Kolpack: Bison will have to guard against deer-in-the-headlights syndrome

By Jeff Kolpack


COLUMBIA, S.C. — The basketball facility that is home to the University of South Carolina has size to it. The capacity is 18,000, but it feels bigger.

Still, North Dakota State on Thursday afternoon didn’t walk into Colonial Life Arena like the Hickory Huskers walked into Butler Fieldhouse. You know, the small-town, wide-eyed boys from the “Hoosiers” movie.

The structure will have nothing to do with Friday’s first round NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament game. Neither will Jim Nance and Bill Raftery, who were watching NDSU practice on Thursday and will broadcast the game on Friday.

The national TV cameras? That won’t be a factor either.

No, what the Bison need to guard against when they face Duke at 6:10 p.m. Friday is the name itself.


This isn’t Western Illinois.

“We’re aware, we’re human,” said Bison guard Vinnie Shahid. “Anybody that doesn’t think about it or tells you that they don’t think about it, they’re lying to you because we’re human and we do think about it.”

Maybe that’s the best way to address the Duke mystique. Get it out of the system.

Bison junior Tyson Ward grew up three states away from Cameron Indoor Stadium, the mystical home court of the Blue Devils, and certainly if head coach Mike Krzyzewski paid a recruiting visit to his home in Tampa, Fla., he would have listened. Who wouldn’t?

While Duke was busy chasing high rankings in the national polls and NBA-caliber recruits, it was NDSU who showed the 6-foot-6 Ward some recruiting love.

“They’re always on TV, always a good game to watch,” Ward said of the Blue Devils. “They always have great competition, great team.”

The Bison looked loose during their 40-minute shootaround Thursday at Colonial. They ended practice with half-court shots and an impromptu-looking slam dunk contest, things that aren’t out of the norm the day before an NCAA tournament game.

Zion Williamson also wasn’t around. He’s the 6-foot-7, 285-pound mobile monster who the Bison will have to try and contain. He had a slam dunk at Duke’s practice session earlier in the day that had the fans in attendance in awe.

If this is the biggest game in NDSU basketball history in terms of exposure and playing a team like Duke on the massive NCAA TV stage, then facing Williamson could be the biggest mismatch the Bison have ever seen.

Bison forward Deng Geu matches Williamson in height, but doesn’t come close in weight. Forward Rocky Kreuser is the heaviest of the Bison at 245, but doesn’t match Williamson’s agility.

I’m not sure what you can do if you’re NDSU other than pray Williamson wakes up with a case of 24-hour food poisoning.

“I just think come out and compete,” Geu said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you just come out and play as hard as you can and at the end see what happens.”

ESPN on Wednesday night reported Las Vegas had NDSU as a 27 1/2-point underdog, which will most likely go down as the largest point spread in the tournament. NDSU would probably be wise not to see that figure.

It could lead to deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.

If the Bison have any chance of hanging tough with the Blue Devils, NDSU can’t come out scared. It may be easier said than done, and it doesn’t help that NDSU doesn’t have any seniors.

When the Bison upset the University of Oklahoma in 2014, they had six seniors. And that didn’t include veteran junior guard Lawrence Alexander.

“I was just thinking about that, they don’t have any seniors either,” Bison head coach Dave Richman said of Duke, a comment that drew laughter. “I think some of that deer in the headlights, I did see a little bit of that the other night against a really good North Carolina Central team and I think some of that is gone.”

It may help Geu that he played for the Ugandan National team in the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament last summer. He went up against some NBA-caliber players.

“But obviously Duke has some really good talent,” Geu said.

For the Bison to come out and play ball like it was another night at Scheels Center, they’ll need junior guard Jared Samuelson to lead the way. Richman said he’s the toughest guy on the team.

“Jared Samuelson is tough and he’s together,” Richman said. “His teammates love him. You’ve really got something in the huddle. Jared doesn’t say much at all … but when he’s teed up and he’s locked in, it’s pretty cool because his teammates really embrace that and it starts with his toughness.”

Said Shahid: “At the end of the day, when the ball goes up and it tips, it’s something we’ve been doing all of our lives. Forty minutes on the clock and it’s a basketball game.”