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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 11 2012

Big game on a big stage: NDSU men's basketball plays No. 1 Indiana tonight

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - No, Saul Phillips did not bring a tape measure to assure his North Dakota State men’s basketball team that the baskets are 10 feet high and the free throw line is at 15 feet. Yet, the Bison could use some “Hoosiers” movie magic tonight when they play at Indiana.

The flick starring Gene Hackman was filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse, an hour north in Indianapolis, where the Bison practiced once a few years ago. Assembly Hall, where NDSU plays tonight, is the anti-Hinkle with its opera-like seating and 1970s architecture.

With a capacity of 17,472, it’s big – and vertical, with a ceiling at least three times the height of the Bison Sports Arena. That will be task No. 1 for the Bison players against the top-ranked Hoosiers: try to avoid the awe factor.

“Just walking in, it’s an incredible setup,” said Bison forward Taylor Braun, looking up and around the arena. “You have seats up to the roof, and there’s so much history here. I think we’re all excited with the opportunity we have, and we’re just ready to play.”

It’s uncertain if John Cougar Mellencamp will be in attendance with his season ticket near the court. It won’t matter, because the star power at Assembly Hall is an arena where the fans are seemingly right on top of the players.

NDSU head coach Saul Phillips is 2-0 in Assembly Hall, with both wins coming as an assistant at the University of Wisconsin. The lower deck is 46 rows high. The upper deck is another 15 rows.

“It’s unique,” Phillips said. “Just the shape of it, and they are literally right on top of you. I’ve always liked this place. It’s a very educated fan base, it’s loud, and it’s just a fun place to play.”

NDSU has played in big venues before, like at Florida, in the Metrodome against Kansas in the NCAA tournament and at the University of Wisconsin, but this stage carries a No. 1 ranking with it.

The IU student section, Phillips said, is one of the more engaged in the country. He said he’s not worried about his veteran players like Braun or center Marshall Bjorklund being intimidated in the big setting.

He’ll be keeping an eye on his freshmen, however.

“It’s a big stage, but you have to take it as another game,” said sophomore guard Lawrence Alexander. “I just block it out. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No matter what the outcome is, it’s a good experience for us.”

When NDSU beat Wisconsin in 2006, the Badgers were ranked 15th. When they beat Marquette a year later, the Golden Eagles were eighth.

In the rankings game, NDSU is stepping up to the top ladder tonight.

“These opportunities don’t come around too often, words honestly can’t describe it,” Braun said. “A lot of us were overlooked by high-major schools, so this is our opportunity to show we can play with them.”

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Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia