Return of Johnson adds to class consistency of offensive line

Contrary to some opinions, NDSU isn’t scheduling spring football practices at 7:15 a.m. to keep the night-owl TV folks from not sleeping much. It just happens to be the best time where the most players don’t have class. Head coach Chris Klieman said a lot of players have class from 3 to 6 p.m., so the football team had to adjust. Chalk another victory up for the bubble, which makes 7:15 a.m. not such a chilly morning practicing outside.

On the field, junior Zack Johnson was trying to get back into football shape after missing all of last season rehabilitating a microfracture injury in his knee. (Story on Zack going in Tuesday’s Forum). Johnson is part of a unit that looks to be a strength of the team next season; the Bison will return six starters who have starting experience in left tackle Joe Haeg, left guard Johnson, center Austin Kuhnert (moved from guard), right guard Jeremy Kelly and right tackles Landon Lechler and Jack Plankers. “That improves a lot of the competition that we have,” said offensive line coach Conor Riley, “and you also have guys who are veterans.”

The key for offensive line consistency from year to year is recruiting and spacing the classes out. For instance, in the current two deep chart, NDSU has two seniors (Haeg and Kelly), three juniors (Johnson, Lechler, Plankers), four sophomores (LT Erik Olson, Kuhnert, C Max Polson, RG Zack Ziemer) and one redshirt freshman (LG Tanner Volson). Moreover, Riley said freshman Colin Conner has made strides early in camp.

“We don’t want to overload where we have a class of five guys and behind them a class of no guys,” Riley said. “Our goal in recruiting is to sign, minimally and in an ideal world if coach Klieman will let me, about three guys a year. That spaces it out pretty well for us.”

Giacoletti on Gonzaga: it starts with Few

giacolettiSome of the stats just jump out at you when it comes to the Gonzaga basketball program: 17 straight NCAA tournament berths, the all-time winning percentage leader among head coaches in Mark Few (.810), the top-ranked field goal shooting team in the country at 52 percent and six players that average at least 8.2 points per game. Although that last statistic isn’t striking, it’s what makes this team one of the best Few as ever had at the school, said Ray Giacoletti.

Giacoletti is the former Bison head coach who spent seven years as an assistant at Gonzaga. I have a story going on this in Wednesday’s paper but there’s really not much much of an off-the-wall reason the program is good every year. It starts with Few, one of Giacoletti’s best friends. “He’s unlike 99 percent of the basketball coaches out there,” Giacoletti said. “Basketball is not the most important thing to him. It’s his family, then his faith, then fishing and then basketball is probably fourth. He’s just a guy with an unbelievable balance in his life.”

And probably an unbelievable recruiting budget. The Pacific Northwest is not a great Division I recruiting ground, so Gonzaga has gone to Canada and Europe to get players. This year’s team includes 7-foot-1 starting center Przemek Karnowski from Torun, Poland, 6-2 starting guard Kevin Pangos from Holland Landing, Ontario, and top reserve Domantas Sobanis, a 6-10 forward from Kaunus, Lithuania. He’s the son of former Portland Trail Blazers center and Naismith Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis.

Giacoletti, by the way, just finished his second year in attempting to rejuvenate the program at Drake. He started four freshmen this season and has a pair of Big Ten transfers who sat out a year. Also of interesting note: the four former schools where he coached are all in the NCAA tournament: NDSU, Eastern Washington, Utah and Gonzaga.

There is no arguing the Bison intangible

NDSU returned home around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, and apparently some of the players went to class not too many hours later. Such is the life of a student-athlete. I had SDSU pegged as at least an eight-point favorite and I still think if they played that game 10 times, the Jacks win eight.

That being said, NDSU is in an era where you just never want to bet against them. I never would have wanted to bet against Brock Jensen and those football teams that rarely lost, especially when the game got tight. Last year, I wasn’t going to bet against Taylor Braun, especially after his first comment the year before at the post-game press conference following the title game loss to SDSU was “we’re going to win it.” This year, I suppose I should have known better: don’t bet against Lawrence Alexander. The young man did it all year in the late going, although his missed bonus free throw with 7.9 seconds left opened the door for a possible Jack game winner. L.A. went 6 of 9 from 3-point range in one of the most clutch big-game performances in the history of the program.

