Three years ago, the Arizona Wildcats faced a team from the Big Sky Conference in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament and came away impressed.
“It was a tough game,” Sean Miller recalls, referring to when Arizona beat 16-seed Weber State 68-59. “They were one of the best coached teams we played during that season.”
On Thursday, the Wildcats will open the NCAA Tournament against a different Big Sky team — the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, who won not only the Big Sky conference tournament, but also the regular season championship as well.
“Now we’re playing another team from that same conference and we know it will be a challenge,” Miller said. “We’re not looking past that game. It’s about that game.”
North Dakota went 22-9 this season, including a 14-4 record in the Big Sky.
Here’s what you need to know about the Fighting Hawks, who are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division 1 level:
UND is undersized
As you can see from its depth chart above, North Dakota is a small team, with all but one of its rotation players being 6-foot-8 or shorter — which is not uncommon for mid-major teams.
For UND that leads to two things. First, the Fighting Hawks play at a brisk pace. They are 34th in the country in adjusted tempo, averaging 72.6 possessions per 40 minutes. For reference, Arizona plays at a much more methodical pace, averaging 67.3 possessions.
Secondly, North Dakota is not a strong rebounding team. It is 277th (of 351) in college basketball in offensive rebounding percentage (26.2) and 120th in defensive rebounding percentage (28.0).
The Fighting Hawks actually had a +1.0 rebounding margin this season, but surely they have not faced a team that’s as big across the board as Arizona.
UND is an uptempo, good shooting team with an explosive trio of guards
As mentioned above, North Dakota plays an uptempo style of basketball, and is at its best when it plays in high-scoring games.
UND averages 80.5 points per game, and is 16-0 this season when scoring 80 or more points. The Fighting Hawks were 6-9 when scoring fewer than 80 points.
North Dakota has a trio of dynamic guards that does most of its scoring.
First in the pecking order is Quinton Hooker, who was a unanimous selection to the All-Big-Sky team. The 6-foot senior averaged a team-high 19.1 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3, and 88 percent from the free-throw line.
Hooker is not just a scorer, though, he averages 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game.
The senior is the only player in North Dakota history to score 1,700 points, grab 400 rebounds, dish out 400 assists, and collect 150 steals in a career.
Hooker scored 28 points in North Dakota’s 93-89 overtime win in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game.
Alongside Hooker on the wing is Geno Crandall and Corey Baldwin, who are UND’s second- and third-leading scorers.
Crandall, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, averages 15.6 points per game and shoots north of 50 percent from the field. He is also connecting on 35.8 of his 3-point attempts.
Baldwin, a 6-foot-4 senior, averages 10.3 points per game and is the team’s best shooter, checking in at 42 percent from beyond the arc.
As a team, North Dakota shoots a relatively high percent from 3 (38.4), but it does not take many of them as only 27 percent of its points come via the 3-point line (which ranks 277th in the country).
As a whole, North Dakota shoots 48 percent from the field (the 19th-best percentage in the country) and 72 percent from the free throw line. The Fighting Hawks average 108.7 points per 100 possessions, giving them the 84th-best offense in the country.
Sophomore forward Conner Avants averages 9.8 points per game on 56.5 percent shooting, doing nearly all of his damage inside the arc.
“Mostly man” defense
Per KenPom, North Dakota plays mostly man defense.
The Fighting Hawks were the top defensive team in the Big Sky, holding teams to 98.3 points per 100 possessions.
North Dakota is an opportunistic on that end of the floor, posting the 47th-best steal percentage in college basketball (10.3). Crandall averages 2.1 steals per game, while Hooker swipes 1.8 steals per game.
It’s a big reason why the Fighting Hawks had a +1.94 turnover differential this season. At the same time, rim-protection is an issue for North Dakota as Carson Shanks, the team’s lone 7-footer, leads the team in blocks, but only has 21 in 30 games.
In total, North Dakota is 256th in college basketball in block percentage, as its lack of size hurts in that department.
- North Dakota played one Power-5 school this season, losing 84-73 to Iowa in Iowa City.
- The one common opponent UND has with Arizona is Cal State Bakersfield, which it beat 57-55 on a neutral site.
- Crandall was named to the All-Big-Sky second team
- Reserve guard Cortez Seales was the Big Sky’s Reserve of the Year, averaging 8.7 points and 3.4 rebounds off the bench.
Date: Thursday, March 16
Time: 6:50 p.m. PST
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire