My Alma Mater is the University of Kentucky. As such I couldn’t help but become a big Kentucky Basketball fan. Now, I bring this up because this has given me a wealth of knowledge of what rebuilding a basketball program year after year, both in terms of replacing the coach and replacing the players, looks like. However, my view of these areas is CERTAINLY tainted by my school of choice, as in no way to they represent your average college basketball school.
The coaching transition I watched was that of the Billy Gillispie Dumpster Fire to the Calipari Renaissance.
This isn’t exactly how all coaching changes go. You don’t often go from “bottom of a bottomless barrel” to the Peak of Mount Olympus the very next year. Sometimes you go from Dumpster Fire to Just Crap or Good Team to Contender with a coaching change, but usually you don’t get to skip all 47 steps in between. So obviously the transition from Saul Phillips to Richman wasn’t going to look like that. The rebuild was also not going to look the same as Calipari’s roster overhauls. Y’see… when Cal rebuilds his roster, which he does every single year, he does it with Freshmen. But Cal’s Freshmen generally have about as much in common with your standard incoming Freshman basketball player as they do with Jennifer Aniston or this Taco Bell Chalupa I’m eating right now.
Cal is bringing in Freshmen who could be in the NBA rather than college which means that although he still has to deal with growing pains, he can (hopefully) nullify this effect through sheer weight of talent. Most college basketball programs aren’t this lucky. Which brings me to first year head coach for the Bison Men’s basketball team, Dave Richman.
The 2013-14 team was the best team in the history of Bison Basketball. Unfortunately for members of the loyal Herd, however, the team lost its Head Coach, Saul Phillips, and 6 seniors (including their two best players) after last season. Oh, and just for good measure our AD left to become the vice AD at Iowa… y’know… just to round things out. By all accounts this hinted at a rocky road forthcoming.
So, I prepared myself for a step or two backwards from the program with the full knowledge that eventually the program would be back on the right track. I had faith because for one thing I loved the coaching hire. Dave Richman is Green and Gold through and through. He graduated from NDSU and has spent all but 2 years of his coaching career, and has the endorsement of NDSU last two coaches Saul Phillips and Tim Miles. Perhaps the thing I liked the most then was the idea that he might stay put with NDSU for a couple decades or even his entire career. Now, I would never begrudge a guy for moving on and bettering his career, and in truth if it ever so happened that Richman became the coach at a big time college basketball program, I would love to root for him there the same way I root for Miles at Nebraska BUT whereas those guys came from out of state, Richman is home grown. I totally get why North Dakota is a place someone from outside wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their life. I mean… seriously… this isn’t exactly a friendly commute to work Mother Nature…
But it would certainly help the program if we could find our Jim Boeheim, Coach K, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, or hell, even our own Scott Nagy. A lifer who will be a constant for the program for years to come. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just start on the fun part where I talk about all the ways Richman has already surprised me.
First off, I was incredibly pleased with the recruiting class he brought in to rebuild a depleted roster. Recruiting is always my biggest fear for NDSU Athletics. For one thing the state of North Dakota doesn’t produce a lot of Division 1 athletes simply because the population of the state is so low (less than a million in the entire state, making us the 4th smallest state in the Union… even behind South Dakota… those bastards…). So this obviously means you need to go outside of the State to bring in talent and compete at the Division 1 level. Then comes the problem of weather again. You have to be able to convince kids to commit to live in Fargo for 4 years which is definitely easier said than done. Its one thing to get them to come in, and another to keep them from transferring or leaving the program somewhere through the process. We won’t know anything about the latter until later in Richman’s career but as far as the former, so far he’s impressed me mightily.
Now a lot of these guys are shared recruits with Saul Phillips, but Richman is the guy who got them to stick with NDSU even after Phillips left, and he added to the class himself as well. So far he appears to have stuck to Phillips’ strategy of hitting Wisconsin hard for the bulk of his team (something Saul did because of his many connections to the state as well as the University of Wisconsin). The two Germantown guys (Jake Showalter and Evan Wesenberg) come from an elite high school program, and even though we failed to lock in their star teammate Lamonte Bearden, I think by the time they’re Juniors both those guys are going to be solid players for us. The only problem with that is because we lost so much of our size off of last years teams, and because we’re redshirting every other big guy we locked up this year (more on that later) we really need Wesenberg to start contributing now. In fact it would be ideal if he could start at Power Forward so we could play Jacobson at the 3, but that simply isn’t going to happen. And Showalter looks like a project player at the moment. Richman hasn’t given him many minutes yet so I supposed I don’t really know how good he is, but the very fact that Richman doesn’t think he can get on the floor yet says enough for me. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable players however. Like I said both these guys come from a winning program in Germantown High School which went a combined 82-2 and won three consecutive Wisconsin Division 1 state championships from 2012-14. Both guys are winners and were key cogs to those winning teams, even if Bearden was the star.
