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There might finally be momentum in Grand Forks

North Dakota seems poised to contend — at long last since joining the Summit League in 2019.

Kerry Ring, UND Athletics

You could call it a grand catastrophe in Grand Forks.

Last November, Pacific had its way with North Dakota, hammering the Fighting Hawks in their own building in a 30-point win. This November, many of the faces were the same, but the result was very different. UND scrapped out a two-point win in Stockton on Monday night, a home-and-home, year-over-year reversal in fortune that should have the Summit League’s attention.

With its mix of returners and newcomers, UND looks poised to make noise in the league for the first time since joining the fray – and uniting the Dakota schools – in 2019 when the Fighting Hawks left the Big Sky Conference. There could well be a sleeper of a contender in Grand Forks.

To be sure, last year was a rollercoaster for UND. Despite the home blowout loss to the Tigers, UND did have a decent non-conference run, but then stumbled to a 1-10 start in Summit play. They let several close games slip away at home, and were especially porous defensively on the road. But that lopsided conference record wouldn’t define their season.

With a more 3-point heavy attack, UND finished the 2022-23 season on a 6-3 run, with a win in the conference tournament to punctuate it. When the dust settled, Paul Sather had been handed an extension and with several notable returnees – including talented sophomore B.J. Omot – there was suddenly momentum.

“We finished last season really strong, and I think that’s been building up to this upcoming season,” senior Tsotne Tsartsidze said in October.

Through four games, that upward trajectory seems intact. The notable WCC win moved the Fighting Hawks to 3-1, their best start since 2019. And, while that is a small sample size, there have been encouraging signs up and down the roster.

Omot has played like an all-league caliber player (18.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), while fellow sophomore Treysen Eaglestaff (14.0 ppg, 39.3% 3FG) has looked equally likely to break a game open from deep. Tsartsidze (13.8 ppg) is off to a strong start offensively, and hit the winning basket on a face up drive against Pacific.

For Sather, that start just scratches the surface.

Last year, he said the staff had to massage things, to focus on keeping players engaged while the team was going through its early struggles. This year, the job is a bit different.

“As a coaching staff we need to push, we need to push harder, to get them to understand what they’re capable of,” he said in October. “I really think this team has a great ceiling on it and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to push through that, and see what we can become.”

Part of what UND seems poised to become is a dangerous, varied offensive team.

That began to show itself during the Fighting Hawks run to finish last year. After struggling to crack the 60-point mark for much of the conference season, the team turned a corner. According to barttorvik.com, from Feb. 4 to the end of the season, the Fighting Hawks posted the third-best offensive efficiency in the Summit League, trailing only Oral Roberts – an undefeated juggernaut – and a very good South Dakota State team.

Several of the key figures in that run are back, such as Omot, Eaglestaff, Tsartsidze and wing Brady Danielson. And while they’ve been complemented by an influx of newcomers, the returnees have made sure that vibe from the end of last season has continued to resonate in the program.

“You see those guys taking that next step ownership-wise, just the maturity of it, the growth of it, and understanding what it’s going to take,” Sather said. “And then when you add new pieces there’s that communication and carry over that these are our expectations, are and this is what we need to become.”

Reaching that highest level could be tied in large part to one particular newcomer: Eli King. The point guard, a former three-star prep recruit and Minnesota Mr. Basketball finalist, brought a pedigree not often seen in the Summit when he transferred from Iowa State in the offseason. He also filled a lead guard role that Sather needed, and had his strongest game against Pacific (12 points, eight rebounds, five assists).

King looked at ease handling the UND offense, and is a capable enough three-level scorer to keep defenses on their toes through the year. That could work wonders for Omot, UND’s biggest wild card as it looks to leap over the fifth-place ranking given to them in the league’s preseason poll.

Sather said the lanky sophomore wing had a good offseason, bringing the energy needed to each practice to elevate a game that could put him among the best in the Summit League. Now, it’s about continuing to translate that talent on the court.

The fifth-year coach talked about what he wants to see from his young star.

“Maybe see him get to the free throw line, see him be a little more physical, a little more aggressive and better at finishing,” Sather said. “Be a lockdown, shutdown defensive player. There’s so many things he can do to impact the game.”

That talent was on display in spurts against Pacific. Omot drilled a deep three early in the first half, and followed it on the next possession with an athletic help side block to start a Fighting Hawks’ fast break. It’s that impact on a game that landed Omot on the Summit’s all-league second team.

Whether it’s him, Eaglestaff’s range, Tsartsidze’s face up game in the frontcourt or the rugged rebounding of JuCo transfer Amar Kuljuhovic, the Fighting Hawks have plenty of cards up their sleeve this season. Could it be enough to finally break through since joining the Summit five years ago, and bringing the four Dakota schools together in a single Division I conference?

What is good for the goose may be good for the gander. It wasn’t that long ago – 2017 – that UND was the toast of the Big Sky under Brian Jones, going 14-4 and making the NCAA Tournament. With stability at the coaching position and a surge of momentum, the hope in Grand Forks must be that UND can join North Dakota State, South Dakota State and, to a lesser extent, South Dakota, as consistent factors every year in the Summit race.

“I think we are really deep, we have a lot of good players that can do a lot of things on the floor,” Tsartsidze said in October.

Through four games, the team has done nothing to dispel that, and looks poised to continue pushing forward and, potentially, challenging in the Summit.