Welp… even though I have yet to recover from the malaise that has surrounded me since Final Four week I figure I’ve waited for too long to get back to my beloved Golden Boys. This past season was an unmitigated success of epic proportions. The NCAA Tournament departure was disappointing, sure, but not because this team had let us down in any way shape or form. Rather, it was simply sad to see such a spectacular season come to an end. To see first year coach Dave Richman take a rebuilding team largely comprised of a lone senior in Lawrence Alexander, a handful of untested contributors, and a whole pile of freshmen (half of whom were redshirting anyway) and push them not only to a share of the conference regular season title, a Summit League Tournament title, AND an incredibly entertaining (and close! only 10 points that should have been less!) game against one of the five best teams in the nation was both bewildering and astounding. I couldn’t be prouder of that team and what they achieved, and couldn’t be more excited to see what Bison Basketball has to offer the fans in the coming years. So with that in mind, how about we take a quick look at next year’s team, shall we?
Taking Account of the Losses
The first thing to note when preparing for next season is who won’t be around. Now, normally this is the worst part about looking toward the next season. You never quite can account for how impactful losing last year’s major contributors will be for a new rosters. Luckily enough for the Bison, however, their losses are as minimal as possible without being non-existent when you consider the fact that we are only losing ONE senior off of last year’s NCAA Tournament / Summit League Champion squad, Lawrence Alexander.
(Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
Now, the one caveat to this statement is that Lawrence Alexander is one of the best players in NDSU Men’s Basketball history, and practically dragged this team kicking and screaming to the heights they achieved this year. However, losing him isn’t ALL bad. Part of the reason LA carried the team so completely in the early season was because he had to. Other than Kory and Lawrence this year’s team really returned no MAJOR contributors from the previous season’s Tourney team. Moreover, while Kory Brown is an excellent defender and rim protector he isn’t really a major offensive weapon. Early on, then, first year coach Dave Richman was forced to rely heavily on Alexander to keep his young team afloat while he broke in a nearly entirely green squad to the rigors and trials of NCAA D1 Basketball. So while it certainly helps the team in terms of chemistry, flow, and continuity to only have lost one player, it definitely hurts that the one guy they had to lose was the cornerstone of the team.
Replacing ‘The Man’
However, things began to change throughout the course of the year. By the end of the season Richman and his staff had managed to polish up the treasure trove of rough diamonds former coach Saul Phillips had left in the Bison cupboard. Don’t get me wrong, the team still relied heavily and Lawrence through the end of the season, but by the end of the year AJ Jacobson (NoDak Chosen One, and the much awaited next star for Bison Basketball) had shown incredible grown and, more importantly, a willingness and capability to lift a significant portion of the offensive burden from Lawrence’s shoulders.
(Photo via NDSU Athletics)
While he was harried early in the season by injuries AJ nevertheless came out for his redshirt season showing glimpses of the great offensive talent we’ve all known he possessed since his days at Shanley High School in Fargo. Moreover, as the year carried on those glimpses gradually became more and more consistent as AJ molded himself into NDSU’s second leading scorer, second most reliable offensive option, and expanded his game from its early reliance on the perimeter to include an ability to drive, penetrate, and take the ball to the rim. Losing Lawrence is undeniably bad, not just because he was a great player on the court, but because he was a great guy off of it as well. However, in AJ Jacobson the Bison have a guy with the requisite tools and personality to keep running without breaking stride, and hopefully even push the boundaries of Bison basketball even further in the future.
AJ wasn’t even the most impressive find to come out of the NDSU season in my opinion ;however. Heck, he wasn’t even the most impressive North Dakota project to unleash itself on college basketball for the Bison. That, my friends, would be Dexter “Big Dex” “The Human Buffalo” Werner.
(Photo Credit USA Today)
The thunder to AJ’s lightning, Big Dex had an absolutely astounding performance in the NCAA Tournament game against Gonzaga, coming off the bench to score 22 points against the Bulldog’s gargantuan duo of Karnowski and Sabonis. Moreover, this wasn’t the first time the undersized big guy came out to bowl over larger competition. Multiple times throughout the season Dexter proved that in spite of his height (he is only a 6’6″ center) he can be not just a contributor, but a major force in college basketball off the bench. NDSU, then, has a nice little 2 man NoDak core to build their future teams around for the next couple seasons in the undersized center in Werner and the lanky swing man in Jacobson.
(Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
Add to that the fact that NDSU still returns a pair of veterans of 2 NCAA Tournament runs in Kory Brown (an excellent defender and rim protector who struggled with injuries this season) and Chris Kading (who struggled with foul trouble throughout the season) for next season’s team, and the starting lineup leaves me even more confident going into next season than I did going into this season when Werner (who admittedly came off the bench most of the season) and Jacobson were untested commodities. If Brown (who showed amazing toughness playing through injuries last year) can stay healthy and Kading can stay out of foul trouble (which was largely caused by lack of front court depth rather than any failing on Kading’s part anyway) the team will be just that much better.
(Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)
The pair will be entering their senior season’s next year, and you can be certain both of them will want to be able to end their careers on the same high notes they helped Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, TrayVonn Wright, and Lawrence Alexander end their careers with. All of a sudden little ol’ NDSU has become someone of an NCAA Tournament stalwart out of the Summit League, having made 3 appearances to the Big Dance in 6 years and 2 straight.
