Fargo, 26-6. Nickname: Bison. Coach: Saul Phillips. Region: Midwest. Seed: No. 14. Bid: Summitt champion. Tournament Record: First year. Last NCAA Appearance: First year. Conference: Summitt League. Top Scorers: Ben Woodside 22.8; Brett Winkelman 18.7; Mike Nelson 11.9; Michael Tveidt 9.7. Top Rebounders: Brett Winkelman 7.4; Mike Nelson 4.2; Luca Moormann 4.1. Top Assists: Ben Woodside 6.3; Mike Nelson 2.5. 3-point threats: Ben Woodside 64; Mike Nelson 57; Brett Winkelman 39; Michael Tveidt 38. Last Ten: 9-1. The Skinny: Ben Woodside’s jumper with 3 seconds left sent the Bison past Oakland in the Summitt League final and into the NCAA Tournament — in their first season as full members of Div. I. Woodside is one of five seniors who red-shirted earlier in their careers as NDSU started to transition from Div. II.
To hear North Dakota State University men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips tell it, his excitement at earning the first NCAA Tournament bid of his head-coaching career lasted all of a couple of nanoseconds.
“The first thing I did was stand up and pump my fist,” Phillips said of his reaction to hearing his team called during Sunday night’s selection show. “And as I’m sitting there staring at the Bison logo next to the Jayhawk logo, all of a sudden it hits me: ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to figure out how to beat Kansas.’”
After winning the Summit League title last week in a thrilling 66-64 victory over Oakland, Phillips and his 14th-seeded Bison — entering the tournament with an 18-1 record in their past 19 games — will look to do the unlikely when they take on third-seeded Kansas University at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Minneapolis in the teams’ opening-round matchup.
The crux of the Bison lineup is a group of four fifth-year seniors who sat out their freshman seasons in an effort to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in their final seasons (because the program was in the process of moving from Div. II to Div.I, they were unable to compete in postseason during the players’ first four seasons). As seniors this season, Ben Woodside, Mike Nelson, Brett Winkelman and Lucas Moormann led NDSU to a 26-6 record and helped propel the program, at least for the moment, into the national spotlight.
The unquestioned leader, meanwhile, is senior Ben Woodside, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound guard with a buzzcut straight out of Hoosiers. In addition to earning Summit League player-of-the-year honors as a senior, he pieced together one of the most impressive individual showings in Div. I this year.
In a 112-111 triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 12, Woodside scored a career-high 60 points — shooting 14-of-32 from the field and an unthinkable 30-of-35 from the free-throw line — to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists.
A similar performance against the Jayhawks wouldn’t be unwelcomed by those sporting yellow and green, but the team’s success, said Phillips, will depend largely on preventing Kansas from getting easy baskets.
“We’ve got to take care of the basketball, first and foremost,” said Phillips, who said he has seen the Jayhawks play four or five times this season. “We can’t fuel an athletic team like Kansas in the open court by allowing them those SportsCenter dunks.”
There is no indication that NDSU has any intention of arriving in Minneapolis with the sole purpose of acting as a stepping stone.
“We don’t want to go in with the mind-set that it’s just kind of a one-and-done deal,” Nelson said. “We want to make a splash in this tournament. We want to make some noise. So we’re going to come in ready to go.”