Bison will play NC Central in 'First Four' NCAA tournament game

By Jeff Kolpack

Forum News Service

FARGO — On St. Patrick’s Day, the men’s basketball team with green as one of its school colors learned it will play sooner than most of the rest of the NCAA Tournament field. North Dakota State was tabbed as one of the “First Four” into the tournament and will play North Carolina Central on Wednesday, March 20, in Dayton, Ohio.

The winner will need some Irish luck with No. 1 overall seed Duke awaiting them in the East Regional Friday in Columbia, S.C. The Bison-Eagles game is scheduled for 5:40 p.m. (CST) and will be broadcast on truTV.

“You dream of this moment,” said Bison junior Tyson Ward. “A couple of years ago in high school, watching the Selection Show, and now getting a chance. It’s every college basketball player’s dream. Wow, we’re here. You can’t explain it; it’s just a moment you’ll cherish the rest of your life.”

North Carolina Central won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference automatic bid with a 50-47 win over Norfolk State. It’s the third straight NCAA tourney berth for the Eagles, who will carry an 18-15 record to Dayton.

They were an upset MEAC winner, defeating No. 2 North Carolina A&T in the semifinals before beating No. 1 Norfolk. As expected, not many Bison players or coaches knew much about North Carolina Central soon after the announcement.

“I watched their game against Norfolk, other than that I don’t know anything,” Ward said.

The Bison players and coaches saw the announcement in front of a gathering of fans on the large scoreboard screen at Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex. The first 250 kids received mini basketball hoops with the team, donned in their recently popular T-shirts with “Family” across the front, getting a hand workout with signatures.

That’s what happens when a team gets hot at the right time — the Bison defeated Nebraska-Omaha last week to win the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. It will be the fourth trip to the NCAA tourney for NDSU since first becoming Division I eligible in 2009. It’s the third in the past six years.

The announcement came quick into the Selection Show, with the Bison-North Carolina Central matchup coming right after Duke was tabbed the top seed.

“It was a little melodramatic how quickly it came up,” said Bison head coach Dave Richman. “North Carolina Central is in the NCAA tournament like we are and we know they’ll be a very good team.”

Richman said NDSU was expected to participate in a conference call later Sunday night to determine travel plans to Dayton. Like the Eagles, NDSU will take an 18-15 record into the tourney. That includes four straight victories and wins in nine of its last 12 games.

“To see North Dakota State on the screen and to see North Dakota State on my chest is an amazing feeling,” said Bison guard Vinnie Shahid. “It happened so fast. We weren’t expecting it to come up so fast. We’re excited to play North Carolina Central and we’ll go from there.”

The other regional host cities are Hartford, Conn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Jacksonville, Fla.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Jose, Calif. NDSU previously played at regional sites in Minneapolis in 2009, Spokane, Wash., in 2014 and Seattle in 2015.

The Bison are 1-3 in NCAA play defeating Oklahoma in 2014. The Bison were knocked out by San Diego State in their attempt to get into the Sweet 16.

“We’ve talked about the excitement, the carpet behind the scenes, the police escorts,” Richman said, “but for them, when the lights come on, we’re playing a basketball game.”

The other “First Four” game in Dayton is Farleigh Dickinson (N.J.) against Prairie View (Texas) on Tuesday. That winner gets Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional. The University of Dayton has hosted the “First Four” games since the NCAA expanded the tournament field from 64 to 68 teams in 2011.

It’s a mini four-team tourney of sorts that the community has embraced. The university was awarded another “First Four” contract to host it through 2022.

“We need to focus on us and that’s what the focus will be about,” Richman said. “We feel like we’re playing our best brand of basketball and we need to ride that confidence that we built in Sioux Falls.”