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Kevin Schnepf, Published October 16 2013

Schnepf: High hopes surround Bison men's basketball team

Fargo - The video boards in the Fargodome flashed images of basketball – even though the soon-to-be 19,000 fans were gearing up for football.

The video boards were touting the upcoming season for the North Dakota State men’s basketball team, which has all five starters back from last year’s team that finished one win short of an NCAA tournament berth. The message seemed to fall on deaf ears about a half-hour before the football showdown between the top-ranked Bison and No. 4-ranked Northern Iowa.

It was even hard to hear what Bison basketball coach Saul Phillips was saying.

“That’s OK,” Phillips said. “I don’t need to hear myself talk any more than I have to.”

Such is life where football is king. Two national championships, with a third one expected, can certainly cast a huge shadow over a successful program like Bison basketball.

But, like Phillips said, that’s OK.

“Hey, we are football fans too,” Phillips said. “What they are doing is historic by any measure. After they win another national championship in January, then our fans will be hungry for something else.”

Like with football, expectations will be high for Phillips’ basketball team. It is the favorite to win this season’s Summit League championship, garnering 25 of the possible 28 first-place votes, much to the surprise of Phillips.

It is the first time the Bison are preseason favorites. Even the 2009 team that reached the NCAA tournament was picked to finish second behind then-league member Oral Roberts.

Ben Woodside was the preseason player of the year back then. This year, Bison forward Taylor Braun gets that honor.

Woodside and Ben Winkelman were preseason first-team all-conference picks. This year, Braun is joined by center Marshall Bjorklund and point guard Lawrence Alexander.

That’s a lot of preseason accolades. So is Phillips getting any advice from Bison football coach Craig Bohl on how to deal with all this praise.

“That topic has been broached,” Phillips said. “We both share a common view: Don’t get too wrapped up about what others are saying about you. Just worry about getting better every day.

“But the last time we had big expectations, big things happened.”

Of course, Phillips is referring to his team’s dramatic Summit League tournament championship win over Oakland (Mich.), when Woodside’s game-winning jumper sent the Bison to the NCAA tournament.

The national media exposure that followed was equal to that of what Bison football received when ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town a few weeks ago. Phillips would love nothing more than to bask in the limelight again next spring.

But, as any Bison football player will confess, it won’t come easy. That’s especially true when you take a look at NDSU’s upcoming men’s basketball schedule, easily its toughest during the Division I era.

The Bison have road games at heavy hitters like St. Mary’s, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Then they have home games against Southern Mississippi and Towson, ranked third and sixth, respectively, in one mid-major poll. The Bison are ranked No. 7 in that poll while Summit League newcomer Denver is ranked No. 5.

“Plus (the University of North Dakota) is a darn good basketball team, and we play Western Michigan, who we lost to in overtime in the postseason last year,” Phillips said. “Regardless of what our record is, I’m not going to hit the panic button.”

Not only does the short-term outlook look good for Bison basketball, so does the future as NDSU hopes to start renovating the Bison Sports Arena next spring. It may be two more seasons in the old BSA before the Bison can actually start playing in a real basketball arena.

For the time being, Phillips is just fine impressing future recruits with an NDSU football game.

“We get a kid in the Fargodome on a fall Saturday for that intro … it just makes a real strong statement for NDSU,” Phillips said. “Quite frankly, our football success helps our program immensely in recruiting. I am of the belief just because you have a great football program doesn’t mean you can’t have a great basketball program.”

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

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com