McFeely: Bison men need to mature in a hurry with UND coming to town
Two-game losing streak means NDSU in must-win situation against Fighting Hawks with tough road trip upcoming
FARGO — The thud you heard Saturday afternoon was nothing about which to be alarmed. It was just the North Dakota State men's basketball team dropping an opportunity.
The Bison lost a 75-73 decision to Kansas City at the Scheels Center before an expectant crowd of nearly 2,000 who'd heard about their rising team and its potential to do something of note in the Summit League.
Maybe not win the conference, since many of those same fans saw a veteran and talented Oral Roberts squad dismantle NDSU 92-69 on Thursday night. The Bison were young and improving, but not in ORU's class. The Golden Eagles are the heavy favorites in the Summit.
Losing to them was fine, if the Bison would have followed up with a home victory over Kansas City.
Or at least a performance worthy of optimism.
Instead the Bison looked disengaged from the start, had key players get in unnecessary foul trouble and failed to take advantage when the Roos played a funky second half that was an open invitation to steal a win.
It means the Bison will go into Friday's home game against North Dakota looking to salvage one game in a three-game homestand with a difficult road trip to South Dakota and South Dakota State looming.
Instead of being 6-3 in the Summit League with a strong possibility of being 7-3 before heading into two potential losses in the 605 area code, NDSU is 5-4 with more questions than confidence.
The Fighting Hawks are not very good at 1-8 in the league, but have played better recently. This has suddenly turned into a dicey must-win game for NDSU, particularly since it could still finish anywhere from second (unlikely) to ninth (far more likely than second) in the conference.
The Bison won five straight by playing defense, as they always do under head coach Dave Richman, and getting strong contributions from transfer Jacari White, true freshman point guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas and true freshman guard Tajavis Miller.
Grant Nelson, Andrew Morgan and Boden Skunberg did what they had to do, with the youngsters filling in the blanks.
Against Oral Roberts, the Bison looked like a young team unable to handle the success of a five-game winning streak. NDSU tried to run and gun with the explosive Golden Eagles, which was never going to work.
Against Kansas City, the Bison looked like a young team that shot its shot against the first-place team in the league and couldn't rebound from a disappointing loss.
A few things were exposed over the empty weekend, aside from the obvious that NDSU remains a youthful collection still trying to figure out Division I basketball.
The Bison lack an alpha leader. There's nobody like Vinnie Shahid or Sam Griesel who can turn things straight whey they start going sideways. When NDSU absolutely, positively needed a bucket when those point guards were running the show, they could make something happen.
Wheeler-Thomas has potential to someday be that guy. He's not that guy yet. Perhaps the biggest question for the second half of the conference slate is who that guy will be, if anyone.
Fouls continue to be an issue for the Bison, particularly with Wheeler-Thomas and Nelson.
Despite his youth and lack of alpha-ness to this point, Wheeler-Thomas makes NDSU a better team when he's on the floor. He can handle the ball and get around defenders. But he was on the bench with two fouls in the first half against Kansas City when the Bison started kicking around the ball and had an awful sequence to end the half.
Nelson is too often on the bench with early fouls, too. He's still prone to hacking opponents far from the basket, whether it be 25 feet or 90 feet after missing a shot and getting frustrated on the offensive end. He's the Bison's best player, somebody who will get a shot with an NBA franchise, and needs to be on the court.
The Bison need consistency above all else. They can't grab two impressive double-digit road wins then return home and drop two unsightly messes. That's the pressing need heading into the second half of the conference slate.
Friday against UND is a good place to start. With USD and SDSU up next — and have we mentioned the Bison still have to play at ORU and Kansas City? — there's little choice.
A thud at the Scheels Center this time could mean a long month before the Summit League tournament.