The coaches and administrators keep talking about the “culture of Bison athletics” and although it’s hard to turn that into tangible evidence, there is no arguing that intangible. NDSU is winning football and basketball titles these days because they have found a group of guys who believe in their teammates and coaches. One colleague asked me if NDSU has a sports psychologist on staff because it is seemingly always winning the close game. To steal a thought from a column by Pat Reusse of the Star-Tribune last week, most basketball games are generally close games and the teams that win generally have winners and the teams that consistently lose can always point to a play here or there, but ultimately they are losers (his reference to the Gophers).

This Bison team lost two players who are playing professionally in Europe and one of the program’s best centers ever. NDSU probably had the worst depth in the Summit and have two freshmen playing prominent roles. This team had no business repeating its NCAA tournament berth. But this team also did not lose that hard-to-explain intangible called a winning culture.

Bison-Oral Roberts one-man postgame show

NDSU came up short today, literally. Oral Roberts’ 6-7 Vicky McIntyre was dominant in ending the Bison’s season 71-58 in the first round of the Summit League women’s tournament. It was the seventh straight tourney loss for NDSU, which has won just once since joining the league.

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Handicapping the Summit: Fifth-seeded USD will win it

It was about this time last year when the Summit League men’s basketball tournament looked to be NDSU’s to lose. The Bison had the Summit Player of the Year in Taylor Braun, South Dakota State no longer had Nate Wolters and the Bison had the veteran team with the veteran center (Marshall Bjorklund) and playmaking forward (TrayVonn Wright). The Bison also had a defensive stopper in forward Kory Brown, always an important role in any title-contending team.

This year is one big muddled mixture. If there ever was a year when a lower seed could win the tournament, this would be it. The Bison are the No. 2 seed, but they went overtime in both regular season games with No. 7 Denver, their first round opponent Saturday. I think this tournament is going to blow up from the conventional way of higher seeds advancing. So here’s my prediction:

First round: No. 1 SDSU over Western Illinois. No. 5 USD over No. 4 Fort Wayne. No. 2 NDSU over No. 7 Denver. No. 3 ORU over No. 6 IUPUI.

Semifinals: No. 5 USD over No. 1 SDSU. No. 3 ORU over No. 2 NDSU.

Title: No. 5 USD over No. 3 ORU.

Reasoning: South Dakota is hot winning five of its last six including a convincing win over the Jackrabbits to close the regular season. The Coyotes have six players, six, who averaged double figures in scoring in Summit League games with Tyler Larson, who is one of the top overall players in the league in scoring and rebounding. They’re a veteran team loaded with juniors and seniors, look out for this team. SDSU has one of its better defensive teams under Scott Nagy, but I’m not convinced there’s enough overall scoring to get through three games. Brown’s bad knee is not a good sign for the Bison. Like a shutdown corner in football, you need a defensive stopper in tournament time and if he’s not 100 percent, that’s pretty tough. Lawrence Alexander can carry a team in a weekend series, but to do it for three games may be asking too much. Oral Roberts is intriguing after bombing the Bison, but that may have been an emotionally-charged win as much as anything after one of its top players was suspended. Over three games, reality will set in for the Golden Eagles. Fort Wayne has a chance with center Steve Forbes, but the Mastodons are also coming in losers of two of their last three including to a very average Nebraska-Omaha team.

Bottom line: Bison need a win, and help from the Coyotes

Once again, NDSU could be involved in a regular season league tiebreaker situation, only this time, there’s more on the line. Recall in November when the Bison football team got the Missouri Valley Football Conference autobid after finishing tied with Illinois State, a team it did not play. The Valley tiebreaking procedures went all the way to the third and final criteria, which was the Gridiron Power Index. NDSU had the higher rating, thus got the nod — although it really didn’t mean much because both teams were virtually guaranteed spots and first round byes in the FCS playoffs.

