Spring in In the Air

Spring is finally here and so is the time where our neighbors and friends seem to wake from a long winter hibernation. People are now in their driveways and front lawns after what has felt like years. We don’t recognize the neighbor kids who sprouted a few inches since the fall or the new family that moved in down the street. Similarly, the North Dakota State athletic program has been evolving and many things seem unfamiliar.

The Bison changed last winter, but some things remained the same. The men’s basketball team was undergoing changes with a new coach and players in new roles with the team. What remained the same were the results.

Picked to finish fifth in the increasingly difficult Summit League, the men accepted the challenge and new roles the same way the football team had this fall. The Bison were tied for the conference regular season title and went on to win the conference tournament and punch their ticket for their second straight appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as the Big Dance.

While the Bison haven’t yet won the NCAA Division I basketball championship, they have, much like the football team, built a winning tradition for the program that will reap the benefits for years to come. Not only did the Bison have success that was recognized with a bid into the NCAA tournament, individual performances were awarded beginning with Dexter Werner winning Sixth Man of the Year, Lawrence Alexander earning as Summit League Player of the Year and first year head coach Dave Richman claiming Coach of the Year. All these accolades are another set of awards for an athletic program that seems to add more to its trophy case by the month.

I couldn’t help be proud of all three of the schools from the Dakota’s, since each were not picked to do any better than fourth, while watching the Summit League tournament. Honestly, it was surprising looking back at those preseason projections, especially after the way the Bison and Jackrabbits dominated during the regular season.

In fact, all three were in the tournament semifinals with NDSU taking down SDSU for the title.

The Bison women’s basketball team finished an unsatisfying campaign; however, it was a year of improvement and growth under new head coach Maren Walseth.

Walseth led the Bison to a five-win improvement from last season and the most victories in five seasons. Senior guard Brooke LeMar led the way and was chosen to the All-Summit League first team for her accomplishments. Following her were junior forward Holly Johnson, who was named to the All-Summit League honorable mention team, and freshman guard Taylor Thunstedt, who was named to the All-Newcomer Team. 2014-15 was a great start for Walseth and I believe there will be with many more highlights to come.

While we love watching football and basketball, we should not forget about the softball and wrestling teams this season. The Bison softball team is off to a great start to the season with highlights including wins over five Power 5 conference opponents.

The Bison grapplers have added another conference championship to the hardware collection and sent a school record six wrestlers to the 2015 National Championships.

As this issue of Bison Illustrated hits the stands, the focus will begin to shift back to the football team as it prepares to defend its four-straight FCS National Championships with its spring practices culminating with its annual spring game.

The Bison will have multiple practices leading up to its annual Green and Gold Spring Game on April 25. What new wrinkles will the coaching staff start to implement for its latest title defense? We will have to pay close attention to the position battles and hope for good health come April 26.

What does all this mean? It means Fargo isn’t just the home of championship football teams, but champions in all sports.

Beware the Herd!

BisonIllustrated.com

Creating New Memories

As the New Year begins and we transition away from one sport to another, I can’t help but be reminded of my time in college when I’d go watch my team play. It would usually start with getting people organized and going to watch the game, but as I got closer to my Senior year, and inevitably Graduate School, it involved meeting up with my sister, who would gladly hang out with big brother on a Friday or Saturday night. With my school still Division II at that time, it was always a double header each game night.

The early game featured our women’s team, who struggled during my time there, and usually resulted in sparse crowds. The featured game was our men’s team who had been successful at that time.

Due to these small crowds for the women’s game, this is when my sister and I had to be there so we could get our preferred seats – or at least my preference. We didn’t normally sit in the student only section; we’d sit center court in the bleacher section about 12 rows up. The players’ friends and family, rather than the raucous student section, surrounded us. I didn’t care. I wanted to be able to see everything that was going on the court and be able to see the three-point lines and out of bounds with ease.

We cheered our teams on, I yelled at the refs, we got to see some great college basketball and I have fond memories of time with my sister.

I’m sure many of you have fond memories of Bison basketball, especially with the recent success of the program. This season starts a new chapter in those memories with a new coach, new key players, and, for now, a new home.

The Bison Sports Arena is being renovated, so the men’s and women’s basketball teams have found separate homes in Scheels Arena and the Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse, for the next two seasons. It may not be their normal home court but these will be memories for the players and fans that future teams won’t have.

The key in these memories is to continue the positive wave that has been overflowing in the Bison community. Last season marked the second time the men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA tournament by winning the Summit League tournament.

