Last season's Bison pulled off an upset; this year's tournament has been dominated by upsets. Don't expect this upset fever to continue just 282.6 miles by road from Gonzaga's home court.
North Dakota State brings a barely top-100 field goal percentage defense into Seattle with which they'll try to stop the nation's best field goal shooting team. The Bison hold teams to 41.8% shooting from the field while the Zags shoot over 52.4%.
That one comparison is illustrative of this match-up. The Bison are just average in most facets of the game while the Zags range from elite to pedestrian, at worst. The only thing North Dakota State truly excels at is keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Only Arizona does a better job eliminating second-chance opportunities.
Unfortunately for first year head coach Dave Richman, his team hasn't faced an offensive rebound eating machine like Domantas Sabonis yet this season. The freshman center pulls down 13.1% of available offensive rebounds. And he comes off the bench.
Last year's Bison team was led by Marshall Bjorklund and Taylor Braun but it was Lawrence Alexander who hit a three to force overtime in their upset NCAA Tournament win. Braun and Bjorklund are gone and Alexander has taken full advantage of his new leading role
The senior guard averages 38.6 minutes per game, only one player in Division I spends more time on the court than Alexander. He's taken, and made, nearly twice as many shots as anyone else on the team — 196 makes in 459 attempts. He's going to need to come up big if the Bison have any chance to win.
That's because this team is really short and Gonzaga's really tall. Ken Pomereoy's effective height rankings have the Bison 323rd in the nation and the Zags 3rd.
Chris Kading, the Bison's starter at the five spot, stands just 6-foot-8. He's their tallest player. Gonzaga starts a 7-foot-1 center in Przemek Karnowski, a 6-foot-10 power forward in Kyle Wiltjer and brings 6-foot-10 Sabonis off the bench.
So, good luck trying to score inside against those guys with a severely undersized team. That's why it comes down to Alexander for the Bison.
Unfortunately for Alexander, and thus the Bison, he's likely in for a long night.
Gary Bell Jr., whose defensive assignment will be Alexander, was named West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year this season after three consecutive snubs. Bell is one of the nation's best perimeter defenders. He's one of the only players who can make fighting through screens look like a thing of beauty.
Alexander, who plays both guard spots, is backed up by a pair of underclassmen. Sophomore Carlin Dupree is the primary ball handler and freshman Paul Miller gets about a quarter of the time at the two spot. Miller's offensive rating is a reasonable 100.5 but Dupree's is an awful 86.7.
If Alexander gets into foul trouble the fans in Seattle will get to see an elite senior backcourt run a clinic for a pair of underclassmen.
Gonzaga is bigger, taller, more skilled offensively, more impenetrable defensively — sneakily ranked 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom — and flat out better. Plus they have what is essentially a home game.
March is all about the madness, but one of last year's Cinderella stories doesn't stand much of a chance against the Cinderella turned Goliath that is Gonzaga.