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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 20 2009

Domed enthusiasm: Anticipation increases as NDSU, Kansas players practice at Metrodome

MINNEAPOLIS – Cole Aldrich remembers coming to the Metrodome three years ago as a spectator.

The Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High School basketball standout watched Florida play in an NCAA tournament game en route to the first of its two consecutive Division I national championships.

Little did Aldrich

realize that the next time he would return to the Metrodome he would be playing for a defending national champion. And little did the North Dakota State men’s basketball players realize that they would get a second shot at playing a defending national champion.

After opening last season playing that same Florida team Aldrich saw, the Bison will play Aldrich and defending national champion Kansas in today’s 11:30 a.m. NCAA tournament game in the Metrodome.

“Obviously, that makes it a little more special if we did pull off the upset,” said Brett Winkelman, one of NDSU’s four fifth-year senior starters. “Any time you can go against the best, you’re excited and it’s exactly what you want.”

It’s what the Bison wanted when they opened the 2007-08 season at Florida – even though they lost 75-65.

Somewhat similar to this year’s Kansas team, Florida was rebuilding after losing most of its starters either to graduation or the NBA draft.

The big difference: Florida failed to reach the NCAA tournament while Kansas, a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, qualified for its 20th straight appearance in the “Big Dance.”

“We’re going to have to play very, very well,” said NDSU head coach Saul Phillips.

During the last four seasons, the Bison have shown they can play well against high-major teams. But in the 12 times Winkelman, Ben Woodside, Mike Nelson and Lucas Moormann have played high majors, they have won only twice.

There was the 62-55 win at Wisconsin when they were freshmen, and the 64-60 win at Marquette as sophomores. Take away the four blowouts they suffered to Minnesota, the Bison have shown they can compete against high majors – losing 85-81 at Texas Tech, 83-81 at home against Kansas State, 86-72 at California and most recently, 61-57 at Southern Cal.

“We played at a pretty high level and had a chance but didn’t quite get it done,” Phillips said, referring to the Dec. 20 loss at USC in which the Bison had a 48-42 lead with nine minutes remaining. “Hopefully, we fare a little better this time.”

USC, which got hot and won last week’s Pac-10 Conference tournament, is scheduled to play in the Metrodome at 6:20 p.m. today against Boston College.

“Both USC and Kansas are capable of putting on defensive pressure that will take you out of what you are trying to do,” Phillips said. “The biggest thing is when you’re playing a high major, there’s a length on the court. They’re longer, they’re maybe a little bit quicker to the ball and that’s hard to simulate in practice.”

The Bison tried Tuesday in its final tune-up at the Bison Sports Arena. To try and equal the Jayhawks’ fast-breaking transition game, NDSU’s scout team sprinted down court as fast as they could during scrimmages.

“It felt like preseason conditioning drills,” said Bison senior Mike Nelson.

The Bison starters also ran their offense against six defenders, challenged to successfully pass the ball 10 times before shooting.

“We don’t look like these teams physically, so it’s hard for us to simulate what they do,” Phillips said.

There’s no substitute for actually playing the high-major team, according to Bison sophomore Michael Tveidt.

“It helps a lot with composure and knowing we have the ability to play with those high major teams,” Tveidt said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be

found at www.areavoices.com