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North Dakota State proves you don’t have to have glitter to sparkle

The North Dakota State Bison, Summit League champions, play Gonzaga in Seattle on Friday. (Associated Press)
The North Dakota State Bison, Summit League champions, play Gonzaga in Seattle on Friday. (Associated Press)

The coaching offices are in an industrial park off campus. Players lift weights in a vacant grocery store.

“The fresh produce and meat signs are still up,” North Dakota Statemen’s basketball coach Dave Richman said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

The Bison often practice in a 140-foot long, 60-foot wide building with a 20-feet ceiling. The basketball court occupies two-thirds of the warehouse-style facility. On the other side of a divider, there’s a makeshift locker room and training table.

“The gentleman who owns it calls them workshop condos and he usually divides it into threes and leases them out,” Richman said. “We got in touch with him and he was kind enough to let us keep it whole.”

They play home games at Scheels Arena, a hockey arena in south Fargo about 20 minutes from campus.

But the Bison aren’t complaining. The arrangements are necessary as the school renovates Bison Sports Arena to the tune of about $50 million. When it opens for the 2016 season, it will be a state-of-the-art facility called the Sanford Health Athletic Complex (The SHAC).

“It could have been a big inconvenience, and in a lot of ways it is, but in this day and age our guys have had to over communicate. ‘Hey, where are we practicing? Who needs a ride to get there?’ ” said Richman, whose 15th-seeded Bison open the NCAA tournament against No. 2 Gonzaga on Friday. “We’re really excited about the new arena.”

Meanwhile, much like the team on the court, NDSU has had to improvise and adjust.

“It’s been a grind, have weights in one area, practice in another,” said senior guard Lawrence Alexander, the Summit League Player of the Year. “But that’s one thing we wanted to do this year is eliminate excuses. Nobody complained, not that I know of. It’s a reason why we’re going back to the NCAA tournament. We didn’t complain.”

North Dakota State went to the NCAAs last year with six seniors and a strong inside game. The Bison led the country in field-goal percentage and knocked off Oklahoma in the second round in Spokane.

Graduation hit the Bison hard. Coach Saul Phillips left for Ohio after a successful seven-year run. Richman was promoted to head coach and took over a team with one senior (Alexander), picked fifth in the preseason poll.

The offense, led by Alexander’s 18.9 points, has shifted to the perimeter. The Bison are patient, shoot 3-pointers and rarely turn the ball over (9.8 per game, ninth nationally). Their pack-line defense has been stout and an undersized unit has held its own on the boards with every player in the seven-man rotation averaging between 3.8 and 5.4 rebounds.

“I’d be lying if I said our guys haven’t exceeded some expectations and surprised people, including us,” Richman said. “But they didn’t surprise themselves. There was an expectation in the locker room. We really preach culture.

“We’re not the prettiest thing but we defend, take care of the ball and rebound and give ourselves a chance.”

The Bison know how to take advantage of chances. They’re 15-3 in games decided by less than 10 points. They’ve won eight straight single-digit games, including a 60-56 win over Oral Roberts in the Summit League tournament semifinals and a 57-56 decision over South Dakota State in the title game.

North Dakota State was crushed by NCAA tourney teams Texas (85-50) and Iowa (87-56) in its first two games, but “we’ve learned a lot and matured a lot,” Richman said. “Of 16 conference games, I can probably name one or two where we felt comfortable in the closing minutes. Otherwise, it was three overtime wins and a possession here or there.”

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