In this week’s edition of My Thoughts Exactly, Daniel “Pinto” Gunderson previews the North Dakota State University men’s basketball team.
The 2012-2013 edition of the NDSU men’s basketball team might be what head coach Saul Phillips envisioned four years ago when he had recruits Jordan Aaberg, Taylor Braun, Mike Felt and Nate Zastrow land on campus.
That 2009-10 season was one of growing pains for the entire program. It was the season after the big three of Mike Nelson, Brett Winkelman and Ben Woodside had led the Bison to the NCAA tournament.
Now, three years later, this team appears ready to make another run at an NCAA tournament berth. With now juniors Braun and Felt, including junior Marshall Bjorklund and sophomore Lawrence Alexander, the Bison have a lot of experience for a roster only containing one senior.
“It’s really evident to me when I’m teaching in practice how veteran they are,” said Phillips. “You got a bunch of guys that know what’s expected of them, they can start to teach their peers. That’s when you really start to grow as a group.”
Alexander was the Summit League’s Newcomer of the Year last year and had 142 assists while starting all 31 games as a true freshman. Braun, a preseason first-team All-Summit League pick, was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. He averaged 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Bjorklund was the team’s most consistent shooter, shooting 67 percent from the field while averaging 11.6 points. Felt was the team’s best three-point shooter, knocking down 78 of his 181 attempted three pointers.
Juniors TrayVonn Wright and Jordan Aaberg made solid contributions at the forward position. Wright averaged 7.7 points per game while playing 31 games, starting in 23 of them. Aaberg played in all 31 games, while shooting 67 percent from the field and 93 percent from the free throw line.
Coach Phillips expects true freshman Kory Brown to be a player the team can lean on defensively.
“Kory, I want him to be a defensive stopper,” said Phillips. “He has to get comfortable out there to do that.”
Redshirt freshman Chris Kading is expected to make things difficult for forwards because he can step out and knock down the three besides the fact that is listed at 6’8” and 220 pounds.
This team is loaded with athletes that can make some spectacular things happen on the field. Even Felt, who rarely ventures within 18 of the basket, showed he could get up when he threw down a dunk during an exhibition game against Concordia College.
“We are definitely capable of being a great defensive team,” said Braun. “I think it is all really the mindset. We have all the ability.”
Braun has the potential to be the league’s best player if he improves on his outside shooting ability. It is already apparent he has no fear going to the basket and can finish at the rim with the best of them.
Bjorklund has some of the best feet for a big man in the Summit and is an extremely determined rebounder. Felt is the type of shooter that will put a crowd into a frenzy and so can Wright with his above the rim play.
The biggest questions that need to be answered is how much will Alexander improve from his freshman to sophomore year, who is going to step up and lead this team and can Braun be the go-to scorer for this team night in and night out?
If Alexander improves his outside shooting, specifically his three-point shooting, his ability to drive will become even more of a concern for teams because they won’t know which poison to pick.
Last year’s team came out of the gates hot, but really cooled off towards the end of the season and that is a sign of a young team. As freshman, players like Bjorklund and Braun could rely on veterans like Michael Tveidt and Eric Carlson.
Last year, they were left to try and figure out how to grind through a long season. Usually a team looks to its best player to be the leader and we will see if Braun will accept this role.
“We want to have that killer instinct. Don’t let off,” said Braun. “That is just how you build bad habits. We have to really enforce the fact that no matter what the score is we can’t let up or play any differently.”
The one thing you always notice with NCAA tournament teams, they have that one player who can score 20 plus points at will. Braun needs to do that for this team so that when the offense isn’t flowing the way it should, he can keep his team in the game at sheer will.
He will have cold nights shooting from the outside, but he needs to continue to find ways to get to the hoop or to the free throw line. If you think back to that ’09-10 season, Woodside was that type of player. He averaged 8.3 free throw attempts a game.
The Bison are picked to finish second in the Summit League behind senior Nate Wolters and South Dakota State University. I don’t see that changing this season, but I do expect the Bison to make a deeper run in the Summit League tournament and we should see them in the league championship game at the end of the season.
Daniel “Pinto” Gunderson is the producer of the Mike McFeely Show, which can be heard 2-5 p.m. every weekday on 790 KFGO. You can follow him on Twitter @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook.