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Jeff Kolpack, Published February 13 2013

Molinari has guided Western Illinois into Summit basketball contention

FARGO – The victory totals were just seven two years ago and nine in 2008-09 – Jim Molinari’s first year as the Western Illinois head men’s basketball coach. Times have changed.

Tonight, the veteran coach has his Leathernecks at the Bison Sports Arena as the leader in the Summit League standings. The Leathernecks are getting ESPN attention as a possible NCAA tournament team in what is shaping up to be a four-team battle with North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Oakland.

How did WIU break free from the bottom of the league?

“I think when you build a program, the biggest thing is to stick with your identity when things aren’t going well,” Molinari said.

That identity mirrors NDSU’s identity in at least three ways: Both have head coaches with Wisconsin influence, both have been able to recruit good players to subpar facilities, and both play good defense.

“They remind me a ton of a Dick Bennett-era coached team,” said NDSU head coach Saul Phillips.

Bennett is the former defensive-minded Wisconsin coach who Molinari calls a friend and a mentor. Phillips is a former Badgers assistant.

Molinari maintained the Bennett philosophy even in his third year at WIU in 2010-11 when the program was poised to take a step forward. It didn’t, instead losing four starters and not winning a game in February.

“That was the toughest year,” Molinari said. “Most leaders make mistakes, but you just have to look at your own life. Are you treating people right? Are you doing things right on and off the court?

Then, Molinari said, the Lord blessed him with powerful center Terrell Parks, who came to WIU from Iowa Central Community College. He was able to assemble a Summit-contending roster despite the limitations of its home base of Waste Management Court, which is similar in structure and age to the BSA.

“We’re a no-thrills program, and I believe in basketball, so is NDSU,” Molinari said. “The facility is a question mark for both of us. At least we don’t have to look across the street and see the Houston Astrodome.”

That was a sarcastic reference to the Fargodome. NDSU is in the final stages of fundraising for a BSA renovation, but the fact remains, both teams have recruited top-25 mid-major programs anyway.

“You have to sell relationships,” Molinari said. “I really believe you just have to find the right people.”

Those people play defense – the Leathernecks are third in the country in scoring defense at 52.4 points a game and NDSU is ninth at 55.7. It’s worked. WIU is 10-2 in the league, and NDSU and SDSU are 10-3.

“It could very well be the first one to 50 points,” said Phillips, who said the loss of leading scorer Taylor Braun has slowed the tempo of his team. “You need to play to your personnel.”

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