Spokane, WA (SportsNetwork.com) - North Dakota State tries to make the most of its second trip to the NCAA Tournament, as the Bison go up against the Oklahoma Sooners in the second round of the West Region at Spokane Arena.
The 12th-seeded Bison, who bowed to Kansas during the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament in Minneapolis (84-74), are enjoying one of their most successful campaigns ever. The team has reached the 20-win plateau four times during a decade-long stint at the Division I level, and a victory in this contest would match the school's all-time record of 26 victories set in both 1924-25 and 2008-09.
North Dakota State has been one of the hottest teams in the country since the start of the new calendar year, losing just twice in 17 opportunities. Since the most recent setback to Denver on the road back on Feb. 1, the Bison have rattled off nine straight victories, defeating the Pioneers twice this month alone and also taking down IUPU-Ft. Wayne in the Summit League title game, 60-57.
As for the fifth-seeded Sooners, they are seasoned veterans in this event, making their 28th appearance. Under the direction of Lon Kruger, who last year became the first head coach in history to guide five different Division I programs to the NCAA Tournament (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma), the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 Conference standings at 12-6. The squad raised a few eyebrows with plenty of success during the non- conference slate, opening the campaign with 11 wins in 12 tries, the lone setback coming against then top-ranked Michigan State (87-76) during the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York City back in November.
Oklahoma has produced a mark of 35-27 in this event over the years, making it to the Final Four four times, most recently in 2002, while also playing for the national championship in both 1947 and 1988.
The winner of this first-ever meeting will be back in action in the next round on Saturday versus the survivor of the New Mexico State/San Diego State contest. Unfortunately for the Bison, history is not on their side when it comes to taking on members of the Big 12 Conference, having lost all seven of the previous encounters with such institutions.
At first glance, the North Dakota State defense would seem to be rather impressive, allowing only 65.4 ppg, but a closer look shows that three of the four opponents held below 50 points this season, helping to aid in bringing that number down, came from outside the Division I ranks. Granted, the squad did hold Denver to only 48 points 10 days ago, but that might not be a true indication of the team's talent level.
The same could be said for an offense that is producing 76.4 ppg while shooting an impressive 50.9 percent from the floor. Much of that latter number is skewed from the efforts of Marshall Bjorklund (13.4 ppg) who is the nation's leader in field goal percentage at .636. Leading scorer Taylor Braun (18.2 ppg) is not nearly as accurate at 49.1 percent, but he's more than an offensive force, having cleared 5.5 rpg, handed out 116 assists and made 48 steals to pace the Bison in all three categories. TrayVonn Wright (11.5 ppg) has a presence in the paint that's resulted in 5.2 rpg and a team-best 55 blocked shots, just three shy of the competition in total through 31 games.
Scoring points has not been an issue for the Sooners this season, having generated 82.2 ppg, but there are times when the scoring defense has come up small for a squad that suffered six defeats in league play. Unlike most teams that make it this far, one of the aspects of Oklahoma that is encouraging is that the team has had the same starting lineup in every game this season. Playing a team-high 32.1 minutes per outing, Buddy Hield has cranked out 16.8 ppg thanks to 89 3-pointers. Hield has also taken advantage of his ability on the interior as well, clearing 4.4 rpg along the way.
Cameron Clark (15.3 ppg) is the other key contributor on offense, responsible for 5.5 rpg which is second only to Ryan Spangler (9.8 ppg) who has pulled down 9.4 rpg in order to give the squad a slight edge on the glass (1.5 rpg). Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard check in with 10.8 and 10.3 ppg, respectively, the latter trying to offset his mere 35.8 percent shooting from the field with a team-high 149 assists.