Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29. For the other available capsules, click here.
North Dakota ended last season as one of the hottest teams in the Big Sky Conference.
With the seventh-youngest roster in all Division I, UND won four of its final six, including a hard-fought 85-80 win over Southern Utah in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno. The fifth-seeded Fighting Hawks took Tuesday off before destroying fourth-seeded Idaho State, 83-49. North Dakota took Weber State, the eventual tournament champions, to overtime before falling 83-78.
Quinton Hooker was the common factor in closing the season in fine fashion. The burly guard averaged 26 points per game over the final eight, including scoring more than 30 four times and 35 or more on three occasions.
“We did well in the tournament and thought we had a pretty good season but we want to build on that,” Hooker said earlier this season. “That was our biggest motivation: getting so far into the tournament, seeing post season play and wanting to go farther. That’s something we hold on to and want to surpass.”
UND started 5-2 this season, a stretch that included its first win over in-state rival North Dakota State in more than a decade. North Dakota lost the rematch to NDSU on its home court, one of three straight losses — the others were at Northern Iowa and at Iowa — to enter league play on a three-game losing streak.
Hooker enters his senior season as the preseason Big Sky MVP. North Dakota enters Thursday’s league opener at Portland State with hopes at making a run at its first conference title since moving to Division I in 2008.
Current record — 5-5
2015-2016 record: 10-8 in conference play (fifth), 17-16 overall.
Big Sky Tournament finish: North Dakota gutted out a hard-fought 85-80 victory in the first round against 12th-seeded Southern Utah. The fifth seed rode the momentum and took advantage of a day off before ripping Idaho State, 83-49. The Fighting Hawks took eventual champion Weber State to overtime before falling 83-78.
UND lost in overtime in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament to UC Irvine, 89-86.
Head Coach: Brian Jones, 10th season at North Dakota. Jones has led North Dakota to the CIT five times, hosting a game for the first time last season. UND has finished in the top three of the Big Sky twice in four seasons in the league, including a runner-up finish at the 2015 Tournament. Jones is 129-173 at UND, including 38-38 in Big Sky play.
Jones on upcoming conference campaign: “We want to continue to work on our chemistry because that was a key to our success last year. And finishing. We know that from a 17 wins to 24 was a matter of 19 total points, so just being able to finish plays and finish games and the confidence to do so will be key.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Quinton Hooker — The first-team All-Big Sky selection carried the Fighting Hawks down the stretch last season. The surge came to a peak with a classic 38-point performance in an overtime loss to top-seeded Weber State in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
For the season, the 6-foot, 205-pounder averaged 20.1 points per game, shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. He shot 52.3 percent in conference play, including 45.8 percent from deep. The preseason Big Sky MVP also chipped in 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals per contest.
Hooker is shooting 43.8 percent this season and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. He is scoring 17.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game this season.
Geno Crandall — The 6-3 sophomore quickly developed into one of the top perimeter defenders in the league right away last season. He averaged 1.9 steals per game and also chipped 10.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
This season, Crandall has emerged as a real offensive threat while maintaining his stingy defense. He is averaging 13.4 points per game and shooting 48.9 percent from the floor. He is grabbing 3.0 and snaring 1.8 steals per game.
Drick Bernstine —The versatile junior has emerged into one of the most unique weapons in the league, a 6-8 point forward who can initiate the offense while maintaining his prowess as one of the top rebounders in the league. Last season, Bernstine ranked third in the league by grabbing 9.1 boards per game.
This season, he is grabbing 7.8 rebounds and dishing out 4.6 assists, both team bests. Bernstine is averaging 8.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting although he is just 1-of-5 from beyond the arc and 15-31 from the free throw line.
Conner Avants — The 6-7, 230-pounder broke into the starting lineup for all four of UND’s postseason games last season. He scored in double figures eight times in Big Sky play and averaged 8.0 points per game in league play as a true freshman.
This season, he has been the model of efficiency in his first year as a starter. He is 50-of-80 from the floor (62.5 percent) on his way to averaging 11.0 points per game, third on UND. He is grabbing 5.0 rebounds per outing.
Adam McDermott — As a freshman, Doug’s younger cousin averaged 6.7 points per game off the bench, hitting 56 3-pointer and shooting 41 percent from deep. He transferred to Northern Iowa in his native Cedar Rapids.
Shane Benton and Dustin Hobaugh, UND’s only seniors, played less than 200 combined minutes all season and scored a combined 35 points.
Billy Brown — With every player from last year’s rotation returning, Brown is the only new player who has been able to crack rotation. The 6-3 guard is playing 13.5 minutes per game and averaging 3.6 points per outing. He is 4-of-18 from beyond the arc and 9-of-29 overall.
Preseason polls finish: North Dakota received three first-place votes and finished one point out of second place in the coaches poll. UND got one first-place vote from the media and finished fourth.
North Dakota senior guard Qutinon Hooker on Big Sky play: “When you go into league play, you play the majority of the teams twice and being in the league for however many years now, seeing the same guys, you kind of get to know each other and you know their tendencies. But when you get into the Big Sky, it’s all about who wants it more. Who is going to get more stops defensively? That’s the biggest aspect when you get into conference play.”