Like playing a video game with varying levels of difficulty, Brett Winkelman is feeling comfortable in the second stage and is looking forward to the third.
Winkelman, a North Dakota State University senior from Morris, should have no difficulty figuring out what lies ahead or how to get there. After all, the Tribune's 2004 Hengstler-Ranweiler Award winner for outstanding male athlete, not only excels on the court; he was selected Wednesday to the ESPN The Magazine's University Division Academic All-American first team for the second straight year. He was on the second team as a sophomore. He is only the third NDSU athlete all-time to receive the honor. Winkelman has a 3.88 cumulative grade-point-average in industrial engineering and management with a minor in business administration.
Okay, so we know he's smart. But does he also have game?
Well, the 6-foot-6 forward has scored in double figures in 38 straight games, the second-longest streak in the nation. He is second all-time in scoring at NDSU with 1,838 points and fourth in career rebounds with 815. Currently, he is the Summit League's fifth-leading scorer at 18.1 points-per-game, is fourth in rebounding at 7.8 per game and second in free-throw percentage at .892.
"To be honest, all the pieces fell into place when I came here," said Winkelman, by telephone on Tuesday. "I know I made the right decision to come here. We're on top of the conference with a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. That would be a dream-come true."
NDSU is currently 14-2 in the Summit League and 21-6 overall. The Bison close out the regular-season with road games at ninth-place Centenary and second-place Oral Roberts. Winning both games would give NDSU the Summit League title and an automatic bid to the NIT. The conference tournament starts next week. If the Bison also win that, they would receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"It's hard not to look ahead when you think how big that would be for the team and the school," said Winkelman. "But this team really is focused on winning one game at a time. One of our goals was to win the conference and that's what we're focused on now. Then we'll focus on trying to win the conference tournament."
Winkelman's numbers have been steady and impressive throughout his campaign with the Bison. He has started every game in his four seasons, 111 straight heading into today's game.
This season, the versatile Winkelman is averaging 18.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
"It's been a very gratifying season," he admitted. "We got some national recognition when we almost beat USC (16-10) on the road. We had them almost the whole game and lost at the end. I think that proved we could play with anyone in the nation and that's how we feel if we do get into the NCAA."
Winkelman isn't concerned with his numbers, feeling it's something he will look back on in future years. But when pressed to pick one game that stood out for him individually, he recalls a game last season against Centenary.
"We were on the road and we came back and won by three in overtime," he recalled. "I had my career-high (39 points) in that game. It's always nice to win a conference game, but even more gratifying when it's on the road."
Winkelman spends a lot of time on the road in the winter. He figures he has played in "30 to 40 states" in his career, including today's game in Louisiana.
One thing that disappoints Winkelman is he didn't get to taste victory in "The Barn". Playing the Gophers for four straight years at Williams Arena, the Bison were 0-4, including a 90-76 setback this season on Nov. 29.
"The Barn hasn't good to us," he said. "It's frustrating because we never played well there for some reason."
Winkelman has been contacted by several agents who anticipate the NDSU star to have a future at a professional level.
"I can't talk to any of them now," Winkelman said. "But when the season is over, I plan to hire an agent and then explore my options. I feel I can play at the next leve, whether it's the NBA or Europe or wherever. I'm confident in my abilities. I'd probably have to be a small forward."
When Winkleman was asked to scout himself, he felt his versatility is his greatest asset.
"I can play inside or outside," he said. "One night I might be defending the point guard and the next I'm defending the center. I can post-up or drive to the basket or shoot the three. I feel I'm strong to the finish on my drives. I have things I need to get better at, too. I need to get better at coming off a screen and taking the quick shot. I'm not a deadly shooter, but it's something I'll work harder at."
But for now, the focus remains on the current Bison stampede ... a step at a time.