(Photo Credit: Robert Johnson, Icon Sports Media)
Moreover, while he doesn’t have the same volume of experience as Brown and Kading, Carlin Dupree has now played in 2 season’s worth of NCAA Tourney games, and was a starter all year this season. The kid’s athleticism is superb, and throughout the season he showed some flashes of brilliant court vision, a willingness to use his athleticism to create openings for his teammates, and excellent kickouts and passing. He isn’t a finished product yet, but the guy has the raw tools to be an all time Bison great in my opinion if Dave Richman and the staff can work with him to improve his game moving forward. And don’t forget the true freshman phenom Paul Miller who came out of absolutely nowhere to average 28.5 minutes, 6.7 points, and 3.8 rebounds per game. If that’s what he can do coming straight out of high school I can’t wait to see how good he looks after a full year under Richman’s watchful eye.
So, a starting five of Kading, Werner, Dupree, Brown, and Jacobson with Paul Miller coming off the bench? Not too shabby if you ask me. Sure it hurts to lose Alexander, and his numbers and leadership won’t be easy to replace, but if each of those guys can improve just 10% on their performances from this past season’s stellar performances, we’ll certainly be making a good start.
Weaknesses from Last Season
However, have even more reasons to be excited about this team moving into next season, than just improvement from last year’s players. The fact is, Richman and his staff have brought in a bevy of new toys to play with which will hopefully lead to some major contributions next year. Some of those additions actually came in last season and redshirted this past leading to NDSU’s biggest problem last season … depth.
NDSU played a 7 man rotation all season long. Even more damaging was the fact that NDSU basically had a 2 man frontcourt rotation all season long (Werner and Kading) forcing AJ to play Power Forward instead of his natural position of Small Forward, limiting some of his effectiveness.
Evan Wesenberg and Brian Ishola put in minutes where they could, but both need some more time before they reach their real potential with the team. Next season things should heartily improve. Both Ishola and Wesenberg got valuable in-game experience, and a full offseason in the gym should do wonders for both of them, and while Wesenberg struggled Ishola gave Richman some desperately needed extra minutes near the end of the season.
The guys who I’m really excited for, however, are the one’s who didn’t even play last season. Richman redshirted both SF Trey Miller and C Spencer Eliason.
(Image by Con Marshall via Rapid City Journal)
Spencer will, again, add some much-needed depth in the Bison front court, his height will help offset Werner’s, and yet he’s got the bulk to hold his ground down low more so than Wesenberg did last season.
Miller will hopefully add even more scoring which the team will need to replace the 18.9 points per game we lose with Lawrence moving on. Moreover, along with Ishola he can hopefully provide some more wing defense to take pressure off Kory Brown (who often had to act as a one man band in that department last season) and taking pressure off AJ on the defensive end so he can light fools up on the offensive side of things. Moreover, after seeing how well former NDSU redshirt products such as AJ, Kading, Werner, Woodside, and Braun have turned out in recent years, I have a lot of confidence that these two can come out of the gates running.
And its not just redshirts that Richman will add to next year’s team but incoming recruits as well. Deng Geu has a very bright future with the Bison program, but will likely need a year of conditioning under his belt to help him reach his full potential.
Photo Credit: Ted Schurter, The State Journal-Register
Everything I’ve heard about NDSU’s other big man signee of the 2015 class (Dylan Miller), however, is that he is ready to come in and contribute immediately. He’s got the height and size needed to compete at a collegiate level right away, and has been carrying his high school team as the focal point for their offense and an anchor on defense since his junior year. Hopefully those tough minutes will have gone at least part of the way to preparing him for the grind of the college game.
So NDSU is adding a whoooole lot of much needed size to the active roster this next season which can be nothing but positive. I mean, worse case scenario we have 10 – 15 more fouls to throw around on opposing big men once Evan, Spencer, and Dylan get added into the mix. They have some new sources of scoring on the wings (hopefully) to replace the loss of Alexander in the form of Trey Miller. And they have some new backcourt depth as well just for good measure. Malik Clements comes to the Bison from the JUCO ranks of Pearl River Community College. Hopefully this Junior College experience has prepared him to come in and play right away to take some of the creative pressure off of Carlin Dupree, and replace some of the lost creativity of LA as well. Eventually Khy Kabellis will do the same thing for the Bison, but unless he shows the coaches some major flashes in the off-season (easily could happen… just look at Paul Miller) he might end up red-shirting his freshman year.
Either way the main issue of frontcourt depth has apparently been addressed, which can only mean good things for Werner and Kading. Both players had to play conservatively last season to avoid foul trouble and it cost the Bison inside. Now, without fear of leaving their team in the lurch if they get into foul trouble both players should be able to play with a lot more aggression, and really take over games. Add to that the fact that the team will hopefully be able to replace the loss of Alexander with a new committee, and you have all the makings of a team that should surpass last season’s Cinderella Goldenboys.
Losing Lawrence hurts. He was an absolute joy to watch and follow last season. However, in spite of all he meant to last year’s team, next season’s squad seems well position to withstand his loss, and even become a better team because of it. Less reliant on one star player (though still capable of falling back on big individual performances from key contributors) and deeper and more well rounded overall, this coming season’s Bison Basketball team is set to have a spectacular season. Now, last year’s team colossally overachieved, and it is possible that this team missed the NCAAs, but no matter what the end result this team has more than enough talent to be in the hunt all season long. And whatever happens fans are certain to be in for some exciting basketball all season long. Can’t wait to see the work Richman is able to do with his second year at the help. Here’s hoping its yet another wild ride.
(Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)