Basketball is different, and here’s what NDSU needs this week: a win over Oral Roberts and a South Dakota State loss at South Dakota. Anything different and the Jackrabbits will be declared regular season champions and here’s the significance: the regular season champ gets an autobid to the N.I.T. should it fail to reach the NCAA tournament. If NDSU and SDSU both win this week, the Jacks would get the nod because the criteria goes to whichever team had the better record against the next-highest finisher, in this case the team that matters would be South Dakota. NDSU split with the Coyotes while the Jacks would have swept. The other two teams in the top five, Fort Wayne and ORU, would both be moot in the discussion because NDSU would have swept ORU and both split with Fort Wayne. Sixth-place Denver and IUPUI, both at 5-9, are out of the discussion.

By the way, this is unofficial. Nothing surprises me in tiebreaker criteria.

Here’s the schedule this week:

  • SDSU (12-3) is at USD (8-6) Saturday
  • NDSU (12-3) is at Oral Roberts (8-6) Thursday
  • Fort Wayne (8-6) hosts Omaha Thursday and Western Illinois Saturday
  • Oral Roberts (8-6) hosts NDSU Thursday and Denver Saturday.
  • USD (8-6) hosts Denver Thursday and SDSU Saturday

Last home games for L.A.? Hard to believe

Lawrence Alexander

Lawrence Alexander

Hard to believe that Lawrence Alexander is down to his final two games at home. One thing about a nine-team league, the home games go fast. Today at practice, junior forward Kory Brown was asked about IPFW being L.A.’s last game in Fargo. “It’s sad that it’s L.A.’s last game here at home,” he said. “Ooh, man, thinking about it kind of gives me shivers so I’ll just let that one go for now.”

Alexander has put this team on its back, the No. 1 reason the Bison are two wins from reaching 20 for the season. Nobody, absolutely nobody, expected this group to be in position to reach that seasonal victory milestone. Alexander is averaging 19.3 points per game and is third in the country in minutes per game at 38.3 a night. It will be a lonely Senior Night on Saturday with Alexander being the only one on the team. He came in with Chris Kading and Joel Lindberg, but Kading redshirted and Lindberg had his career cut short by injury.

More than that, he’s been rock solid around us media types for four years. I can see why Saul Phillips and now Dave Richman love coaching the guy. So, on Saturday afternoon, give it up for this guy. He deserves it.

West Carolina departure Part II: There are no cheap options anymore

NDSU leads the country in FCS national titles in the last few years. And the Bison probably lead in the number of buyouts it’s had to endure. First it was Montana State that pulled out of a 2013 game and now Western Carolina said goodbye to a 2016 game at the Fargodome. Before that, Montana said no to the back half of a home-and-home that started in 2003 with NDSU going to Missoula. In the case of Western, I’m hearing the Catamounts simply mailed a check for $200,000 to NDSU without much of an explanation and the cash was sitting in the Bison athletic mailbox when they got back from Frisco. Whether you break up with a text message, phone call or formal letter, I guess it doesn’t matter.

The price of success is nobody really wants to play you and that’s why I would be shocked if anybody comes to Fargo for less than $250,000, approximately what Prairie View A&M got in coming here. It negotiated hotel rooms and who knows else what because it knew NDSU was between a rock and a hard place for opponents. We’ll never know how desperate the Bison are right now because those negotiations are private, obviously

On that note, I’m further convinced NDSU’s days of scheduling a winnable FBS game are over. The Mid-American Conference has long not answered a 701 area code. I think you can add the lower division teams of the power conferences, too. It took awhile, but they finally figured it out: in this day and age of the spread offense, there are not many physical teams out there anymore and that matchup is something FBS schools want no part of. You can’t blame them. Moreover, that’s only going to drive the price up of a guarantee to another FCS school. They know NDSU’s options are probably limited.

NDSU scheduled the 2016 game at Iowa in September of 2011. It is now 3 1/2 years later and there is no hint of another FBS possibility. And you have to wonder how big the pot is for FCS opponents in 2016.

