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Jeff Kolpack, Published February 12 2014

Bison men's basketball team reaches new heights in mid-major poll

FARGO – North Dakota State reached another high-water mark in its relatively brief NCAA Division I men’s basketball history. The Bison are fifth this week in the College Insider Mid-Major top 25 poll – their highest ranking yet.

The previous record was last November when the Bison were sixth. They were seventh in the preseason poll and have now spent nine weeks this season in the top 10.

In comparison, NDSU was 11th in the final poll in 2008-09 – the year it reached the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility.

The poll comprises more than 200 Division I teams, so a No. 5 ranking is a nice honor, said Bison head coach Saul Phillips. He knows more about it than most. He’s a voter.

“You’re dealing with teams that have similar constraints as you, and to separate yourself from the majority of that pack is a sense of pride,” said Phillips, whose team prepares for its final regular-season road trip with tonight’s game at Western Illinois and Saturday’s game at Nebraska-Omaha. “But I don’t put too much stock into it because I know how much research I put into it. It doesn’t take up the majority of my day – put it that way.”

Sophomore guard Lawrence Alexander doesn’t put much stock into it, either. He looks at it “every now and then,” he said.

“It’s not the first thing I look at when I look at social media,” he said.

The Bison (18-6) have played three teams in the poll, beating No. 15 Delaware, splitting with No. 25 Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne and losing at No. 18 Saint Mary’s. A better gauge, Phillips said, is the daily RPI. NDSU was 48th on Tuesday, and anything in the top 50 for a Summit League team at this stage of the season is commendable.

“The RPI probably means more because the RPI doesn’t miss anything,” Phillips said, referring to the computer-based power rating.

Moreover, the Bison have more problems to worry about than polls and ratings this week. It starts tonight with Western Illinois, a place they haven’t won since December of 2009.

“It’s always tough to play at Western,” Alexander said.

It’s tough for a couple of reasons, Phillips said. One, the Leathernecks’ patient, aggressive style of play makes it tougher to maintain energy as a road team.

And two, Western has been one of the top defensive teams in the Summit under head coach Jim Molinari.

“But we have plenty of reason to have good energy going into this one,” Phillips said.

The first-place Bison are in hopes of maintaining that position, which would give them the No. 1 seed a first-round bye in the Summit tournament. It would also keep them high in the Mid-Major poll – for what it’s worth.

Unbeaten Wichita State, ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, is the obvious No. 1 pick in the Mid-Major rankings. A returning Final Four team that averages more than 10,000 fans per game, there isn’t much “mid” about the Shockers other than the league they play in – the Missouri Valley Conference.

Gonzaga is No. 2, Stephen F. Austin No. 3 and Toledo is No. 4.

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