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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 19 2014

Schnepf: NCAA atmosphere perfect for the basketball-obsessed fan

Spokane, Wash. - If you are a basketball junkie, Spokane Arena was the place to be Wednesday – on the eve of the most thrilling hoopsfest in the world.

The junkies came in all shapes and sizes during Wednesday’s shootarounds for the eight teams that will play in four NCAA tournament games here today.

There was coaching legend Tom Izzo of Michigan State, telling reporters he gave up talking about injuries and officials for Lent. There was another coaching legend Lon Kruger, who only chuckled when asked about President Obama picking North Dakota State to beat his Oklahoma Sooners today.

“It changed our entire practice this morning,” Kruger jokingly spouted.

There was CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb, who was dribbling a basketball between his legs as if he wanted to join one of the teams during their warmups. There was Michigan State assistant Dane Fife, who doesn’t miss the flights and bus journeys he made to Fargo when he was the head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.

There was 52-year-old Greg Rudolph, who cried when he learned North Dakota State would be playing here this week.

“I live five minutes from this arena,” said Rudolph, a Spokane resident who grew up in Fargo an avid Bison football fan.

And then, of course, there was NDSU’s men’s basketball team – ending its Wednesday night shootaround with its customary half-court shots. It was preceded by head coach Saul Phillips wowing the media with his customary good-natured quips and comments.

When asked about Obama’s pick for the Bison to win, Phillips quickly reminded the media that he and the slew of others making the same pick have probably never seen the Bison play.

“I didn’t see Obama at any of our games … I think I would’ve known about that,” Phillips said.

When asked whether his team will play with less pressure than it did against IPFW in last week’s Summit League championship, Phillips reminded the media that the goal for teams like NDSU is to get to The Dance.

“This is the show,” Phillips said. “This is where you want to be.”

This is what this tournament is all about: The little guy like NDSU getting its shot against the big guy from Oklahoma. What other tournament really allows this?

The excitement that this tournament generates – especially during the first week – comes from the chance that the Davids of the world can knock down the Goliaths of the world.

“It’s March Madness,” Fife said. “And I don’t think you have the Madness part without allowing the little guys being a part of it. You make some shots and the other team doesn’t make some shots, lightning strikes man, and it can happen.”

The game of basketball has changed dramatically during the last four decades that Kruger has played and coached. He has seen the NCAA tournament grow from a 16-team field to the 68-team field it is today.

“The players make a lot of great memories and so do the fans,” Kruger said. “That’s what makes this such a great event.”

There are naysayers of March Madness – claiming that not all of the best teams are able to advance to this tournament. They cry foul when they see a team like Cal Poly surprisingly win a conference tournament and become one of the 31 automatic qualifiers.

Gottlieb, who will be the analyst for today’s telecast of the Bison-Sooners game, strongly disagrees with that argument.

He thinks if anything should change, it should be the way the smaller conferences honor their postseason tournament champions. He feels the regular-season champion should get the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, suggesting the tournament champion get a berth to one of the other postseason tournaments.

“You want your best team in the NCAA tournament, so this would give your league the best chance of winning a game in the NCAA tournament,” Gottlieb said.

The magic of this tournament, according to Gottlieb, is the little guy.

“This first weekend is usually about the little guy and usually by the second week and Final Four, it’s about the big guy,” Gottlieb said. “I think it’s kind of the perfect tournament.

“For the North Dakota State kids, they can own the country for a day, for a weekend. Who else can do that? This tournament can do that and that’s a powerful thing.”

Perhaps as powerful as Obama picking NDSU to win today or Michigan State to win the whole thing – prompting Izzo to say:

“I’m trying to get a hold of the President right now and see if he has any pull with the officials.”


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