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North Dakota: The most interesting team in the NCAA Tournament

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Simon Asher

North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker passes to a teammate during practice on Wednesday, March 15. 

SALT LAKE CITY — No. 15 seeded North Dakota doesn’t always make the NCAA Tournament, but when they do—well it’s the first trip for the Fighting Hawks as a Division I school, which makes them one of the most interesting teams in the field of 68.

Usually when No. 15 takes on No. 2, the expectations are how much is the two seed going to win by? 20? 30?

The No. 2 seed is 120-8 all-time against the No. 15 seed, however North Dakota feels optimistic and the Fighting Hawks are coming into the contest with their chest up.

“We talked, just tongue in cheek, we talked about what are some of the things we can do,” said North Dakota head coach Brian Jones. “We can beat them to the Laundromat. We’ve got whiter skin, more pasty skin, as coaches bigger bellies and more bald spots. That’s what we can beat as far as the staff, I don’t know about the team.”

Give credit to Jones, because even he knows all of the odds are against his team,that’s the type of coach that he is—a realist. The type of guy that doesn’t hand out excuse after excuse saying “this team is good, but we have some tricks up our sleeves.”

After all Jones has more experience in this position than his players do and reminisced his playing days with Northern Iowa in 1990. His experiences 27 years ago when his team pulled off the unthinkable and knocked off No. 3 Missouri at the buzzer was shared as the Fighting Hawks prepare for a David vs. Goliath matchup.

“This is something you’re going to remember the rest of your life and you’re going to be able to draw upon through your walk through life, the good and just the life journeys,” Jones said.

They’ve been enjoying it ever since the Fighting Hawks won the Big Sky Conference Tournament and beat Weber State overcoming a 6-point deficit with less than a minute left. To think, UND was 50 seconds away from its season ending, but instead grinded out a victory for the history books.

“It was a big win for the history of UND and also making it for the first time in the tournament,” said Senior guard Corey Baldwin. “Getting back and seeing all the fans celebrate with us, it was a remarkable experience.”

Normally a mid-major team that hasn’t been under the microscope like this has a sellout arena behind the team during Selection Sunday and when their name is called upon, thousands of people go ballistic even though deep down, they know that moment is only brief. North Dakota never had that moment, because the team was wheels up on the way back to Grand Forks, North Dakota from Reno, Nevada.

“We had a 4 a.m. departure from Reno to get home—lovely weather there and then during the selection show, we’re stuck on the tarmac, literally taking off,” Jones said. ”I mean we’re probably 10-feet off the ground right when they showed Arizona and North Dakota. We didn’t have a selection show. Our guys have rallied around our community and the student body. It’s more of a family thing.”

If it’s a family affair, then senior guard Quinton Hooker is Jones’ son. Hooker has been the right-hand man all season long averaging 18.8 points and 3.5 assists per game.

“He was recruited at a higher level out of high school, but because the assistant coach and myself developed a relationship with him at such a young age, he was loyal,” Jones said. “We’ve been blessed to get him and he’s been a program changer for us since he stepped on campus… He’s going to play professional basketball somewhere, and he’s going to make his mark in the future as a husband, father, he’s going to be phenomenal.”

Hooker’s biggest challenge of the seasons is Thursday, he will have to lead the ship against Kadeem Allen, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier and Kobi Simmons.

“In the point guard position, they all get out and go in transition a little bit,” Hooker said. “Trier is a great player too so being able to slow him down and slow down some of his touches is something we’re focused on too.”

Less than a week ago, North Dakota wasn’t even supposed to be here and then figured out its opponent while traveling 1,600 miles back home. Now they’re going toe-to-toe with a team that many have going to the Final Four.

Stay March my friends.

North Dakota fun-facts:

  • Arizona is the highest ranked opponent the Fighting Hawks have faced as a Division-I school. 
  • 11-time NBA championship head coach Phil Jackson is a UND alumnus.
  • Jones was an assistant coach on UCLA head coach Steve Alford’s staff at Iowa from 1999-2006.
  • North Dakota has played in Utah more than any other state since it became a Division-I program. The Fighting Hawks are 11-11 in the Beehive State. 

Follow Justin Spears on Twitter.


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