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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 02 2012

Schnepf: Visions of arena project fresh in everyone's minds

Fargo - Could it be at this time in two years, a North Dakota State men’s basketball team could be playing in a genuine basketball arena?

That’s the hope among the Bison brass who continue to raise money for the planned $32 million overhaul of the 42-year-old Bison Sports Arena. They hope to break ground this fall and by the 2014 season, Bison fans won’t even recognize the aging building that held its 573rd men’s game Thursday night.

“I can’t wait … I just can’t wait,” said head coach Saul Phillips, whose young and impressive Bison rolled to an 85-64 win over Southern Utah on Thursday night in front of 2,347 fans – most of whom were once again willing to sit on the warped wooden bleachers.

For the record, the win improved NDSU’s BSA record to 437-136. But as kind as the BSA has been to the Bison, it has been long overdue for NDSU to play in a real basketball arena – one with chair-back seats, VIP seating, suites, real concession stands in real concourses, one in which there won’t be a bad seat in the oval-shaped house and one in which there will be real locker rooms.

“It’s not like we’re going in and having to convince people that this is a good idea,” said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor. “It’s the next biggest thing for our program to continue to be able to grow and be successful.”

Thanks mostly to a $10 million donation from Sanford Health and $5 million more from Scheels, NDSU has raised nearly $23 million of the $32 million it needs to start the renovation. The first phase of the project has already begun, with the construction of a new indoor track that is expected to open in September.

Phillips can see the progression of that project every day looking out the window of his office, which was once invaded by a sparrow.

“That’s been very heartening for me to see,” Phillips said of the 78,000-square foot building that will house an eight-lane track and seating for 1,000. “Just having that building will be an incredible improvement. At least now, we’ll be able to have practices without having shot puts being thrown around us.”

If NDSU can indeed break ground this fall, construction crews will be working on everything but the BSA. Construction will begin on a new basketball practice facility that will be added on the southwest corner of the BSA. A new weight room will be built on the west side of the BSA overlooking the practice football field that used to be Dacotah Field. New offices and locker rooms will be built.

While all that is going on, the Bison will practice and play games in the BSA next season. Once that season ends, the BSA will be gutted and the eight-month renovation will begin, finished in time for the 2014 season.

“Hey, I will play in a park if I have to,” Phillips said.

Hours before Phillips’ Bison played Thursday night, Taylor met with yet another potential donor. This is not your $50 donation type campaign. Taylor said they are asking for anywhere from five to seven figures. For those of us unfamiliar with that kind of money, that means anywhere from $10,000 to $1 million.

“We have folks lined up, and if they say yes, that can close that gap pretty quickly,” said Taylor, who is hoping his annual trip to Arizona later this month could generate even more donations from alumni. “The response has been awesome. Almost everybody wants to help, it’s just a matter if they can and at what level they can.”

The level of interest in Bison men’s basketball is already pretty high. Entering Thursday night’s game, the average attendance was 3,139, third-best in the Summit League behind Oakland (3,738) and Oral Roberts (4,131).

So do Bison players ever wonder what it would be like to play in a real basketball arena?

“Yeah, we wonder,” said sophomore Mike Felt, who along with a number of other key sophomores and freshmen could find out in two years. “But the BSA is our home right now. We are very comfortable here right now.”

At least for another full season.

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