McFeely: Next on the Bison's docket is a healthy dose of reality

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Omaha tried throwing a haymaker at North Dakota State in the Summit League tournament championship game Tuesday, March 12, midway in the second half. The Mavericks went on a 12-0 run to tie the game 51-51 and the 11-point halftime lead the Bison so diligently built was gone.

There was 8:37 remaining with a berth in the NCAA tournament at stake. The Bison did not have a senior on the floor — because they don’t have a senior on the roster. It looked to those inside the Denny Sanford Premier Center that Omaha owned all the momentum. Surely the rag-tag bunch of Bison assembled by coach Dave Richman — six new players joined NDSU this season after attrition and a lack of victories last season made a reset necessary — wouldn’t have enough left to cross the finish line.

Then Vinnie Shahid happened. The junior point guard, a transfer from Western Nebraska Community College who played high school ball in the Twin Cities, nailed a 3-pointer for a 54-51 Bison lead. He followed it with a jump shot and a layup. Junior Tyson Ward snuck in a basket for a 60-51 NDSU lead.

The storm weathered, the Bison held on for a 73-63 victory and their fourth berth in the NCAAs since 2009.

The story of this year’s Bison team is growth, how a team that didn’t know much about each other at the start of the season and began 2-7 grew into a squad that could challenge for a conference title.

Richman addressed that storyline in his postgame comments and offered an anecdote that illustrated how far the Bison came.

“The exact same thing happened at Denver and we weren’t mature enough, we weren’t experienced enough at the time to handle it and it just spiraled out of control,” Richman said. “In our biggest moment, we gained experience. In our biggest moment, we were able to execute with poise and stay the course and not let that run affect us.”

Richman was referring to the Bison’s 80-65 loss at Denver on Jan. 16. NDSU led 36-30 at halftime and were down only 54-52 with 9:27 left. But the Pioneer went on a 16-3 run over the next 5 minutes and the Bison weren’t able to close the gap.

It was not a perfectly smooth road to Sioux Falls from Denver because the Bison failed to close out two games at home against South Dakota State and Omaha in which they led during the second half, but NDSU withstood rallies in all three Summit League tournament games. That’s the mark of a veteran team, not a youth-filled one like the Bison.

Now the tough stuff really begins.

It’s one thing to withstand an onslaught from a mid-major like Oral Roberts, Western Illinois or Omaha. It’s an entirely different thing to do so against the titans of college basketball like North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kentucky or Virginia. And that’s what likely awaits the Bison as they wait for Selection Sunday to find out who their tournament opponent might be.

The top expert “bracketologists” who make a living predicting which teams will be seeded where in the tournament bracket, and who they might play, all view NDSU as a 16 seed in the 68-team field — the lowest possible seeding for a team. If that holds true, two possible paths await the Bison.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Bison seeded 16th and playing top-seeded North Carolina in Columbia, S.C., in the Midwest Region on Thursday, March 21 or Friday, March 22. That means NDSU would avoid having to play a First Four play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday, March 19.

Two other bracket experts, Jerry Palm of CBS Sports and Brian Bennett of The Athletic, have NDSU seeded 16th and playing a First Four game. Palm has the Bison placed in the West Region and playing Iona. Bennett placed the Bison as a 16 seed in the South Region playing Farleigh Dickinson on Tuesday.

Palm’s scenario would have NDSU playing No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Salt Lake City if the Bison won. Bennett’s has NDSU advancing to play No. 1 seed Kentucky in Columbus, Ohio, if it won Tuesday.

You see the issue with being seeded 16th. The Bison would eventually have to play college basketball royalty.

It would be another opportunity to grow, as the Bison have done all year. It would likely not be an opportunity to win, even with the moxie NDSU showed against Omaha.