Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mid-Major Madness: North Dakota State

This is the third in a series we are going to start running again here at March Madness All Season. We did it last year from late January to the end of the season. "Mid-Major Madness" is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. We looked at all the non-BCS conferences and teams three weeks ago, but these are the real sleepers for March. Last Week: Northern Iowa. Next Up: North Dakota State

Every couple of years, there comes along a mid-major or two that has caught the attention of a couple of people around the country, for one reason or another, during the regular season. There are a few rumblings here and there before the NCAA Tournament, but nothing too serious. Additionally, they are not a popular upset pick in the Big Dance, but they seem to always threaten in the first round. Why are we discussing this? Remember that player who scored 60 points earlier this season, Ben Woodside? He and his North Dakota State Bison could be a team to watch in a few weeks.

North Dakota State was one of a couple teams listed as favorites to win the Summit League heading into the season, but the Bison were still sort of a mystery as this was their first season that they were eligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament as a result of their provisional status. Well, the Bison have made the most of their debut campaign. Things started slowly at the outset, as NDSU lost two of its first three games against D-1 competition, including one at Minnesota. However, since that loss to the Golden Gophers on Nov. 29, the Bison have lost just four games – by a combined 11 points. There was a triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin, in which Woodside scored 60, as well as a four-point defeat at USC. They are 13-2 in conference play, and have a 1.5-game lead on second-place Oral Roberts with just three league games left. They do face them in the final game of the season, though. Sure, NDSU doesn’t have any name victories, but they have been competitive against their stiffest competition and have proven difficult to blow out. The Bison should win the Summit Tournament and get to the Big Dance.

As you might assume, North Dakota State is led by senior guard Ben Woodside, one of the most productive players in college basketball throughout his career. He has scored in single-digits just twice this season and has put up at least 25 points on 10 occasions. He is not just a scorer, though. Woodside is averaging more than six assists per game, and has dished out at least seven assists 13 times. In his famous 60-point outing, you might not know he totaled eight assists that night. He is also an efficient shooter, as he hits 43 percent of his three-point attempts. Woodside gets fouled a ridiculous amount of times, ranking 11th in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, but he hits nearly 85 percent of his attempts. He is flanked in the backcourt by fellow senior Mike Nelson, who can do a little bit of everything. He is a solid scorer who is a very effective three-point shooter and also pitches in on the glass. Nelson can also handle the ball if necessary. Off the bench, Josh Vaughan can knock down threes and rebound the ball well. He can also play the point and distributes well. Freddy Coleman sees limited minutes but is capable of putting up points.

Up front, taking the pressure off of Woodside is senior forward Brett Winkelman. One of the more effective offensive players in the country, Winkelman can hurt the opposition in a variety of ways. He can score inside the arc and around the basket, and is also a very good three-point shooter. Winkelman is one of the best rebounders in the conference and also knocks down his free throws. In fact, he might be a more consistent offensive player than Woodside – not dangerous, consistent. He has not scored in single-digits yet this season and has scored fewer than 15 points just five times. In one four-game stretch earlier this year, Winkelman averaged 19.5 points and nearly 12 rebounds per contest. Michael Tveidt starts next to him. Another very capable three-point shooter, Tveidt has been coming on strong lately. Before a scoreless outing against Missouri-Kansas City last week, he had been averaging 15.4 points per game over his previous five games. He is a very efficient offensive player and also takes care of the ball. Rounding out the frontcourt is 6-10 Lucas Moorman. He is a solid offensive rebounder and a very good defensive player. DeJuan Flowers has tailed off since a fast start to the season but he can still rebound well, while Eric Carlson also sees minutes.

North Dakota State loves to push the ball up the court and get transition baskets. The Bison are a high-scoring team with multiple options, most of which can shoot the three-pointer with consistency. They are very efficient offensively, and rank near the top of both Ken Pomeroy’s effective-field goal percentage rankings and the national field goal percentage rankings. They take care of the ball very well and are excellent shooting the long ball, ranking second in the country in three-point percentage. Despite their abundance of players who can shoot, they get most of their points from inside the arc. Defensively, they play mostly man defense. The Bison get defensive rebounds at a very high rate and don’t commit many fouls. On the downside, North Dakota State does not get many second chances on the offensive glass – partly because they make most of their shots, but also because they don’t make an effort to crash the boards. Defensively, they don’t force turnovers and can be prone to giving up too many open shots, explaining why they rank near the bottom of Division-1 in both field-goal and three-point percentage defense.

Come Selection Sunday, North Dakota State obviously will not be a popular upset pick for the first-round of the NCAA Tournament. However, don’t count the Bison out immediately. There are players on this team that have defeated Marquette and Wisconsin earlier in their careers, and they took USC to the wire this season. They push the ball very well, knock down three-pointers and have two go-to players in Woodside and Winkelman that can really fill it up. Furthermore, they don’t turn the ball over and are experienced. If they face a young team that doesn’t rebound very well and can struggle shooting the ball (Wake Forest, anyone?), they can definitely be a threat. If NDSU draws a team that won’t be able to slow the pace of the game down and the Bison are hitting their outside shots, this could be a team to watch.

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