Northern State’s success is now North Dakota’s promise
If you think of a place that hosts around 26,000 people, you don’t traditionally think of a big city. Yet that’s what Aberdeen, South Dakota lays claim to, making it the third-largest city in the state. Traditionally, the state isn’t really known for powerful basketball players or superstars; its most famous basketball export is likely San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. For the last several years, however, there was something special and underreported going on at Northern State in Aberdeen:
Under head coach Paul Sather, the Wolves of Northern State made a run all the way to the Division II title game in 2017-18. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this; D-2, regrettably, doesn’t get much national coverage. Quietly, Sather was building something special: after a 25-27 start to his time at NSU, Sather won 163 games over his next seven seasons, including an 84-win run over his last three. A regional power under Bob Olson and Don Meyer that had become somewhat dormant had risen again, thanks to one of the most consistently efficient offenses in all of basketball:
Notably to me, Northern State refused all along to let a quality post presence wither away. The Wolves got 2,237 points from post-ups over the last four seasons, per Synergy. That ranks out as the fourth-most points from the post across all levels of basketball since 2015. If you can spot the Don Meyer connection, you can spot that Sather has a real 1990s Lipscomb influence on what he does. “We emphasize ball movement and player movement in our 4-out motion offense with a strong emphasis in getting the ball inside. We call inside touches “heart touches.”” More than any other team in their conference, the Wolves were laden with “heart touches” in 2018-19:
“We felt if teams didn’t double, we were hard to stop inside,” says Sather. This rings true, as no NSIC opponent really slowed down the Wolves for long at all. The Wolves rolled through conference play, going 18-4 and winning the NSIC Conference Tournament. (Notably, their quarterfinal, semifinal, and title game wins were by a combined eight points. That’s living on the edge!) In conference play, the Wolves shot 64.4% at the rim, getting 23 layup/dunk attempts per game. “Basket cuts, back cuts, second cuts, curl cuts and post touches all require defenses to adjust and help,” says Sather.
The optimism that Sather brings to the table is very real. No team came closer to defeating the eventual D-2 champion that NSU did in the first game of the year, losing 72-70 in overtime to Northwest Missouri. While the Wolves lost in their NCAA Tournament opener, it’s hard to be all that mad after a coach brings the school their first Central Region title in 20 years and their first-ever visit to the national championship game. Oh, and they could shoot the ball very well, too:
Northern State made an absurd 41.6% of their threes, a rate that would’ve ranked second-best in D-1 and indeed ranked third-best in D-2. “We get a lot of threes from post kickouts, ball screen options, and drive and space concepts,” notes Sather. Here’s one from an off-ball screen that’s very good-looking:
Because of Northern State’s exceptional success in the post and their elite-level shooters, it was darn near impossible to slow this offense down for any length of time. As Sather told me, if you did double the post, it was a 4-on-3 offensive game with four 39% or better shooters on the floor. “Our bigs worked hard for angled catches and high percentage shots. They were really good at reading double teams and passing out of the post to an advantage,” he says. When they didn’t pass out of the post and went for the basket, it regularly resulted in success:
Now, Sather gets to take his wildly successful offensive system around four hours north to Grand Forks. After Sather’s second straight NSIC Coach of the Year award and the program’s third NCAA Tournament appearance in five years, the University of North Dakota hired Sather away from NSU in late May. North Dakota’s been a D-1 program for ten seasons now, but it hasn’t quite met the levels of success fellow Directional Dakotas (South, South State, North State) have accomplished at the top flight. Sather gets to take over a program that just transitioned to the Summit League – a better mid-major league than most give credit for. It’s a team that returns all but two players from their 2018-19 team. One could easily envision North Dakota making plays like this in the near future:
Sather, expectedly, is jazzed about the opportunity. “There’s no reason the same qualities that helped us be successful at Northern State can’t help us here,” he says. He has a great mindset for what looks like a tough job: “The daily approach of improvement is something that is extremely hard to achieve, especially when things are hard and success isn’t coming easy. [We’re] not focusing on wins or losses, but instead, “did we get better today?” If we can do that at North Dakota, then we believe success will follow.” His unselfish brand of basketball seems like it’ll translate very well.