Welp… that was an exciting ride, but painful nevertheless.
Not to reopen old wounds (I waited to write this article for a solid week because I’ve been so bummed) but I had really convinced myself the Bison were sweet 16 bound. That Aztecs offense was and is flawed beyond belief. I was certain NDSU could tape together a solid defensive performance against that team and force San Diego to beat themselves. The one wildcard would be Xavier Thames who is definitely an elite scorer, but I assumed we could double team him and trap him and figure ways to slow him down. Whoops. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to score on that San Diego defense but clearly I massively underestimated them. I think I knew how good that defense was, but it never registered with me that NDSU hadn’t played against a unit that tough all year. Nothing was even close. Ohio State was probably the closest thing but what Aaron Craft does isn’t so much “defense” as it is “fouling-on-every-single-play-and-inexplicably-not-getting-called-for-it-while-the-announcer-act-like-you’re-the-best-defensive-stopper-since-Scottie-Pippen.” Not quite the same thing. So anyway I knew how good San Diego’s D was, but thought that if we could play as well offensively as we did against Oklahoma AND have Taylor Braun come out of that awful slump we’d be more than fine. Double and Triple whoops.
I might have just had the fan goggles on. However, in spite of my disappointment I don’t think this was a disappointing year. This was undeniabley a success. NDSU met every one of my expectations for them even though they weren’t able to exceed them like I’d hoped. But now that its over let’s take a look at what the near future has in store of NDSU.
We’ve seen this story line time and time again. Cinderella mid-majors make a run (even if its just one game) and some bottom feeder school in a power conference will snap them up. Now, this is more often than not a bad career move for these Cinderella coaches (although financially its a must). Like I said they end up at tough jobs with high turnover rates. Schools like Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Boston College… all ACC schools. A power conference and arguable the best basketball conference in America. However, there’s a reason all those jobs open up. Those conferences are top heavy and its usually nearly impossible to crack into the top four, meaning your team will be perpetually on the bubble come tournament time which more often than not will get a coach fired. Seth Greenberg was by all accounts the right coach at Virginia Tech. He was the most successful coach there in recent member and would still have been good there today (he actually Louisville star forward and sure-fire lottery pick Montrez Harrell commited there before he got fired and Montrez reopened his recruitment). BUT 3 trips to the bubble in the old ACC (it will be even harder to come out of that conference these days now that they expanded) and 3 denials to the big dance, and the 2 time ACC coach of the year was out.
The Virginia Tech aspect of this actually relates back to NDSU, which we’ll get to in a second. I promise. Anyway Greenberg’s replacement at VaTech, James Johnson, only last 2 seasons before that ACC meat-grinder Coach K talks about chewed him up and spit him out. Just proof that winning at these mid to bottom tier schools in power conferences is a real nightmare. However, Tech made an absolute home run swing with their new coach. They somehow stole Buzz Williams from Marquette. Marquette is a legitimate basketball school. They pour tons of support into that program and will be playing in a brand new stadium within a couple seasons here, and Buzz has proven he can compete in a power conference (2013 Big East Champions) from his days in the Old Big East before it got cannibalized. But for whatever reason he’s decided its time to go do the exact same thing at Virginia Tech now. And I think he will succeed wildly there. Thats not the issue. The issue is that the Marquette job, a school where they have proven they’ll pay what it costs to get a great coach and to succeed in collegiate basketball, is open. Moreover, this is the perfect job for Saul Phillips, whether the Marquette administration realizes it or not.
