March comes with a lot of great components, warmer weather, spring break, and NCAA tournament basketball. The USF Cougars men’s basketball team look to punch their ticket to the Division 2 tournament as they tipped off NSIC tournament play at the Stewart Center last Wednesday in Sioux Falls. Trevon Evans led the way for the Cougars with 23 points and the team shot 55 percent from the field as they defeated Minot State 96-51 and they move on to the second round at the Sanford Pentagon here in Sioux Falls. USF gets revenge from their January 19 meeting with the Beavers and the way games are playing out, it seems to be a trend of avenge games for the Cougars.
The Cougars will meet the number 24 ranked team in the country Northern State next, a team they have never beaten since joining the NSIC in 2012. Northern State walks into the Pentagon as the number one seed, reigning conference champions, and runner ups to the national title a year ago. To add insult to injury, the Cougars have never gotten past the second round of the conference tournament, history does not favor USF. But despite all of that, this tournament has proven so far to not undersell the underdogs.
The first round has given us these upsets: Minnesota-Crookston beats number four seed Augustana, Winona State beats five seed Minnesota-Duluth, and second to last seed Bemidji State beating number two seed MSU-Mankato. USF was able to avoid an upset of their own but they now face a tough test from NSU, but USF has one factor that only one of those other teams that won can say, the Cougars have not one, but two All-NSIC Conference players, one more than Northern State. Trevon Evans, the senior transfer student from Dodge City, Kansas is having a stellar year for USF averaging 22.9 points per game and he is met by fellow senior Drew Guebert who is averaging 19.1 points per game and they are leading the charge for a USF team that had big expectations going into the year.
Nationally ranked in the preseason, the Cougars had an up and down year in the NSIC winning great games against top class opponents, but also losing to teams they are so much more talented than. The Cougars, who finished the regular season 18-10, currently are not seeded in the regional rankings to qualify for the tournament so it seems the only way in is to win the NSIC, and the case for USF to win it all is a strong one.
Northern State, one of the best defensive teams in the country, had six losses all year and in all those losses the winning team shot over 50 percent from the field, forcing NSU to score the ball. USF played Northern State physically tough and shot 47 percent from the field but in the end, the Wolves won 90-84 in a surprisingly high scoring game when Evans had 28 points. Physicality was the best way to describe that basketball game and it is the best way to beat Northern State. NSU is subject to dominating games but all but two conference wins by double digits were to teams that did not finish with ten or more wins in conference play. NSU carries some of the best team statistics in the NSIC but it is going to all come down to second chance points, three point shooting, and the play of the all conference players.
The top rebounding teams offensively and defensively belong to NSU and USF so expect to see a strong battle on the boards. It is going to be key for the Cougars to create second chance points to keep pace. Stopping Ian Smith of NSU is a tough task but one the Cougars will have to do. Ian Smith, all-conference point guard, is top 20 in the conference in shooting but it is what he does to set up teammates and creating scoring chances that makes him such a dangerous player. Evans and Geubert are both top ten in scoring in the NSIC and they had great showings last time they played NSU, but they are going to need to shoot consistently and also play some defense. USF has some size to match NSU like Geubert and senior Justin Taylor and this core will have to play their best defense to this point.
USF looks to get a huge monkey off their back in many ways. Avenge their hard fought loss to NSU earlier in the year as well as beat them for the first time and winning at the Pentagon for the first time in tournament play. The Cougars have a talented roster and great coaching that can compete with these great teams and if the Cougars can continue the upset chain going around, the path the tournament comes more clear.
A rise in regional rankings along with a strong chance to win the NSIC will exercise all the demons haunting head coach Chris Johnson and the Cougars since their arrival in the NSIC. Momentum is a real thing in sports and it seems USF is riding it into their game on Sunday as they aim for the conference crown and go on a run to the NCAA tournament. March Madness works in mysterious ways, it shows true grit and effort from teams no matter how big or small and it will be seen how bad the Cougars want it.
Sanford NSIC Men’s Basketball Quarterfinals
University of Sioux Falls Cougars vs. #24 Northern State University Wolves
12:00 PM, Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, SD