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McFeely: Bison men open with a loss, but show a little something

NDSU fell to the No. 10-ranked Razorbacks 76-58 in Fayetteville on Monday night in the season opener, an expected outcome. But the Bison showed enough to build early hope for conference season.

Grant Nelson Andrew Morgan.jpg
NDSU's Andrew Morgan (23) and Grant Nelson (4) defend Arkansas guard Davonte Davis on a college basketball game Monday, Nov. 7, in Fayetteville, Ark.
Walt Beazley / University of Arkansas
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Arkansas isn't Minnesota-Crookston, which is obvious to the world but maybe something North Dakota State's young players needed to learn. And maybe some older ones, too.

Arkansas also isn't anybody in the Summit League, which is the good news for NDSU.

The Bison men's basketball team fell to the No. 10-ranked Razorbacks 76-58 in Fayetteville on Monday night in the regular season opener, an expected outcome. NDSU hasn't beaten a high-major since surprising Oklahoma in the NCAA Division I tournament nearly nine years ago and, frankly, hasn't often come close. A six-point loss to Illinois in 2015 and a four-point loss to Kansas in the COVID season of 2020-21 were the closest shaves.

The Razorbacks are tall, long, athletic and strong. Typical of the 10th-ranked team in the country, even if head coach Eric Musselman has 11 new scholarship players of various varieties, including the beloved transfer portal. Freshman point guard Anthony Black is being billed as an NBA lottery pick.

Minnesota-Crookston enters the conversation only because that's who the Bison played five days prior in Fargo in an exhibition game. NDSU won that one 98-64, blowing up in the second half against the overmatched Golden Eagles. True freshmen Lance Waddles and Tajavis Miller combined for 10 3-point field goals in in that game, often being allowed to catch and pause before pulling the trigger.

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There was plenty good to take away from beating Minnesota-Crookston, particularly for a young squad like the Bison.

Reality struck Monday.

There was no catching and pausing against Arkansas. Waddles and Miller caught — and then had 6-foot-8 athletes in their kitchen, swatting away the ball. They combined to go 2 of 10 on 3-pointers, 2 of 15 overall.

For NDSU big man Andrew Morgan, there was no uninhibited muscling of weaker players under the basket. There were taller, stronger players pushing back and contesting his turnaround jump shots. He scored just 7 points after bullying his way to 22 against Crookston.

For Bison unicorn Grant Nelson, there was no shaking-and-shimmying before crossing over against an inferior defender. There were superior athletes, stripping away the ball too often even if he finished with 17 points and a couple of windmill dunks.

All that is the bad news, if being schooled by Arkansas and losing by 18 points on the road to the No. 10 team in the country can be considered bad news.

But ...

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NDSU's Tajavis Miller looks to pass against Arkansas on Monday, Nov. 7, in a college basketball game in Fayetteville, Ark.
Walt Beazley / University of Arkansas

"I'm never going to say I'm thrilled with a loss, particularly when we shot ourselves in the foot in the second half multiple times," Bison head coach Dave Richman said Tuesday afternoon. "But did I see some things that allow me to say we'll be OK if we fix some of those things? Yes. There's a couple things we can build on."

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The issue for any mid-major facing a top-10 team is trying to replicate in practice the high-major's size and athleticism. It was obvious NDSU couldn't as the Bison made four turnovers nearly before the TV announcers gave the starting lineups.

But NDSU tied the game 21-21 after falling behind early and trailed just 26-24 with 3 minutes left in the first half before Arkansas ended the half on an 8-0 run. NDSU was down 38-31 early in the second half before the Razorbacks ripped off an 11-0 to essentially seal the victory.

"I thought we were close on both ends of the floor, but we're not playing horseshoes and hand grenades," Richman said. "When we're getting pressured like that, we have to show some poise."

This is not meant to put a warm-and-fuzzy lens on an 18-point loss, nor is it to say that because of what transpired at Arkansas it appears NDSU is going to be a Summit League force. No, South Dakota State and Oral Roberts are still the favorites and South Dakota will be an interesting team.

But there is something there with this Bison team that could be worth watching in February and March. Morgan, Nelson and Boden Skunberg are the experience, for what that limited experience is worth. If Waddles and Miller can grow quickly through the non-conference season into the early portion of the conference season, and if fellow true freshman point guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas can get healthy enough to play, it will be entertaining to see where this club ends up.

More on NDSU men's basketball
Veteran head coach Dave Richman appears to be ditching the patient offense in adjusting to his talented shooters
North Dakota State opens men's basketball play with 98-64 exhibition victory
Nelson, Morgan, Skunberg a good place to start for NDSU men's basketball team but success depends on new players
The No. 10-ranked Razorbacks rode an 11-0 run to take command against North Dakota State on Monday.

True freshman forward Sam Hastreiter played almost 18 minutes against Arkansas, meaning Richman could be playing four rookies in one season. Unheard of, but necessary with what the Bison lost after last season.

There was some resiliency, some toughness, shown against the Razorbacks. For a team this young, maybe that's more important than talent at this point. The Bison, as always under Richman, played some defense, too.

"There will be growing pains. It's to be expected, but not accepted," Richman said. "But I'll say that I was very pleased with the talent level and depth we can put out there."

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The Bison play at Kansas on Thursday. The Jayhawks are the No. 5-ranked team in the country and the defending national champions. They are a more polished, more experienced, more disciplined unit than Arkansas. The final score will likely not be close.

But, for now, give this Bison team a chance. There are plenty of ifs, but it looks like there's something there. We might see it by January if the young guys aren't so young by then.

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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