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McFeely: Three days in Sioux Falls cures all for Bison men

North Dakota State's Deng Geu moves against Omaha's Matt Pile during Tuesday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia1 / 3
North Dakota State's Tyson Ward fights through the arms of Omaha's Matt Pile and Mitch Hahn during Tuesday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia2 / 3
North Dakota State's Tyson Ward drives against Omaha's Zach Jackson during Tuesday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia3 / 3

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It wasn't so long ago when North Dakota State was 2-7. It wasn't so long ago when the Bison squelched the excitement of midseason improvement with a three-game losing streak that included a couple of second-half fades.

It wasn't so long ago when Bison fans were openly wondering if this should be head coach Dave Richman's last season.

Funny what three days in Sioux Falls can do.

The Bison men's basketball team, on a downward arc last season and the first half of this one, is going to the Big Dance.

In terms of unexpected happenings, this doesn't rank quite as high as Carlin Dupree coming cold off the bench to stick a knife in Oklahoma in the 2014 NCAA Division I tournament's first round, but it's not bad.

The Bison beat Omaha 73-63 Tuesday, March 12, at Denny Sanford Premier Center in the Summit League championship game to earn the program's fourth trip to the NCAA tournament. This one ranks at the top of the list of berths we didn't see coming.

"We were a new team a little bit. We had to get the chemistry down and then things started clicking for us," said Bison junior guard Jared Samuelson. "We just kept grinding in practice, man. We kept believing in ourselves. We didn't do anything special; we just kept playing our brand of ball and it worked out."

This was not Ben Woodside, Brett Winkelman and Co. in 2009 completing their destiny as seniors after building toward the tournament for four years.

This was not an excellent collection of veteran mid-major players like Taylor Braun, Lawrence Alexander and TrayVonn Wright in 2014 rolling through their schedule.

This was not even the 2015 team that still had the outstanding Alexander and the gritty, hard-nosed Dexter Werner to will them to the tournament.

This Bison team began the season with low expectations, picked to finish fifth in the conference (it finished fourth), mainly because it doesn't have a senior on the roster. After Richman missed on a couple of recruits that are no longer with the program and were stung by the surprise transfer of its point guard prior to last season, this roster was assembled to get things back on track.

The idea was to stem the bleeding this season with an eye perhaps toward next year and certainly the year after that. The Bison needed to get old before they were ready for prime time.

Except that they didn't.

"We definitely grew up as the season progressed," junior point guard Vinnie Shahid said.

With the junior-college transfer Shahid figuring out the Division I game, true freshman forward Sam Griesel growing up over the second half of the season, junior guard Tyson Ward getting healthy, junior guard Jared Samuelson sharpening his shooting eye and big man sophomore Rocky Kreuser providing some muscle in the middle, the Bison solved the puzzle in Sioux Falls.

Add in a deep bench and the Bison were, by Tuesday night, the best team in the Summit League.

There were glimpses of potential during the regular season. NDSU won five straight games in January to raise hopes. That's how Richman envisioned this team, even though he knew it still had to grow.

"After you go on that 5-0 stretch and we win those games at home and on the road, that was the moment when we thought we could do this," Shahid said.

The Bison followed that with three straight losses, including a crushing last-second defeat at home on a 40-footer at the final buzzer by South Dakota State. But the Bison played well enough that they raised eyebrows.

Speaking of the Jackrabbits, it helped immensely that the top-seeded team, with conference player of the year Mike Daum and perhaps the league's second-best player David Jenkins, lost in the tournament quarterfinals to No. 8 Western Illinois. That paved NDSU's path to the title game, which was going to be a toss-up no matter who the Bison played.

But the truth is that the Bison, with less star power, turned out to be a deeper and more well-rounded team than the Jackrabbits.

"At the beginning of the season, me and coach sat down and he said, 'What do you think about this group?'" Ward said. "I told him we're young and we're talented and I thought we could really do something special. He said, 'Yeah, but it's going to take some time.' He told me to stay with them and we did . Everybody stuck together. Everybody did their role and we got here and did what we had to do."

Next up, an unexpected invitation to March Madness. Suddenly, the future looks bright for Richman and his young team.