The spotlight of March Madness has a tendency to shine favorably on the best storylines. And there might not be a better one than the North Dakota State Bison.
For the Bison, a dream put forward a half decade ago is coming true. After moving up to the Division 1 ranks, knowing that they'd be prohibited from postseason play until this year, the Bison decided to redshirt its group of freshman. Now, with a group of senior leaders, the Bison are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, in their first opportunity, as representatives of the Summit League.
And it's a battle tested group. The Bison lost by four points on the road this year to PAC 10 champion USC. Last year, the same group went on the road and hung with Florida before losing by 10. In the two previous years, the Bison went on the road--when the current seniors were underclassmen--and beat Marquette and Wisconsin. Not bad for any program.
And while any wise betting man would place their wager on the 3 seed Kansas Jayhawks on Friday afternoon, that doesn't mean the Bison don't have a relatively good chance as a 14 seed. They can beat Kansas.
Here's a few reasons why.
- Stats: Looking at Ken Pomeroy's scouting report, Kansas fans might now start to realize the Bison aren't going to be a pushover. The team's offensive efficiency ranks 32nd in the country, right in front of Michigan State. They don't turn the ball over (14th in the country in turnover percentage) and come in at 16th in the country in eFG percentage. Combine all of that with the Bison's ability to shut down the defensive boards (they grab 72.3 percent of opponent misses) and the Bison are a fundamentally sound team that is efficient on offense and forces one and dones on defense.
- Location: Just about a 3.5 hour drive from Minneapolis, you can guarantee that the Bison will bring a contingent to cheer them on. When the Bison played the Golden Gophers at the Metrodome in football in recent years, tens of thousands of Bison fans made the jaunt across the border. Further, many of the Bison are from the greater Twin Cities area originally and will be packing the crowd with family and friends. This will be a neutral-site road game for Kansas.
- Stress: While Bill Self has done well to downplay the whole "defending our championship" bit, the Jayhawks come into Minneapolis with significantly more pressure. The Bison will be free and loose. Many of them will be relaxed, playing in an environment they are familiar with.
- Ben Woodside: A point guard that could play for just about any high-major in the country, Woodside can light it up. You've probably seen the highlights of his game winner in the Summit League Championship. Woodside has gained so much trust from his coach Saul Phillips, that as the last seconds ticked away in the Summit League Championship, with the Bison trailing, Phillips didn't call a timeout and simply let Woodside do what he does. And Woodside won the game. The Minnesota product finished the season at 10th in the country in scoring at 22.5 points per game. And just how much does Phillips trust Woodside? If you look at Pomeroy's posession numbers, Woodside ranks up there with Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, James Harden and Luke Harangody in terms of offensive posessions a player is personally responsible for. He's the real deal and can put up 40 in a flash.
- Supporting Cast: A star needs one and Woodside has one. From Mike Nelson and Brett Winkleman and Michael Tveidt (pronounced Tweet), the Bison has more ways than one to beat someone. If Woodside gets hot, the Bison can be Davidson-like scary. If not, the Bison have other ways to win.
All of this said, the Bison are decided underdogs against Kansas. Even as someone who admires what the Bison have done, I'm not here telling you to pick against the Jayhawks in your bracket. All I'm suggesting is you consider it, because stranger things have happened. And it's not out of the realm of possibility that Greg Gumbel opens the Sunday morning Round of 32 telecast thusly:
"Sometimes the best laid plans work. Five years later it's coming to fruition for Ben Woodside and the North Dakota State Bison. In case you missed it, the Bison in stunning fashion found out the slipper fit as they knocked off the defending national champion Kansas Jayhawks."