In truth, and by my estimation lucky for NDSU fans (though not Coach Phillips) Marquette does NOT realize the perfect fit. Or perhaps more accurately Saul is their safety net. As I said before this school has pretensions of being an elite basketball program (I said they’re good but they think they’re Kentucky or Kansas). As such they’ve been swinging for the fences right out of the gate with this coaching search. They’ve already struck out on Shaka Smart (who in all likelihood will remain at VCU until a truly elite job like Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina comes open within the next 5 years or so) and now it looks like they’re moving on to Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin.*sidenote* I could actually very easily see Cuonzo taking this job in spite of the fact that he SHOULD stay at Tennessee. With Bruce Pearl primed to reenter the coaching ranks, and making it known his preference was to return to the SEC this off-season and with Tennessee disappointing most fans (before the tournament) Volunteer fans were very outspoken about wanting Cuonzo fired and Bruce rehired, and the national media seemed to go along with this (mainly because it would have been a fantastic idea at the time). If Coach Martin really doesn’t feel secure in the UT job anymore (which he probably shouldn’t after that) maybe it makes sense for him to pick up the much safer and comparably supported job in Marquette. [Also, there would probably be a big raise in it for him] *end sidenote*
Marquette probably won’t land Cuonzo though after that Sweet 16 run. If they’re sick of rejection at that point they’ll move on to 2 equally viable but less star studded options. NDSU’s Saul Phillips and Green Bay’s Brian Wardle. To be honest Wardle seems like the better of the two hires to me on the surface because he has more direct ties to Marquette (he played there and got his assistant coaching start there) whereas Phillips merely has ties to the state of Wisconsin rather than the school itself. As far as Wardle, he’s incredibly young at only 34 meaning Marquette could hope to set themselves up for 20 years with one coach, the kind of stability all basketball programs dream of with how mercenary the game has become in the last 2 decades. Obviously this level of success is a little ridiculous to say, but he could be their Boeheim or Mike Krzyzewski. Now, I have no idea if he could copy their success at a bigger program, but he has been undeniably successful in the Horizon League (a solid league to be sure, and quite a bit better than the Summit) and was coach of the year at Green Bay this year. Moreover, even though they missed the NCAA Tourney by failing to grab their conferences automatic bid, he had them playing as the best team in the conference this year. Plus, the way that team can score, they could easily have mirrored NDSU’s run in the Tournement, pulling an 11-6 or 12-5 upset in the first round before flaming out. However, Wardle comes with some warts.
Coach Phillips is definitely the safer, more conservative pick in this regard. In large part his recruiting pipeline comes from the state of Wisconsin so they would have no worries about him locking down some (if not all) of the state’s elite talent. He has ties to the University of Wisconsin as mentioned. And they guy can just flat out coach. So be wary NDSU fans, because there is a strong possibility we lose coach Phillips for Marquette which would be absolutely devastating. I can’t imagine the setback the school would suffer if they lost both Coach Bohl and Coach Phillips in the same year. Its not a death sentence, but its certainly a way to end this Renaissance era of NDSU sports…
That being said, if Coach Phillips moves on I’ll be happy for him. He’ll succeed at Marquette and we all know the guy will always love NDSU. And as previously mentioned I’d rather see him at a solid program like Marquette then end up coaching some bottom feeder program like Washington State or South Carolina and getting run out in 3 years. Moreover, I just wanna add to any fearful or angry NDSU fans that in the arena of college sports you WANT big programs to be sniffing around your coaches. Yes you may lose them but it means your school is doing something right and as long as NDSU can be proactive and jump to a bigger conference sometime soon it will all be worth it. And hey, if he draws that kind of interest AND stays it just means we have a great coach and a great guy and we’re set up for success in the future.
Losing this senior class is undeniable devastating. No offense to Fred Newell but he really wasn’t a factor on the court this year. And while Mike Felt and Jordan Aaberg were INCREDIBLY useful rotation player we can find guys to replace their minutes and production. Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, and TrayVonn Wright are the 3 irreplaceable guys. TrayVonn can score the basketball and provided much needed offensive depth on a team which may have been more offensively challenged than we though after seeing that San Diego game. Bjorklund is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen play for NDSU. How he was able to rebound and block shots at the rate he was able to with his limited size is absolutely baffling to me. I really don’t know that we’ll ever find another player with his unique skill set who is also just such a love-able character and great guy. Losing Braun is devastating for obviously reasons. Not only does he represent valuable length at a mid major, but the guy was also our point guard. Losing your point guard is never good. AND he was our leading scorer. I think we’ll replace those numbers, but its going to be really tough not to have a player like him he was the full package. We’ll piece together his numbers with 2 or 3 other guys (Kory Brown can replace his scoring and maybe even the assists), but having one guy do EVERYTHING for you is just so valuable (though it can be deadly if he’s having an off night like we saw in the tournament).
The Returning Players
However, all is not lost. The cupboards are not bare even though we’ve lost a couple irreplaceable guys and a treasure trove of serviceable pieces. The obvious pieces are sophomore Kory Brown and junior Lawrence Alexander. Brown can play the point if we need him too, but both of these guys can be elite scorers off the ball and will be major foundational pieces for this rebuild project. Also, it is always incredibly dangerous to get wooed by what you saw in the NCAA tournament rather than trusting what you saw all season long, but I absolutely loved what I saw from Chris Kading and Carlin Dupree. Kading will be some much needed size for this team after losing both Braun and Bjorklund and the guy look amazing in both the Oklahoma game and he was solid against San Diego. And any Bison Basketball fan is lying if they say they weren’t enchanted by Dupree’s ballsy performance in that Oklahoma game. Even though he skills obviously aren’t up to par yet, the guy is gonna have to play next year even if its only for depth purposes. While there will definitely be growing pains with him he’s going to be a solid contributor for NDSU moving forward.
