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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 03 2008

Teams find road league wins hard to come by

Fort Wayne, Ind.

At age 28, Dane Fife is the youngest coach in Division I men’s basketball. But he has experienced his share of games on the road – even before he became the head coach for the Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne team that pounded North Dakota State Saturday 82-63 in a Summit League battle for fourth place.

Fife’s team improved to 9-2 at home. On the road, the Mastodons are winless.

“It is really surprising to me how hard it is to win on the road in this conference,” said Fife, who played for a 2002 Indiana Hoosier team that shared a Big Ten Conference championship before reaching the Final Four. “To me, it seemed easier to win on the road in the Big Ten.”

Fife, whose team next faces a three-game road trip at Centenary, Oral Roberts and Oakland, isn’t the only one trying to figure out the road-game woes.

Saul Phillips continued to scratch his head Saturday after his Bison suffered their fifth conference road loss. Their only league road success dates back to Dec. 8 with a come-from-behind

102-99 overtime at Centenary.

“If I had an answer, I would tell you,” Phillips said. “I do know we are clearly a different team on the road. We just are.”

In their five conference losses on the road, the Bison are now losing by an average score of 74-61. In their five conference homes games, they have beaten four teams by an average score of 88-66.

They looked sharp in Thursday night’s heartbreaking 77-74 loss at Oakland – a game even Oakland coach Greg Kampe felt the Bison deserved to win. But for whatever reason, the Bison did not look sharp Saturday. Some suggested tired legs from Thursday’s exhausting game.

“That’s no excuse,” said Bison point guard Ben Woodside, “because we are going to be playing these Thursday and Saturday games all the time. We just have to get over this hump on the road somehow.”

For coaches like Phillips and Fife, figuring that out is all new territory with their teams competing in the Summit League for the first time. Fife’s search for a road win has more urgency to it, since his IPFW team is eligible to play in the conference postseason tournament. NDSU isn’t eligible until next season.

“We are still aiming for a conference championship,” said Fife, who team now has a 6-5 league record.

With five losses, that may be tough, but it’s not impossible. After all, Oakland posted an 11-5 record during its first season in the league (called the Mid-Continent back then) to win the 2000 regular-season championship.

Oakland, like the Bison this year, wasn’t eligible for the postseason tournament that year. But ever since, Oakland’s focus has been that postseason tournament – where the winner advances to the NCAA tournament.

In 2005, after finishing in a tie for fifth-place in the regular-season standings, Oakland won the postseason tournament, then upset Alabama A&M in the first round of the Big Dance before getting blown out by No. 2-ranked North Carolina.

“What you learn the longer you play in this league is that a league championship is nice, but everything is geared for that league tournament,” said Kampe, who has been Oakland’s head coach for the last 24 years. “We treat the regular season as a work in progress for the tournament. It’s all about positioning yourself for that tournament.”

Kampe vividly remembers the season after his team won that 2000 regular-season title. Many preseason publications listed Valparaiso as the defending league champion.

“They won the tournament,” Kampe said. “That’s all that anybody cares about.”

So if it’s any consolation for the Bison, regular-season conference losses shouldn’t be so devastating. But when all you can play for is that regular-season title, these road losses hurt. This year’s experience certainly should help for next year – a season the Bison have been pointing at ever since they recruited the likes of Woodside, Brett Winkelman, Mike Nelson and Lucas Moormann.

They and all their teammates return next year. Then again, Oakland will return all but one of its players. IPFW, meanwhile, will lose five seniors from this year’s team that hopes to make a run in the postseason tournament.

“North Dakota State has always been our target point,” Fife said after his team’s impressive win Saturday. “We feel if we can keep pace with them, we can get a decent seed in the tournament.

“You can mark my words. North Dakota State will finish in the top two in the league next year. They will be … it’s a done deal.”

That’s little consolation for a Bison team that is still trying to figure out how to win on the road.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com