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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 11 2014

Schnepf: Bison revisit 2009 glory with a new spin

Sioux Falls, S.D. - It was déjà vu all over again Tuesday night in the Sioux Falls Arena.

North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team celebrated a Summit League tournament championship and a berth into the NCAA tournament – just like the 2009 Bison team.

Same kind of crowd of 4,000. Same kind of ESPN prime-time exposure. Same kind of relief after the same kind of gut-wrenching, come-from-behind win. Same kind of celebration, with most of the 1,000-plus Bison fans storming the same court.

And …. the same coach. Saul Phillips.

The only difference: Tuesday night’s dancing team was Saul’s boys, unlike the 2009 team of Ben Woodside and Co. recruited by Tim Miles.

“This is a group he can call his own … 100 percent,” said Marshall Bjorklund, one of five seniors Phillips and his staff recruited. “He has had the most faith in us more than anyone. We love him.”

Nearly 12 hours before all this happened on a quiet Tuesday morning, Phillips chatted on the phone with the Big Ten Conference men’s coach of the year. That would be Miles, the man who built the 2009 team and now has become almost as popular as Tom Osborne in the state of Nebraska.

That’s because Miles’ overachieving Cornhuskers men’s basketball team has virtually guaranteed itself a spot in the NCAA tournament with a No. 4 seed for this weekend’s Big Ten tournament.

Word is that Miles will earn around $250,000 in bonuses this year.

Phillips couldn’t help but needle Miles about that nice chunk of change – pointing out that he gets $20,000 if his team wins the national tournament.

Not likely. But it doesn’t matter.

Phillips has NDSU dancing once again.

And during the postgame celebration, Phillips entered the circle of Bison players and started dancing. It was the same jig he performed in the locker room after NDSU’s upset win at Notre Dame earlier this season.

“It wasn’t pretty, but people loved it,” Bjorklund said.

Just like Tuesday night’s game: It wasn’t pretty, but Phillips loved it.

If there was any doubt, this season and this win further legitimizes that the 41-year-old Phillips is a pretty darn good head coach – so good that other mid-major programs could be ringing his cell phone in the near future.

You could hear the murmurs back in 2009 that Phillips won with Miles’ boys. But someone still had to coach them.

“He took a team with such high expectations,” said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor. “It was the NCAA or bust as a brand new coach. The pressure on that year was phenomenal.”

Then came back-to-back losing seasons. The murmurs resurfaced: Is Phillips the right coach to make NDSU a winner? Taylor had no doubts.

“What I’ve really enjoyed, from the time he sat in my office when Tim (Miles) left, and he said, ‘If you’ll hire me, I will never let you down,’ ” Taylor said. “And to this day, he hasn’t.

“I just know the plan that he had in place with this team. That team he had with Woody and those guys, they weren’t real defensive-minded players if you remember. He wanted to build a team that was, and certainly this team is that type of team.”

This team has produced back-to-back 20-win seasons. Phillips now has three 20-win seasons – second only to the four Tom Billeter produced at NDSU from 1992 to 1997. His 133 wins rank fourth on the all-time list at NDSU.

All this has been accomplished with good, old-fashioned hard work – much like growing up in Reedsburg, Wis., where he refused to go to bed until he sank 100 straight free throws shooting hoops in the driveway. Much like the countless hours he spends watching basketball tapes.

“Even when he comes home to visit us, he will get his computer out and will watch tape until 2 a.m.,” said his father, Charlie. “He is a student of the game.”

“He always works,” Taylor said. “He’s a basketball junkie. He just wants to be around basketball. The more he is around it, the happier he is.”

Is he happy enough to stay in Fargo?

His father, Charlie, thinks so, touting the quality of life in Fargo for his wife, Nicole, daughter Jordan and sons Charlie and Benjamin. Taylor thinks so, quickly mentioning a revamped Bison Sports Arena that will be ready in two years.

“I think he’s in a position now that I think he’s just not going to take any job,” said Taylor, who last summer bumped up Phillips base salary from $151,000 to $175,000. “Yeah, you always worry when you have successful coaches that people are going to come after them.

It’s our job to do everything we can to make sure we keep him.

“That’s what we do here. We get great teams and great coaches and we just try to do everything we can to keep them. And I think Saul is one who would like to stay if he can.”

In Tuesday’s postgame news conference, Phillips made it clear that he would like keep winning games like this at NDSU.

“If that’s OK with you Mr. President and Gene,” Phillips said, looking at NDSU President Dean Bresciani and Taylor. “I’ve grown very close to this group, just like I grew very close to the last group.

“But this is a group that is as tight as you can be. I loved every second of it.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com