During the NCAA Tournament we saw the Bison upset Oklahoma in the first round before falling to San Diego State. It was a great season for the program, but now the team is young and will need time to grow together. With only one senior and two juniors on the team, this team will grow together for the next few years while adding talent.

Head coach Dave Richman is the man in charge after being promoted to the position after Saul Phillips left for Ohio University. Don’t worry, Bison fans, let’s look at what happened last time a successful coach left the program.

Phillips took over for Tim Miles, who had a 58 percent winning percentage (99-71) in six seasons with the Herd. Phillips took the helm and guided the team to a 61 percent winning percentage (134-84) in seven seasons. That’s 35 more wins in only one extra season, and also, two NCAA tournament appearances!

The future for the Bison men’s basketball team is looking very bright.

With new facilities on the way, an established system in place that keeps consistency in the program with the promotion of Richman, the willingness to schedule big time opponents, and young talent to develop into a mid-major power.

Be thankful, Bison fans, Scheel’s Arena may be cool with the ice under the court, but the Herd is just getting warmed up!

Far from Picture Perfect

The Wolves are a basketball team figuring out who they are, and more importantly, who they aren’t. All is not right with the Wolves.  Through the first week and a half of the season the Wolves have given us monster first quarters, mid-game lulls and even a comeback, well,  almost.  What sticks out is what’s lacking most with this team. Am I a greedy fan? Or somebody that’s been around long enough to remember when this team was a consistent playoff team?  It’s teams like the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks, hanging around until the end of games, and forcing Kevin Love to hit last second three-pointers to force overtime — I am just not satisfied, and to be quite frank, neither should you.  The Wolves have amassed a roster wealthy with talent, perhaps the best team we’ve seen in almost a decade; however, my concern is that maybe some of that talent is just smoke and mirrors.

Nikola Pekovic, and I love the guy, is a beast but right he’s not giving the Wolves a consistent low post presence.  Zachary Bennett at Timberpups.com did a great job at looking at the numbers on how Pek is struggling, but why is he struggling? Is he is out of basketball shape? Is he being used differently? Is it something else?  From what I’m seeing he’s not catching the ball, nor is he handling it cleanly.  Pek seems is getting hacked, but rather than drawing fouls, he’s getting stripped of possession more often.  When the Wolves are struggling to shoot from the outside their opponent can fall back and really clog up the lane, this results in the struggles we’ve seen from Pek thus far, it’s due to the extra hands collapsing on him in the lane. Pek needs to be a better finisher around the rim, period. When he’s able to get the ball down low, the offense has better spacing, something this team needs, however; the rest of the team needs to help create space for Pek.

The second issue we see affecting this team is, as frequently noted, Ricky Rubio’s shooting.  Maybe I just need to change my face on this topic or perhaps it will be the Spaniard’s achilles heel his entire career.  Rubio looks just fine pulling up and shooting off-the-dribble but it’s catch-and-shoot situations that render me stumped.  Why would a young and athletic basketball player have a distinctly slow and deliberate shooting motion on attempts from behind the arc? His form is so different on those shots, it doesn’t look comfortable.  Another note: Can somebody please tell him to get more arc on those shots!?  His failure to use enough arch isn’t giving the ball a chance so drop through, let alone bounce around and ultimately fall in.  But, let’s not get started on a topic we could spend days, weeks or even months discussing.

Last, and most importantly, that of production from the Wolves bench. I am really, really concerned about this, why? Because the second unit isn’t producing much of anything so far this season.  The offense doesn’t flow with these guys in the game and Rick Adelman is forced to play the starters extended minutes trying to maintain a lead or close out games.  If the starters continue playing extended, unnecessary minutes, this could come back to hurt this team in the long run..  The reserves need to come in, maintain leads and, I don’t think it’s too much to ask, occasionally spark a run to get this team going but as of now none of those things appear to be happening. Rookie Gorgui Dieng is have issues adjusting to the NBA, Dante Cunningham’s jump shot has been off, Derek Williams, though he shows flashes, can’t create off the dribble and Alexey Shved is a mess right now. Leaving JJ Barea desperately trying to create for himself, as well as all the others.  Barea needs teammates who can make a shot and at least make a defender pause before they go to double team Barea. He’s great at getting his own shot but his talent is really driving and scoring in the lane amongst the trees of the NBA.  He’s not normally a facilitator and looks to score more on his own.

The starters are scoring just a hair over 81 percent of the teams points. Kevin Love, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer account for over 61 percent of the team’s output.  The remaining 19 percent is the bench producing, primarily in the form of Barea, D-Will and even Cunningham is good for a couple of buckets a game.  My concern is that on off nights when the Kevin’s (Love and Martin) aren’t filling up the stat sheet with 30 points apiece, the team does not have enough people that can help shoulder the load.  It will help when Chase Budinger comes back from injury, but he’ll only be able to account for the lack of production Shved is providing right now.  D-Will is young, has a ton of talent and is a nice boost off the bench, when he plays, but can we count on him consistently?

I am open to trading Shved and/or D-Will for a more consistent shooting guard or small forward.  Someone like Evan Turner of the Philadelphia 76ers may be available later on in the season, maybe even Aaron Afflalo of the Orlando Magic, although the way these two are playing right now, the price tag could inflate out of the Wolves price range.

It’s the beginning of the season I am in Midseason fan form; I want to win and win now.  I see this team improving and a potential playoff contender, but why not aim to be this years Golden State Warriors? Rather than settling to be merely an team that’s improving.

Will Flip Saunders make a move to strengthen the reserves? Do we hope D-Will finds consistency? Maybe Shved regains his form from the early parts of last season form and Chase returns sooner rather than later, but it’s too soon to tell — every team in the league is still trying to find their identity.  I like this season’s Wolves, things are definitely looking better. But they are far from picture perfect. Exciting times are ahead of us, but after waiting nine years to make the playoffs, I hope this doesn’t end as a wasted opportunity.

The Adventures of Ricky and Bud-winkle and Friends

Timberwolves

When we last left our heroes, Ricky and Bud-winkle had led our Wolves to a season ending victory over the soon to be Western Conference Champs.  Ricky urged young Boris Shved to “Change his face” and Owner Glen Taylor kicked Clueless Leader (David Kahn) to the curb.  Now that order had been restored Ricky and Bud-winkle rode off to enjoy their summer vacation.

Ok, so maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but much has changed since we last left our favorite cagers on the hardwood.  What started out as a promising year in the preseason, with a peak at what could be with a Gold Medalist in Kevin Love, a rejuvenated Brandon Roy and a Swiss Army Knife of a player in Andrei Kirilenko ended in one of the most injury riddled seasons in recent memory.  Last year’s disappointment was filled with knuckle push up-gate, terrible three point shooting,  and at least 19 different players seeing game action because of previously mentioned injuries.

 After missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season and an injured star player who was not happy with David Kahn, owner Glenn Taylor made the right decision to let Kahn go.  However, mortally wounded, Khan activates Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula including the Enterprise, er Timberwolves.  Spock, I mean Flip, goes to the engine room to restore the warp drive, I mean Timberwolves roster. Hmm, maybe I watch too much TV. Regardless, Flip came in and made some changes to the Wolves roster in attempt to correct the laco of three point shooting and overall depth to the team.  First Flip made a reasonable offer to Kirilenko, Kirilenko declined and headed to Brooklyn to play for Mother Russia, er I mean the Nyets, oops Nets and their Russian Billionaire owner. Next the options on Roy and Steimsma were not picked up and Gelabale was not retained.  Flip’s next moves took place at the draft, where Flip turned the 9th pick into the 14th and 21st picks.  With those two picks the Wolves took UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng respectively.  The Wolves later traded away the 26th pick and Malcolm Lee into a 2014 2nd round draft choice.  There have been mixed reviews of how the draft went for the Wolves, but in an instant gratification society, fans don’t want to wait long to see their new rookies blossom into what they potential could be.

After the draft the Wolves set out to fill their remaining holes through free agency. Their big catch was obtaining the services of Kevin Martin, a scoring wing who was also very familiar with Coach Adleman’s system. However, ironman Luke Ridnour needed to be traded back to his previous team, the Milwaukee Bucks, to accomplish this financially.  They then needed to add to some depth at the Small Forward position after Kirilenko left, so the Wolves resigned Chase Budinger and brought back former Wolf Corey Brewer.  The Wolves were able to retain the services of fan favorite Nikola Pekovic at what is becoming a reasonable price for a quality big man at approximately $12 Million per season. The team rounded out their 2013 – 2014 roster by signing veteran big man Ronny Turiaf, point guard A.J. Price and former Wolves 2nd Round pick Forward Robbie Hummel.

