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With An Upset In Mind

by Dan Gunderson

The North Dakota State University men’s basketball team has made the NCAA tournament. They get to enjoy this simple fact for the next couple days before Selection Sunday reveals where they go, what day they play and, most importantly, who they play.

In 2009, it could not have gone better from an exposure standpoint. (I know somebody in the background is mumbling about me mentioning “exposure” again.) The Bison played four hours away from campus in Minneapolis against the previous year’s national champion and college basketball’s elite University of Kansas.

Despite the 10 point loss to the Jayhawks, 84-74, the Bison held their own. Since that year, similar schools, Florida Gulf Coast, Virginia Commonwealth, have made some significant runs in the NCAA tournament.

Can the Bison make a similar run? I’m not going to pick the Bison for the Final Four, a round the VCU Rams made in 2011, but is it out of the realm of possibilities this team could make the Round of 32 or even the Sweet 16?

You need some things you can’t control to make this happen. Luck is a big one. Whether it comes from the selection committee giving you a favorable match-up in the first round (Round of 64. Whatever.) or if it comes in the version of hitting a game winning shot to get you past that first game, you need a little luck if you are a lower seed.

The one thing that you can control is your style of play and not letting the other team dictate how you play. Going back to the 2011 VCU run, they made nearly every team speed up the game because of the pressure they put on them for the entire length of the floor.

NDSU does not have the unique style that VCU incorporated but they do have a style that can frustrate teams with an up-tempo offense. They are extremely efficient with their possessions, shooting 51 percent from the field this season, tops in the NCAA.

Opponents go in sensing that possessions will be even more important than if playing against a team that throws up a ton of shots. They have to be as efficient, if not more, than NDSU. That is a tough task to do for a team, especially if they are a team that scores mainly from outside the paint.

Another reason NDSU could pull an upset is their balance of scoring. The Bison have four players averaging double figures, and never is there a consistency on who is going to be the top scorer on a given night.

Preparing for a team like that is frustrating because there isn’t just one guy you can ignore offensively. Even sophomore Kory Brown has come around to make his offensive game respectable, scoring in double figures seven times this season.

We saw that balance play out in the Summit League tournament championship game when senior TrayVonn Wright carried the team offensively for 36 minutes. Then, it was Taylor Braun’s turn.

And therein lies the most important piece to pulling the upset.

Thee guy to turn to when your team needs the victory. 

Braun’s performance at the end of the 60-57 win over Fort Wayne makes you forget he was struggling for much of that game. He put up 10 of the team’s last 11 points, assuring that his prediction from last season would come true.

When you have a player like Braun, who can shoot from outside and finish at the rim, it makes it so tough to pick your poison. It doesn’t help either that he is 6’7” guard and a match-up nightmare for a team without length at that position.

You NEED a player like him in order to get a victory in the NCAA tournament.

NDSU does have a much more athletic team than the 2008-09 version, but that athleticism could be for not if they are matched up with a team similar in athletic ability.

Something both of those teams do share, however, is the fact that the core of the roster has been together for five years now. Many mid-majors have this going for them and it is something that is an advantage.

In times of crisis, younger teams may fall apart but veteran teams know how to handle the situation because they have been there before. This roster has played a ton of games together and that is significant in any situation, especially the NCAA tournament.

At last check, many bracketologist have NDSU listed as a 12-seed playing a 5-seed. This pairing is the most uncomfortable for any 5-seed team since history has proven upsets happen in this game at one of the highest rate. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to include 64 teams in 1985, the 12-seed has beaten a 5-seed 41 times in 116 attempts.

To answer the original question, can NDSU pull off a run like FGCU or VCU? The Final Four may be a stretch, and even the Sweet 16. A Round of 64 upset though? The chances are high for this team to pull it off.

You can follow Daniel "Pinto" Gunderson on Twitter at @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook. You can hear him on his weekly podcast show on kfgo.com, 740thefan.com or on iTunes called “The Pinto and White Shadow Show.” Pinto is a radio producer within the Midwest Communications-Fargo company.