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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 13 2013

Schnepf: Bison fans miss out at Summit League tournament

Sioux Falls, S.D. - Where were all the Bison fans? Renowned for its massive following in football, North Dakota State had dismal representation Tuesday night when its men’s basketball team was playing for a chance to advance to the NCAA tournament – the Big Dance – perhaps the biggest spectacle in sports.

The few fans who ventured down I-29 – 500 at the most – were suffocated by the 6,000-plus screaming South Dakota State fans who saw their team win its second straight Summit League tournament championship.

So where were all the Bison fans Tuesday night? Perhaps they spent all their vacation money in Frisco, Texas.

It didn’t help driving conditions on I-29 were treacherous at times. It didn’t help that Tuesday night’s game was billed as a sellout. Instead of risking driving into the ditch or being unable to snatch a ticket, many stayed home and watched the game on ESPN2.

It didn’t help that the students were on spring break. The ones that were there – mostly in the pep band – were quite surprisingly loud. But any noise they generated was quickly drowned out by all those SDSU fans.

There were far more Bison fans in the Sioux Falls Arena back in 2009 when their team won the tournament. And there would have been more had there not been a Red River Valley blizzard on that day.

Then again, that was the first time NDSU was eligible to play for an NCAA tournament berth. It was a new experience. And, unlike this year’s team, the 2009 Bison were expected to win.

So where were all the Bison fans?

Bison head coach Saul Phillips couldn’t help but allude to that question during the postgame news conference.

“They don’t start selling Summit tickets in secret,” Phillips said. “I’m challenging our fans. Let’s fill this bad boy up next year … with us.”

While many Bison fans have already booked motel rooms for next year’s football championship game in Frisco, it’s unlikely they’re making reservations in Sioux Falls for next year’s Summit League tournament.

They should be. Next year’s team should be even better than the one that came very close to reaching the Big Dance, the one that had an RPI ranking of 69 – two spots better than SDSU.

The only player they lose is backup guard Nate Zastrow.

Perhaps Bison officials consider marketing this team now. They could look at purchasing a block of 1,000 Summit League tournament tickets when they go on sale next fall. They could create a campaign to promote this team with the hopes of selling every one of those tickets during the course of the regular season.

It’s something to consider. After all, this tournament isn’t going anywhere else in the near future. It will be played in the Sioux Falls Arena one more time before moving next door to the brand-spanking new 12,000-seat Denny Sanford Premier Center for at least the next eight years.

Yes, it is a definite home-court advantage for schools like South Dakota State – an hour to the north of Sioux Falls – and league newcomer South Dakota – and hour to the south.

There may be those who cry, “That’s just not fair.”

“Forget that noise,” Phillips said, only minutes after his team struggled to hear some of his instructions during Tuesday night’s title game. “I hear coaches complain about that and I want to tear my hair out – although that seems to be happening anyway.

“This is a great environment. Look at our environment for a conference tournament compared to around the nation. You look at half-empty gyms in parking ramps somewhere. I mean, guys, this is pretty neat, pretty darn special.

“If that means we have to come down here and play in a loud gym, you know what, we make that gym balance out. They just down sell tickets here in South Dakota.”

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

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com