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NCAA Tournament: North Dakota embraces underdog status, has to run, rebound and ‘value the basketball’ to upset Arizona

The Fighting Hawks are used to being the underdogs

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Salt Lake City Practice Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As a 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament, North Dakota knows Thursday’s First Round matchup against the Arizona Wildcats is going to be an uphill battle.

But being the underdog is nothing new for the team from the Big Sky Conference.

“I say we definitely like it,” UND big man Drick Bernstine said. “I think even last year, just building off of last year, nobody ever thought we'd be any good. We snuck up on people last year. We ended up losing in the semifinals [of the Big Sky Tournament]. As of this year I think we're still kind of sneaking up on people because they just didn't really believe it. Like North Dakota basketball has never been this great. It's something you've got to embrace. It's a really good thing. We all kind of take that under our wing and just walk with a chip on our shoulder knowing that people don't really believe sometimes.”

People definitely aren’t believing in North Dakota this time. Even though the Fighting Hawks won both the Big Sky regular season championship and the conference tournament, the Wildcats opened as 17-point favorites for Thursday’s game.

In general, a 15-seed beating a 2-seed is rare, but it’s certainly not unprecedented (Arizona fans know that firsthand).

Still, UND would have to play a near-perfect game to beat Arizona, while executing what head coach Brian Jones deems its keys to the game — run, rebound, and take care of the ball.

“Running is a big part of what we do,” he said. “The thing that I want to stress to our guys is we've got to be who we are. You don't get to the big stage and all of a sudden forget about what you've done through 31 games. We want to be able to get out and play fast, because that's what we've done.”

The Fighting Hawks are 34th in the country in adjusted tempo and are 16-0 this season when scoring 80 points or more.

“But I think the key for us is we've got to be able to rebound, obviously, with their length, and value the basketball,” Jones said. “They are so good defensively. I don't know, maybe they do, and obviously we're just getting the first time we're playing them, but obviously in the Pac-12 and watching them from afar, I don't know how much credit they get defensively, how good they are. Not just their guard play, as far as knocking the ball loose, but once you do get a chance to get your feet in the paint their length at the rim. We're going to have to do a great job of finding ways to get great shots, and that's not always easy against a superior defensive team.”

Limiting turnovers against a team like Arizona is easier said than done, too.

“So I think offensively we have to value the basketball, we've got to be able to get great shots for us with floor balance,” Jones said. “But defensively we've got to really just get back in transition and find ways to slow them up the best we can. We don't have the size. But one thing we do have is kids who are fearless, and they've shown that all year long, and just continue to be fearless and resilient and find a way to stick around through the course of the 40 minutes.”

No zone against ‘Zona

Jones said he watched Arizona’s games against Northern Colorado and Cal State Bakersfield to get a realistic look at what the Fighting Hawks will be up against on Thursday.

“I'm a film junkie, so I try to watch everything,” he said. “That was more our level, type of bodies that we present against them.”

Jones said he noticed those two teams had success playing zone against the Wildcats, but his team won’t be doing same.

“That's something we don't do,” Jones said. “That's why it's a little different for us.

“I'm a coach that looks under every rock I can just to find an advantage, whether it's the first game of the year or the last game of the year. I've watched everything. I've tried to call some coaches, even just to pick their brain. But it's still -- it's going to be a tremendous task for us.”

Which means UND is in a familiar position.

“Being the underdog is something that here at North Dakota we've been for most of us the entire time we've been here,” star guard Quinton Hooker said. “God has put us all here for a reason. We think we're a special group.”

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