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Woodside is 1A. But is Lawrence Alexander approaching 1B? Or 1A-minus?

I have a story addressing this issue going in Thursday’s newspaper, but one of the factors that has helped the Bison men to a 13-7 record despite not having a very deep roster is an adjustment in how head coach Dave Richman is handling the practice schedule. He’s not beating them up.

Guard Lawrence Alexander is fourth in the country in minutes played at 38.3 a game, which means it takes you longer to go get a soda at Scheels Arena than it does for Alexander to sit on the bench. What Richman has done to help that situation is get more out of his team in less time in the gym — there is no sense in making guys go up and down the floor for three hours. “We’ve tweaked some things in how we practice,” he said.

Asked if he’s concerned Alexander could wear out, Richman said, “Yeah, there’s always that concern but we’ve tried to alleviate some of that concern but what he does or doesn’t do in practice. Because on game nights, we’re going to ride or die a little bit with him.”

Alexander, by the way, passed Ben Woodside for the NDSU career record in minutes played. That seems crazy to me since Woodside was one of those guys that never came out of the game. You never wanted him out of the game. Still the career leader in points, Woodside is still the best point guard in Bison history. But question is this: at this rate, if Woodside is 1A, is Alexander 1B? He did lead the team, after all, to a rare NCAA tournament win for a Summit League team. Alexander wasn’t the scorer that Woodside was his first three seasons, although he’s showing what he can do this year when he’s leading a team that needs him to score. He leads the Summit in scoring average at 18.1 a night and 3-point field goals made per game (2.9).

Dome expansion: What to do

It was interesting to say the least to listen to Fargo architect Terry Stroh go through various future expansion possibilities at the Fargodome on Wednesday, with options ranging from rather basic (adding bathrooms mainly) to the very cool (the structure pictured above) addition to the west side. Here is my story. It would include more banquet room space than the current east side addition, a rooftop patio, bathrooms, suites overlooking the field and club room space. Constructed over Albrecht Avenue, the lower level would be a climate controlled space that could be enclosed with garage doors. The white pillars seen on the street entrance would be capable of going up or down depending on if the that part of the facility is in use.

The difference, of course, is the cost. The high-end model picture here is estimated at $21.5 million and would be paid for be the dome reserve fund which is around $35 million or north of that. The trigger in all of this is the proposed convention center in Fargo and whether it will be built downtown or adjacent to the dome. My guess if it goes downtown, than the dome will probably, and should, sway toward the higher end cost of the addition in an effort to stay current. If the convention center is connected to the south end of the dome, than perhaps a less expensive west side addition would be in order. At its most basic, it would include bathrooms that could be closed off to the rest of the dome but accessible by tailgaters.

My preference would be this: If the convention center is built on to the dome, I would go with this option, which includes suites in the dome, the canopy over Albrecht Avenue with that climate controlled space that can be used by tailgating, boat shows, ag shows or whatever. Stroh said radiant heat would make it comfortable even in 20 to 30 degree days. Approximate cost: $13.9 million. Of interest: Albrecht Avenue by the dome is not claimed by the city or the dome (it’s just sort of there I guess) so there apparently would be no issues of closing it off at times.

If the convention center goes downtown, spend the money. Go with the castle version at the top of this post. It’s been proven in America over and over that if you build it, they will come. The best thing Fargo ever did was build the dome and it’s the next generation’s job to keep it one of the top venues in the Midwest.

Football fans will wonder about seating. Stroh and Fargodome general manager Rob Sobolik looked at all viable options and at best said the most that could be added would be around 1,200. That would be enough. I’m of the mindset that you don’t add seats when you’re smack dab in a dynasty; wait a few years and see what happens. Fargo will never be a major FBS school and around 20,000 capacity will suit this school just fine for many years to come.

Also, to answer a couple of reader questions: new video boards are being phased in as part of an overall video upgrade. We will get into more detail with all of this Saturday morning on Kolpack and Izzo when Sobolik joins us in studio at 10 a.m. on WDAY-AM or WDAY.com.