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Mike McFeely, Published March 20 2009

McFeely: Bison handling attention with poise

Minneapolis−Saul Phillips chatted for a few minutes Thursday with Gus Johnson and Len Elmore of CBS, who will call North Dakota State’s NCAA tournament debut today for the television masses.

The Bison coach finished that conversation and sauntered down the Metrodome’s courtside press row to a familiar face. He looked around the cavernous building at the 50,000 empty blue seats and asked the following question:

“How far are we from New Jersey Tech?”

Only about a million light years.

New Jersey Tech is the bush-league Division I newbie whose home court allegedly seats 1,500. This was the place where badminton matches were being played on an adjacent court during a Bison-Tech basketball game a few years ago.

There will be none of that this week. The Bison stepped on the big stage Thursday, meeting with the media and having a very casual 40-minute workout at the site of the Midwest Regional. If the Bison felt like deer in the headlights, they didn’t show it.

“An absolute blast,” Phillips said, when asked to describe the craziest week of his brief head-coaching career.

Phillips is that kind of guy, the fellow who could strike up a conversation with a fence post and make it entertaining. The cameras, microphones and legions of back-slappers at the NCAA tourney are a nuisance to some dour coaches. To Phillips, the circus is a belt-high fastball.

He brought a couple of dry-erase boards as props to his media session and opened the festivities with a joke, which intense West Virginia coach Bob Huggins will not do anytime soon.

“I was gravely disappointed that President Obama did not pick us in the brackets,” Phillips deadpanned. “But everything else is fine.”

Bison players have taken the cue. The four fifth-year seniors put behind the microphones and in front of the bright lights were chatty and funny, enjoying their 20 minutes of Q-and-A.

“It’s just been extremely exciting for not only us, but Fargo and the community. People don’t really talk about Fargo too much, so it was a great opportunity to put Fargo on the map,” guard Mike Nelson said. “We’ve been soaking it all up this last week. We don’t want it to end, so hopefully we can keep it going.”

Later, outside NDSU’s locker room, star guard Ben Woodside handled 15 more minutes of notebooks, cameras and recorders.

“It’s been pretty crazy and pretty hectic. I’ve never had so many interviews or been in the spotlight so much in my entire life,” he said. “Obviously, we love that because NDSU doesn’t get the national media all the time. We’re satisfied with that. Going to the NCAA tournament and being this busy – I’ll take that any day of the week.”

Kansas, the team NDSU will play today, is used to this royal treatment. What is it they say about the Jayhawks? Kansas didn’t invent basketball, but the man who did coached there. Dr. James Naismith was the school’s first coach, from 1898-1907. Kansas has five national championships, including last year. The Jayhawks are regular visitors to national television audiences.

Not so for the little Fargo team, which is still getting used to seeing itself on ESPN.

“At most high majors, they probably turn the channel because they see themselves so many times,” Woodside said. “I think myself and our teammates, we watched it a couple of extra times just to get a good look at it.”

A long way from New Jersey Tech – and other less-than-glamorous locales – the Bison are handling the big stage with aplomb.

Forum columnist Mike McFeely can be heard from 1 to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com

McFeely’s blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/mcfeely