts

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North Dakota State's Boden Skunberg presses against South Dakota’s Kruz Perrott-Hunt during their men's basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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FARGO — The low point was perhaps a Dec. 21 loss at the University of St. Thomas, a men’s basketball game in which North Dakota State looked like a team destined for the Summit League cellar. The Bison dropped to 3-11, and reaching double digits in wins this season was looking like a reach.

But whatever was under the NDSU Christmas tree over the holiday break, it worked.

The Bison have ripped off five straight victories — three on the road — and suddenly what looked unimaginable a month ago, a run at a Summit regular-season title, is back into play. What happened?

There are several answers with the biggest one most likely being growth in younger players.

“I think guys are starting to figure things out,” said NDSU junior guard Boden Skunberg. “All the younger guys are getting more games under their belt and we’re just playing with energy and confidence.”

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Not only has NDSU won five straight, the Bison have done it convincingly winning four of those by at least 12 points and had an average winning margin of almost 15 points. It started with a 71-49 win at the University of North Dakota, an effort where head coach Dave Richman saw potential being realized for probably the first time this season.

That was followed by a home sweep of South Dakota State and South Dakota. NDSU won road games at the University of Denver and Omaha by a combined 33 points.

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North Dakota State's Jacari White goes up for two against South Dakota during their men's basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Richman inserted 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Jacari White into the starting lineup after Christmas and the move looks like a good one. True freshman point guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas missed the first five games with an injury and has steadily gotten better in his 14 starts.

“It’s just a whole new level of basketball,” Skunberg said. “We’re just kind of figuring things out and who we are and what we have to do to win. We’re getting closer to who we want to be.”

They’ll try to close the gap on first place Oral Roberts on Thursday night. The Golden Eagles are 6-0 in the Summit and 15-4 overall. NDSU is alone in second at 5-2, 8-11. The last time these teams met at Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex the game ended in a shoving match last season.

Richman and ORU head coach Paul Mills were both fined by the league and each team had two players suspended.

“That’s something we have zero reasons to talk about anymore,” Richman said. “That was a disappointing event that happened after that game. I know we have but I hope they have as well moved on.”

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North Dakota State's Grant Nelson drives into South Dakota State’s William Kyle III during their men's basketball game Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

The Bison will have their work cut out, again, against ORU standout guard Max Abmas, who is coming off his second straight Summit League Player of the Week honor. He averaged 26.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists in three games. He was 18 of 26 from the field in the Golden Eagles’ two Summit wins and moved into second place on the league’s career 3-point field goals made list with 365.

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“As a coach, as a team, you love to play against guys like Max Abmas because they challenge you,” Richman said.

The challenge in overcoming the slow start was dealing with the inexperience, Richman said. It didn’t surprise him that the Bison struggled early against a tough nonconference schedule.

It didn’t help that leading scorer Grant Nelson missed a couple of weeks with a foot injury and starting freshman guard Tajavis Miller dealt with toe and back injuries.

“I think it’s a myriad of different things,” Richman said of the change after Christmas. “We made some adjustments scheme-wise. I think it was important for the youth in our group to get home and re-set a little bit. But I think the biggest thing is we finally gained experience. We needed to get healthy and find a rhythm and a routine.”

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