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McFeely: Bison men need to find whatever's missing, and fast

Summit League second seed back in reach, but NDSU is going to need some rare consistency to grab it

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NDSU's Rocky Kreuser dunks on a Northland College defender earlier this season.
WDAY-TV photo

FARGO — North Dakota State's men's basketball team caught the break it needed Thursday night when Oral Roberts lost at home to Western Illinois, despite the Golden Eagles scoring 62 points in the second half as the remarkable Max Abmas poured in 33 in the final 20 minutes. Combined with the Bison's unsightly 71-64 victory at home against badly deficient Omaha, the No. 2 seed for the Summit League tournament lurched substantially closer for NDSU.

South Dakota State (11-0 Summit, 20-4 overall) is going to win the league and get the top seed for Sioux Falls. But Oral Roberts (9-3, 15-8) lost its cushion in the loss column, opening the door for NDSU (7-4, 15-8) to grab the second seed with a strong final three weeks.

Gaining the tournament's second seed is important because it means any potential matchup with the Jackrabbits, the Summit's best team, would be avoided until the championship game. If you get one shot at SDSU, you want it to be with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line.

NDSU could accomplish the same thing with the third seed, given the way eight-team brackets are composed, but this is not the time to settle. This team needs to finish strong, only because it's shown no propensity to be consistently good all season.

Kansas City (7-4, 14-9) and South Dakota (6-4, 13-8) are in the mix, too, but the Bison play them both at home. Take care of business at the SHAC, get rewarded. Easy.

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North Dakota State Head Coach David Richman shouts for a timeout in the final moments of their basketball game against South Dakota State on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Except that, given what's transpired for the Bison this season, there'll be nothing easy about it.

Exhibit A (and perhaps B and C, too) was the uninspired victory over Omaha, a team with a 4-19 record that sits at 343rd in the NET rankings of all 358 Division I teams. Veteran coach Derrin Hansen has a bad team, likely to make the Summit League tournament only because North Dakota is thus far 0-11 in the conference.

That's why NDSU coach Dave Richman's postgame press conference Thursday had all the elation of a wake. Twenty-three games in and a squad Richman openly talked about before the season as his most complete in eight years still hasn't found its groove.

"I am disappointed," Richman said, looking and sounding somber. "We missed an opportunity to get better. We are nowhere near where we need to be."

The Bison played well the first 14 minutes to open a comfortable lead, before not scoring a field goal in the last six minutes of the first half. The second half started with a handful of junior varsity turnovers, including a simple wing pass senior Rocky Kreuser zipped over a teammate's head and out of bounds.

Richman's teams rarely flow freely on offense — the coach prefers control and discipline over free-wheeling — but this was lazy, unfocused stuff from a veteran team.

With seven games left in the regular season, the Bison have yet to get on a roll. There's not been a stretch where one could say, "Buckle up, this team is going to rip off five or six wins in a row." There've flashes, there've been peaks. There's been no consistency. NDSU's longest win streak is four games.

Injuries have played a part and can't be dismissed. Thursday night was the first game NDSU had every player on the roster available.

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And a couple of injuries have been more significant and mentally impactful than the usual sprained ankle or tweaked knee.

Senior point guard Sam Griesel had a life-threatening incident with a bleeding ulcer on an early road trip. Freshman post Andrew Morgan returned against Omaha after rupturing his spleen in mid-December.

It's been, as Richman said, one thing after another.

But the coach also referenced a "come to Jesus" meeting the team had after a bad loss at Kansas City.

He also called out individual players for their inconsistent play. Most notable was Kreuser, the talented sixth-year big man.

"Rocky pretty much didn't show up at South Dakota," Richman said, referring to a recent overtime win in Vermillion.

Maybe it is senioritis. Maybe Rocky is looking toward whatever is next in his life. If his level of engagement hasn't been to Richman's satisfaction, maybe the coach will think twice about having players come back for extra COVID seasons.

Whatever, Richman and the Bison better figure it out. They've been granted a reprieve with Oral Roberts' loss Thursday. If NDSU runs the table in its last seven games — not unthinkable with the schedule — it will slide into the No. 2 seed and be rolling into the league tournament.

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If everybody remains healthy and the Bison have their three big men available at full strength — Kreuser, Morgan and Grant Nelson — they will be a tough out in Sioux Falls.

That, like everything connected to this edition of the Bison, has a big "if" attached to it. The Summit tournament is a month hence. We'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, it'd be nice to see NDSU play a solid 40 minutes and win a game comfortably at home against Denver on Saturday afternoon. Then it'd be nice to see the Bison follow up that with a strong victory against South Dakota at home on Monday night.

It'd be nice to see energy and focus stick around for a while.

"Once we get these pieces moving in the same direction, we have a chance to do something special," Richman said Thursday night.

The Bison got a little help this week. The rest is up to them.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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