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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 26 2011

Schnepf: Victory gives Bison men's basketball team the boost it needs

Dec. 4 seems so long ago.

That’s when Leslie Frazier was trying to make believers out of Minnesota Vikings brass that he should be the next head coach. It’s when the Minnesota Timberwolves were leading us to believe they could hold a lead in the fourth quarter. It’s when North Dakota State’s football team – after its stunning playoff win at Montana – finally made believers out of us all.

And then there was North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team, fresh off a win at rival South Dakota State and on its way to a 7-3 start. The belief back then was the Bison just might be back on track to contend for an NCAA tournament berth – an accomplishment that electrified Bison fans in 2009.

“Our expectations got even a little more heightened,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips.

Too high perhaps. Ever since mid-December, the Bison had won only six more games. Instead of contending for a Summit League title, the Bison dropped like a rock to seventh place. A team that lost 11 single-digit games this season was in desperate need of an energy boost.

They got it Friday night in a regular-season finale against, who else, South Dakota State. In their 10th straight win over the Jacks, the Bison entertained a Bison Sports Arena crowd of 4,136 with seven slam dunks and eight 3-pointers en route to an 84-61 blowout.

In the process, they picked up some much-needed momentum for next week’s Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls.

“Put that in a bottle and pack it up for Sioux Falls,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips. “Our guys have always believed in themselves. But this just feels good, real good.”

Do you believe?

Phillips and his players do. So does athletic director Gene Taylor, who gave Phillips a ringing endorsement Friday while he was in sunny Arizona raising money for the much-needed Bison Sports Arena renovation.

“I think they can beat anybody in the league,” said Taylor, who said he is being very, very patient with the rebuilding process to replace The Fab Four of Woodside, Winkelman, Nelson and Moormann who led the Bison to the promised land two years ago. “We’ve had so much success, I think sometimes our fans get a little ahead of themselves. They have to realize there is so much ebb and flow in college basketball.”

That’s true.

Have you heard much about George Mason or Davidson since their recent Cinderella runs? Even among the Summit League elite, there are going to be some down years.

Since 1999, Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis has yet to win a league title and has one eighth-place finish. Oral Roberts, which recently won four straight league titles, has finished as low as seventh. And Oakland, the current king of the Summit, has placed eighth once and seventh twice.

The Bison, which will be seeded seventh for next week’s tournament, can take solace in the fact that Oakland advanced to its first NCAA Tournament as the Summit’s seventh seed.

“And we have a 3-pointer to beat them at their place this year,” Phillips said, referring to his team’s recent 81-79 loss. “We are close. If you are a long ways away, that’s a helpless feeling. If you are right there, that’s a feeling of ‘let’s get this done sooner than later.’ That’s more impatience than being worried.”

Do you believe?

If not this year, Phillips claims there is plenty of reason for optimism for the future. He loses only two seniors from this year’s team. Four of his freshmen – Marshall Bjorklund, Taylor Braun, Mike Felt and TrayVonn Wright – combined for 49 points Friday night.

The key is finding a ballhandling player who as Phillips put it, “can take over when all heck takes over.” Phillips is hoping someone on the team can step up and become Woodside like. He also is counting on Superior, Wis., recruit Joel Lindberg or transfer Dylan Hale to fulfill that role next season.

“And we have one more scholarship left,” Phillips said. “And that’s the direction we will probably go, finding that one-ball-in-the-hand type of guy.”

For now, the Bison will take that momentum gained from Friday night’s blowout into The Summit tournament. The buzz may be nowhere near it was back in 2009, but the Bison ended up averaging more than 3,000 fans for their home games – the third-best attendance figure in The Summit.

“We have gone through some of the growing pains that we have gone through before,” Phillips said, referring to NDSU’s first three years of its transition to Division I. “Do I feel any pressure? No. I know where this thing is headed. I’ve been through this before here.”

Do you believe?

The Jacks do – even if they are coming off their worst loss of the season.

“We’ve got three games to get to the NCAA tournament,” said SDSU guard Nate Wolters. “We feel we have as good of a shot as anybody.”

So do the Bison, especially after what senior Michael Tveidt called NDSU’s first complete game of the season.

“That gives you a lot of confidence,” Tveidt said. “And we put it together at the right time of year.”

It’s a feeling, Phillips said, that his team had early in the year … way back in December.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

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