So if we have Brown at the 3 playing point-forward kindof like Braun did this year, Dupree at the 1 taking some of those point duties from Brown so he can play off the ball, Kading slides into the 5 for us to replace Bjorklund, and Alexander lighting people up at the 2, we just need a 4 to fill out the new starting rotation. If we want to run a traditional lineup with a traditional forward we probably slide in Dexter Werner who might look a little out of shape but the guy can move on a basketball court. And he can be a top 5 rebounder in the Summit League right away. Plus he’s obviously strong as an Ox. However, if we want to go a little less traditional we could always run out some small ball lineups Brett Vandenbergh who I think can play although we haven’t seen much of him. I think our best bet is the previous lineup though with guys like Brett and the incoming freshmen working their way in like rotation guys. A.J. Jacobson will be a good player eventually, but I’m not sure his body or his game are ready yet so again, the place our team is really going to suffer next year is depth. We’ll have a solid starting 5 but will struggle when we need to go to the bench.
Players in the Pipes
In looking for depth outside of guys like Vandenbergh and Jacobson then, you’ve got a pretty solid incoming class (although it sure would have been nice to land Lamonte Bearden even with his academic woes). Evan Wesenberg will give us much needed depth and length, but he definitely needs to put some weight on before he can really bang down low at the college level. Then as long as one of the 3 other guys, Jake Showalter, Paul Miller, Jon Sobaski, can outpace expectations and turn into a viable rotation guy year one we’ll be just fine. The thing with college basketball recruiting though is that your current season always pays dividends 2 seasons later, not the very next season (simply because that recruiting class is already closed). So if Saul can parlay this great season into a solid class in 2015 we’ll be sitting pretty. Moreover, Saul has proven to be a great assessor and developer of talent so if this season can provide us just the smallest uptick in raw athleticism and talent we could think about sniffing a Sweet 16 in our next tourney trip.
The real jewel, however, would be Alex Illikainen. This kid is the real deal and would easily be the most talented player to ever step onto the court for the Bison (whether he develops into the best PLAYER in Bison history would be up to him, but he’d easily have the most talent). The dude is close to home, being the best rated player in the state of Minnesota for his class. He’s 6’9″ but would probably hit 6’10” by the time he got to campus and since everyone rounds up 2 inches in college basketball that would mean NDSU had a 7 footer to build their offense around! Unheard of! However, we probably don’t have a shot at this kid.
I thought that a sweet 16 run would have put us in the running for real with him, but even with 1 win we’re probably on the outside looking in. Our biggest competition is Indiana, but with the way their program imploded this year I have a feeling they lost the inside track on him and opened him up to more options. Creighton is another tough competitor for him, but their program will undeniable take a step back now with Player of the Year Doug McDermott leaving, and their early tourney exit they probably hurt their chances more than NDSU helped theirs with a win, meaning I think we can compete with them. If I had to guess though I’d say he ends up with Fred Hoiberg and Iowa State, even over the U of M. Hoiberg has an elite program, he’s an amazing developer of talent, that would let Alex leave home (big for most kids going off to college) while also staying close enough to home that if there are any problems he can return. But hey, a guy can dream. Not landing Illikainen would definitely not be the end of the world though. He’s a pipe dream, but after this great season and with how great Coach Phillips and his staff are at recruiting the upper Midwest, I have no fear they’re going to pull in a great class in 2015.
So to conclude, things really are pretty bright for the Bison moving forward. The biggest fear is that Coach Phillips leaves, but even if he does there is enough of a solid infrastructure here that we’d be able to rebuild just like we rebuilt when Tim Miles left for Nebraska. The Bison had a much needed breakout year, and nobody should be sad about going 1-1 in the tourney this year no matter how much of a Debbie downer I can be at times. This was a breakout year for the Bison and an amazing year to watch in both the major national sports, and I’m just glad we got to enjoy the ride. And hey, this still put us #3 on that Capital One Cup team of the year thing. And we’ll always have this beautiful memory.