Bison in front of chase for Summit League titleFARGO — The ultimate goal is an NCAA tournament berth. And the only way North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team can accomplish that is to win the Summit League postseason tournament.
By: Kevin Schnepf, The Forum
FARGO — The ultimate goal is an NCAA tournament berth. And the only way North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team can accomplish that is to win the Summit League postseason tournament.
So what do the Bison accomplish if they win the Summit League regular-season championship?
There’s a ring and a banner. There is a day of rest after the first round of the postseason tournament.
But perhaps more importantly, a regular-season title guarantees an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament — set up for 32 teams left out of the NCAA Tournament.
“It would be nice to have that in your back pocket,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips, whose team shares first place with Oral Roberts at the midway point of the Summit League season.
“The NIT is a great reward,” said Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton. “Knowing if you do get beat in the conference tournament — which obviously you don’t want to happen — you have a chance to continue your season. That’s awfully important.”
It was important for Sutton’s 2005 regular-season champions, who were knocked off in the postseason title game by Oakland. In its 26-year history, the Summit League has had three regular-season champions settle for an NIT bid.
“There’s plenty to play for in the regular season, but there isn’t a coach out there who wouldn’t rather win the postseason tournament,” said Greg Kampe, whose 2005
Oakland team upset Oral Roberts. “Because the first thing you get asked is ‘did you get into the NCAA tournament?’ ”
With its 8-1 Summit League record, NDSU is off to its best conference start since the 1974 Bison started North Central Conference play with an 8-1 record.
A regular-season championship would be NDSU’s first conference title since the 1995 Bison that shared an NCC title with South Dakota.
“It’s something we haven’t had a chance to compete for in quite some time,” said Phillips, whose 14-5 Bison are ranked No. 25 in this week’s CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major poll. “I would cherish a regular-season conference championship.”
NDSU’s start comes as no surprise. Oral Roberts, NDSU and Oakland — currently the top three Summit teams — were picked to finish first, second and third respectively.
The big surprise of the league so far is Centenary — a team that was picked to finish last but sits in fourth place with a 5-4 record.
After losing 13 of its first 15 games — all on the road — Centenary has won five of its last six games. The streak started Jan. 8 with a surprising 80-60 home win over Oakland.
“It was never a game,” said Oakland head coach Greg Kampe, whose team trailed by as many as 30 points in the second half. “I think that game opened their eyes. Before, they really didn’t believe in themselves. But when they kicked our butt, that changed.”
Centenary, with two-point road wins at Western Illinois and Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis, will take a four-game win streak into Saturday’s home game against Oral Roberts.
“You’ve just got to play people defensively and we’ve been able to do that,” said first-year Centenary head coach Greg Gary. “That’s why Oral Roberts is always on top of the league. They play great defense.”
Especially with Kevin Ford, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound center who wasn’t eligible to play when Oral Roberts suffered its only league loss Dec. 4 at NDSU, 83-75.
Ford, a transfer, is a big reason Oral Roberts is riding a seven-game winning streak — after winning only three of its first 14 games. Ford averages nearly 10 points, 8 rebounds and has 15 blocked shots.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence but the way Centenary has played as of late has been impressive,” Sutton said. “It will be a battle.”
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