There are a lot of intriguing matchups in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that most analysts and pundits will be looking at closely. Gonzaga taking on North Dakota State will probably not be one of them as the Zags will likely be a very overwhelming favorite. That said, residents of Spokane that went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year know very well what the Bison are capable of. In that game, North Dakota State, a 12 seed, pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament over 5 seed Oklahoma. They were taken down by San Diego State in the round of 32 but there is no doubt that this team will be up to the task against the Zags and will not back down. Let's take a quick look at the Bison:
What a difference a year can make...
While this is still North Dakota State and they wear the same uniforms, this is a very different team than the one that was in the NCAA Tournament last year. A trio of seniors paced that ballclub a year ago, led by Taylor Braun who averaged 18 points per game. From those three seniors in total, about 40 points per game were lost so it is pretty remarkable that the Bison were even relevant this season, much less a tournament team. Oh yeah, did I mention the head coach of that team left, as well? That's right, Saul Phillips is now the head coach at Ohio and passed the program off to David Richman who has done an incredible job.
So how did they get here?
In two words, Lawrence Alexander. The senior point guard from Peoria, Illinois has absolutely lit up the floor for the Bison but the question is how much more he has in the tank. Alexander has played nearly every minute of every game this season - seriously, he played 38.6 minutes per game which I believe is the most of any player in the country. Alexander averages 19 points, 5 boards, and 2 assists per game for NDSU.
How's their resume?
An autobid from the Summit Conference, there is no doubt that the Bison would have been nowhere near the bubble had they not won their conference. They are a 23-9 team that beat South Dakota State by one-point in a thrilling finish to win the Summit Conference Tournament. They are the 99th ranked RPI team, No. 151 in KenPom, and No. 166 in the BPI. They have played two teams in the RPI top-50, Texas and Iowa, and were routed by both. They lost to Texas by 35 and Iowa by 31. Their only top-100 wins are against South Dakota State, which they beat twice.
Ok, ok so what do they do well?
At 38% from deep, North Dakota State is in the top-50 in the country in 3 point shooting percentage. They don't score the ball particularly well from within the arc (280th in the country) but they have range to hit from deep. Leading the charge for the Bison in this category is Lawrence Alexander who is hitting 44% of his shots from deep. A.J. Jacobson, who averages 12 points, also shoots better than 40% from three. As I said, the Bison don't score the ball well so they rely heavily on defense to win games. This season, NDSU is holding opponents to just 62 points per game which is about 50th in the country.
On paper, it is obviously a matchup which quite overwhelmingly favors the Zags but a team that can shoot from deep is always dangerous in March and the Bison can absolutely do that.