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McFeely: Progress comes slowly for 1-4 Bison men's basketball team

Head coach Richman knew young team would struggle early, but says injuries and sickness haven't helped

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North Dakota State's Lance Waddles shoots against Minnesota-Crookston's Dezmond Washington at the Scheels Center on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — It's right there in black and white. Nov. 1, 2022 , and Nov. 8, 2022 , there were two columns published at www.inforum.com , written by me, that painted the future as, if not blindingly bright, at least highly intriguing for the North Dakota State men's basketball team.

The Bison, the argument went, had Grant Nelson, Andrew Morgan and Boden Skunberg returning as a base and perhaps there would be enough in true freshmen Tajavis Miller, Damari Wheeler-Thomas, Lance Waddles and Sam Hastreiter combined with transfers Jacari White and Luke Yoder to build something by the time the Summit League tournament pops up in March.

Here we are Nov. 25 with the Bison beginning a three-day stretch of tournament ball in Albuquerque, N.M., and possessing a record of 1-4 with the only victory coming over an NCAA Division III foe at home. Two of the four defeats were disappointing not so much in the final result but in the way they played out.

The first two losses at highly ranked Arkansas and Kansas? Meh. That was head coach Dave Richman paying some bills with money games against high-major opponents. A home loss to Pacific in which NDSU trailed by 16 points at halftime and a road loss at Indiana State in which it looked like Sycamore men vs. Bison boys were not so easily brushed off.

So as the Bison ready to play Northern Colorado, New Mexico and Jacksonville State over the weekend, where exactly does this club sit? Is there still hope for a team that can be competitive in Sioux Falls or was it just the local columnist blowing smoke up his readers' nether regions?

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Damari Wheeler-Thomas.jpg
Damari Wheeler-Thomas.
NDSU Athletics

"I don't like our record, right?" Richman said before the team departed for New Mexico. "I mean, that's the bottom line and at the end of the day this is a result-oriented business. One and four is not our standards and expectations. Do I have a little perspective of why we're there? About the age, the maturity, the physical maturity, the basketball experience that our team has or doesn't have? Do I have perspective about the teams that we played and where we played them? I do. What am I encouraged about? These guys keep showing up, they like each other and each day is an opportunity for us to grow together to get better and build some confidence."

If that sounds like so much Davespeak, it's because it is. He is loathe to offer excuses, but knows there are challenges with what he's putting on the floor.

He knows four of the top eight players in NDSU's rotation are true freshmen, a year after his lineup was loaded with fifth- and sixth-year seniors. He knows junior Grant Nelson is going to have to learn to shoulder the burden of being The Man instead of being the third option, while struggling through a rolled ankle and some sickness. He knows sophomore big man Andrew Morgan has to handle being a starter who draws double-teams instead of Rocky Kreuser's backup. He knows Wheeler-Thomas, the point guard of the future, has to be the point guard of the current despite coming off a broken leg.

"I've said this and I'm going to stand by it as long as he's here: Lance Waddles is a really talented, gifted scorer, but he needs to find his rhythm in Division I college basketball. This time last year he was just starting high school basketball," Richman said.

Two of the three games in New Mexico look winnable for the Bison, who are ranked 236rd of 363 Division teams in the KenPom rankings. Friday's opponent Northern Colorado of the Big Sky Conference is 1-4 and rated No. 233 by KenPom. Sunday's opponent Jacksonville State of the Atlantic Sun is 2-2 and ranked No. 291.

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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

Host New Mexico of the Mountain West Conference, Saturday's foe, is 3-0 and 112th in the KenPom. That's a tough one.

I wrote in early November there was a chance the Bison ended the non-conference schedule with just a couple of victories and that possibility still exists. The only sure victory ahead is Waldorf College of Iowa, an NAIA school, before the Summit League schedule begins Dec. 19 at Western Illinois. The rest of the games could go either way.

Are the Bison where they need to be?

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"The short answer is yes. The longer answer is: Not in consistent spurts that we need to make the progress," Richman said. "That's about it. It's about us building some rhythm with health. Building some rhythm with practices. So the stretches you see of Sam Hastreiter going 7 for 7 on 3-pointers against Pacific, then not being able to carry that over to the next game. Maybe not going 7 for 7, but going 2 for 5 or 3 for 6. Something along those lines. Just finding more consistency."

Richman is leaning so heavily on true freshmen, as are other schools in this new marriage of college basketball and the transfer portal, it's reached a point that was unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

Sam Hastreiter.jpg
Sam Hastreiter
NDSU Athletics

Hastreiter is averaging 22 minutes a game, Miller 24, Waddles 21 and Wheeler-Thomas 16. It's going to take time, as Richman continues to preach.

The biggest key might be Wheeler-Thomas, a talented point guard coming back from injury who the Bison desperately need to take hold of the team. The NDSU offense has often looked adrift, which leads to bad shots, which leads to transition buckets going the other way, which leads to trouble.

"We talked about our excitement level and the talent that we think that Wheeler-Thomas has here. But Damari didn't do a thing basketball-wise for four months and so we can't expect him to be that version of himself that he was four and a half months ago," Richman said. "I mean, that's certainly a part of it. But as much as it's the point guard, it's on everybody."

We'll see if the Bison progress this weekend. If not, those columns from Nov. 1 and 8 are archived at www.inforum.com for everyone to see and send reminders.

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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