The last Wisconsin kid, Paul Miller, is making a serious case for being an impact player right now. He’s played his way into NDSU’s 6th man role at least at this early part of the season. Right now his offense is heavy on the 3 ball which I don’t necessarily like because thats prone to hot and cold streaks, but the guy is averaging 10 points per game and shooting 48% from the field so he’s definitely some great offense off the bench. This is critical for this NDSU team which lost so many guys from its 8 man rotation, and thats a great eye from Richman to identify that this young guy can come in and play right away (even more so when you consider that 2 of those 3 games were against Texas and Iowa).
So off the bat Richman has done a good job of keeping the Wisconsin pipeline open to NDSU. This is critical cuz these guys are used to the ND kind of winters and won’t be scared off by it. He also brought in a walk-on from Minnesota in Brian Ishola who also shouldn’t have any transfer fears for the program. I don’t know much about him as a player since he recently had knee surgery and hasn’t gotten on the court, but at 6’5″ 210lbs and judging by some grainy high school mixtapes he should be able to be a long, physical defender for NDSU, and hopefully Richman can develop his offense enough to get him on the floor.
However, Richman has also spread out the borders of NDSU recruiting a little bit. He brought in two skilled big men (much needed for NDSU) to redshirt this year. The first is Spencer Eliason, a 6’9″ PF from Nebraska whose brother currently plays at the University of Minnesota. The second his Trey Miller, a 6’7″ forward from Washington state. Both guys are redshirting which I like for several reasons. Whereas a program like Kentucky can only bring in these elite freshmen for 1 year before they turn pro, a school like NDSU is in for the long haul.
First and foremost, these guys are not from ND or anywhere near Fargo. There is going to be a period of adjustment for them as they get used to living somewhere else for the first time in their lives. This is a problem lots of normal college kids have to adjust to, and if you add the pressure of playing Division 1 basketball to the mix, you’re bound to have some issues. Redshirting them allows them to still practice, grow, and improve with their teammates, while removing some of the pressure and allowing them to adjust to their new college lives. Trey also just had knee surgery back in Washington, so not worrying about rushing him back from injury is yet another huge plus. All things considered, slowing things down seems like it will be incredibly helpful to both players, which is first and foremost in my mind, and the minds of the coaches and staff at NDSU.
In addition to helping the players, however, redshirting them also helps the program. While at first it seems detrimental to have 2 big men sit out the season on a team starved for size, that’s not quite the whole story. This would likely be a wasted year for these two. Certainly for Trey with that surgery, and probably for Spencer as well. It is much better for the team to have them both develop their skills without wasting a year of eligibility, and come back that much better for next season. Moreover, redshirting these two will help fix a balance problem which has been a problem for NDSU’s basketball program at multiple points during its D1 history. When you have a large freshmen class, eventually you’re going to have a large senior class (as was the case for NDSU with the class of 2009 and the class of 2014). Now, while in NDSU’s case these periods of large senior classes have resulted in the schools only 2 NCAA Tournament berths, it also leaves the program feeling rather shattered and broken once so many key players leave all at once.
To look only at this years team, we have only 3 upper classmen on the entire roster; Sr. Lawrence Alexander and Jrs. Kory Brown and Chris Kading. Moreover, because NDSU is regretfully not Kentucky, having a youthful team like this means you will make a lot of mistakes, which this NDSU team has done thus far this season. Its just a lot to ask for a program like NDSU to be competitive with so much youth.
Instead, it is much better to evenly disperse scholarships across the various classes. In Division 1 college basketball every team is allowed to have 13 scholarship players. This means the ideal situation would be to have 3 players in 3 classes, and 4 in one. This would give a team an even mix of upper and under classmen, and ensure that a team isn’t completely devastated by graduations.