What do all these resigned and new parts mean to this team? Most importantly the team is starting the year healthy.  Oh wait, Chase Budinger got hurt again and is out indefinitely. Now don’t worry Wolves fans, it should only be a temporary situation.  As someone who has undergone multiple knee surgeries it could be much worse, Bud will be fine and I hope back on the court sooner rather than later.  The Wolves have added a shooting guard that is an efficient scorer, shoots well from deep and he also moves well without the ball.  From what little I have seen from him in the preseason Martin should be just what the Wolves need on nights when the first team offense goes into catatonic mode.  For the first time it what seems like forever, the Wolves have a legitimate starting shooting guard that is over 6’ 2”.  Now I know the scouting report on Martin does not speak highly of his defense, but lets be honest Luke’s defense, while admirable consider what he was asked to do, wasn’t exactly Defensive Player of the Year material.  The Wolves defense is less about having individual stoppers but having a good team defense.  While the Wolves may not have a lockdown defender, they can play within this team concept.  The additions of Brewer, Turiaf and Dieng will add to the defense of the team.  Brewer is a pest to opponents wings while Turiaf and Dieng will add that shot blocking element that left with Stiemsma.  The Wolves should, scratch that, will be better from the three point line.  Martin is a career 38.5% three point shooter, Brewer has improved his three point shooting since he left the Wolves, and the return offormer three point contest champion Kevin Love will only increase on last years league worst 30.5% three point shooting.

What did the preseason tell us? Although only three games were shown on TV, it appeared that as time has gone on the first team continues to gel.  After hearing reports that the second team was beating the starters in team scrimmages and viewing the Wolves come out flat and not shooting well it raised some concerns with this team.  If this team doesn’t get into the flow offensively I could see that affecting their defensive intensity.  Basketball is a sport that sometimes your offense helps to fuel your defense and I think the Wolves are one of those types of teams.  The key for this team to making the playoffs and even advancing in the playoffs will be getting defensive stops on nights where they can’t simply outscore opponents.

Most nights this team will be moving the ball around quickly while making cuts in Adleman’s corner offense that we all know and love, but when that doesn’t happen what do you do? Add in instant offense, JJ Barea.  I know I have been hard on him before and found myself yelling at the TV while watching him, but when he is used correctly he can be very dangerous.  By all accounts he played very well this preseason after playing well in the Tournament of the Americas. If JJ is not counted on to be the guy on offense and more of a change of pace guy off the bench he is very useful.  JJ can be paired with Shved in a combo of two guards that can play either guard position.  As long as JJ is not required to be the go to scorer he is much more of asset than a detriment.

What do Wolves fans need to be concerned about? I wish I could say nothing, but as most Minnesota sports fans know, there is always something bad waiting to happen around the corner.  Maybe there isn’t, but it often feels that way.  The main thing that could derail this team is the same thing that derailed the last two seasons, injuries.  We know Pek will probably miss some games, it happens each year, but with the reserves and potential to play small ball the loss of Pek in the short term could be minimized.  However, if there was an injury to Ricky or Love that could really destroy this teams playoff hopes.

Another concern is how this team is constructed and how their “Big Three” matchup with opposing teams.  The wolves front court have two extremely talented big men, however certain players can give them fits. The long athletic shot blocking types, which affect a lot of players,  can negate the strength that the Wolves bigs utilize.  Maybe it’s just me but does Pek’s wingspan seem pretty average? Maybe its just how big his muscles are, but he doesn’t seem to have the reach of other players. He does utilizes his strength and footwork to create space that allow him to get the shots he wants, of course he needs to finish those little rolling shots.

The last thing to watch is Ricky’s shooting. When Ricky started his rookie year his shooting, and especially three point shooting, was better than most people anticipated.  Last season after not being able to consistently work on that shot due to recovering from ACL reconstruction it seemed to revert to what most expected.  That coupled with Ricky not being able to finish around the rim caused concern that teams would back of Ricky and force him to shoot.  I think that losing so many players last year forced Ricky into scorers mode, which will ultimately help this team.  Whether it be shooting threes at a percentage the defense needs to respect or getting to the rim to draw fouls or finish Ricky needs to look to score.  Being a threat to the defense will force teams to guard him more closely and that in turn will help open up and space the floor better for his teammates.

Looking at the offseason moves, the relative health of this young team and the potential they possess it looks to be a very exciting season for our Wolves.  Based on what we have seen from individual players like Love, Pekovic and Rubio, this team can be very very good.  Will they be good enough to make the playoffs? I believe they will. Let’s face it, the Western Conference is loaded.  To get the 7th or 8th playoff spot may not seem like a great landing spot, however the 7th or 8th seed could win as many as 50 games.  I know most Wolves fans would love to be a 50 win team again. It’s been a long time since the Wolves have been relevant but the time is now and it all starts Wednesday vs the Magic. So don’t miss the next episode of Ricky and Bud-Winkle, it’s called “Run, Run Scoring is Fun” or “Catch Us if you Can!”