Troy Huff and his fellow seniors on the University of North Dakota basketball team are no strangers to playing in sold-out arenas that are full of quirks and hostile fans, such as “The Pit” in Albuquerque, N.M. They have experienced the intimidating pomp and circumstance of basketball in places like Manhattan, Kan., where the “Octagon of Doom” awaits visiting teams. They have even traveled to one of college basketball’s meccas, “The Phog,” as in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan.
It’s safe to say that a trip to Madison, Wis. to take on the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers tonight was not a big deal to those players that have helped North Dakota navigate its first few seasons of NCAA Division-I basketball. Instead, trips like tonight are a part of the polishing process for Huff’s team, which toiled for two years in the Great West Conference before moving to the Big Sky Conference last year. North Dakota has built its program with players that flew under the radar in their home states; there isn’t a single player from North Dakota on the team. Instead, the roster has been composed of under-recruited players from eight states and one Canadian province.
Huff, who is a Milwaukee native, is the quintessential example of the type of player that North Dakota has recruited to Fargo since the program transitioned to Division-I. He played in the Kohl Center for the second time against a team that did not recruit him heavily in high school. His first go-round against the Badgers in Madison was a rousing success for him — he had 21 points off the bench as a true freshman — but his team fell 85-53. This time, Huff proved that his performance three years ago was not a fluke, as he had 26 points at halftime and 37 points overall in a game that Wisconsin won 103-85.
Tonight served as proof that North Dakota is not afraid of playing teams from power conferences, and it also showed that the team has developed into an attractive option for fans looking for a sleeper team this season. The Big Sky Conference’s coaches recognize how good North Dakota is; the team was picked to finish second in the conference this year after finishing third in the standings last year. North Dakota is a team that is a diamond in the rough; they can score in bunches but must shore up their defense, especially on the interior. Anyone that scores 85 points on Wisconsin must be taken seriously. If they can add some defensive presence to their rotation, they may find themselves shining like a diamond in March.
North Dakota has a group of strong seniors that have played — and succeeded — in intimidating environments against teams with superior talent levels. This team has been digging around the nation for players, bringing them to campus and honing their games for several years. The result of the game wasn’t a win, as the players and coaches surely would have preferred, but the experience of playing games like this over the past four seasons will have positive ramifications for North Dakota come tournament time.