This is something Richman is already addressing. Rather than leaving this class of 2018 as 7 players (including redshirt freshman A.J. Jacobson) Richman has redshirted Miller and Eliason, as we mentioned, shrinking the class size to 5, but with only 4 true freshmen, and only 3 of those true freshmen on scholarship. So anyway, our current breakdown of scholarship players/classes looks like this.
Seniors – 1
Juniors – 2
Sophomores – 2
Freshmen – 6
11 total scholarships. 2 short of the total allowed. Another no no most of the time, but it will allow Richman to fix this class size problem NDSU has. The way Richman has structured his team next year the scholarship breakdown will look like this.
Seniors – 2
Juniors – 2
Sophomores – 4
Freshmen – 4
Not the ideal but getting closer. This is a rather boring point and one that I shouldn’t spend any more time on, but its one that I place a lot of importance on personally, because I want NDSU to be consistently competitive without any major rebuilding years. I think Coach Richman is approaching this issue with the same mentality, so hopefully in the future we’ll never have a team with only 3 upper classmen again.
As far as coaching, then, its too early to really say anything but I like how Coach Richman runs his program. He’s built a solid staff around himself and he runs things by the book. He establishes his 8 man rotation and generally sticks to it which is often critical in basketball, to ensure that players get into rhythm and to make sure your players maintain consistency of play as they are familiar with the various lineups they will play with. I’ve also heard that he’s more of a hard nosed guy rather than a players coach like Saul Phillips reportedly was. This worried me at first because I thought it would hurt recruiting, but after looking at how he finished the 2014 class, and the great start he has had to the 2015 class (two commits during the early commitment period last week) I’m a lot less worried about that and more worried about how the team performs on the court.
So anyway, there are going to be a ton of growing pains this year. That Kennesaw State game felt like a nightmare as NDSU blew a 23 point lead (HOW?!?!?!) only to then win by 13 (again… HOW?!?!!). Carlin Dupree is definitely the point guard of the future for us and the guy is insanely talented, but when opposing teams really go at him (like Iowa did) he is prone to melting down. Thats just youth and its something he’ll get over, but it won’t help us this year.
A.J. Jacobson has had a horrible start to the season, which I personally believe comes from the fact that we’re playing him at Power Forward. The guy is a natural wing who should ideally be playing the 3 for us, but right now that just can’t happen. You need to have your best 5 players on the floor as much as possible and Jacobson is one of our five best guys. The only problem is that 3 of our other best guys are guards (Dupree at the 1, LA at 2 and Kory at 3) which slides him over to the power forward slot playing next to Kading (at center). This means this problem will automatically fix itself next year when LA graduates and one of the younger guys slides into the PF role, but for now we have to play Jacobson there (since the only other 4 available is Wesenberg and he’s just not ready yet for starters minutes). SO ANYWAY Jacobson is struggling but thats not surprising when he’s wayyyyy undersized for the position he’s playing and the guys defending him are way bigger and more physical than he would normally have to go against. He seems to be figuring things out, albeit slowly, and made some strides against Kennesaw State, leading the team in boards with 8, so perhaps when he’s not playing the veritable skyscrapers Texas trots out there, it won’t look like such a mismatch.
Other rotation guys like Dexter Werner still have a lot to learn, but have given us stretches of solid play (Werner had a great block against Iowa around the 10 minute mark of the 2nd half, but then came back on the very next play and fouled the guy so he’s still very up and down). Long story short, theres going to be a ton of growing pains on this team and even though they’re talented, I don’t see a tournament run in our future. But hey, we could easily get hot in the Summit League Tourney and make a run so you never know. Either way, I feel like Richman has removed every single doubt I had coming into this rebuild process. The team is going to bounce back strong next season, which is a full year ahead of when I first anticipated they’d be back to NCAA Tourney potential form. I feel like the rebuild is even already done, its just a matter of coaching these guys up and developing them some more, which could be done as early as March of this year! All things considered I’m already completely sold on Coach Richman and the New-look Bison. Which is pretty impressive when you think the team is only 1-2 right now. Unfortunately not everyone gets to rebuild the John Calipari way, where you lose 6 starters, and sign up 8 more fresh out of the gates. Schools like NDSU have to take the slower route, and every now and then have an ’empty-cupboards’ kind of year. But hopefully with Richman at the helm, NDSU won’t have to worry so much about these things anymore, and can develop into a consistent Mid Major staple in March. And hopefully he’ll be doing it for a long long time.