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Phillips: Goal is to reach NCAA tournament next 2 years

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The season was over for barely 15 minutes when Saul Phillips pulled the trigger to start 2012-13. It was a loud bang.

The North Dakota State head men's basketball coach turned the Summit League tournament post-game news conference Sunday night into a state of the program address. With the university president and athletic director in the back of the room, Phillips said his team is on track to reach the NCAA tournament in the next two years.

He called his second-year players like forward Taylor Braun, center Marshall Bjorklund, guard Dylan Hale, forward TrayVonn Wright and guard Mike Felt "one of the most productive sophomore classes in America."

"Great," he said. "Now what are you going to do with it? It starts tomorrow. I can see what this can become and our guys do, too."

The Bison started 6-0 and were 13-4 at one time. But a 59-54 loss at the University of North Dakota put the Bison in a funk that they only got out of in snapshots.

The final 17-13 record, he said, was looking to be a lot better, and that's tough to take.

"I thought toward the end of the season we were a distracted basketball team," he said. "Not from things related to a Sports Illustrated UCLA article or anything like that. I just thought we had a hard time staying focused at the end."

The 17 wins marked the second straight season that the Bison have improved their record. The Bison won 11 games the following year and 14 last season.

"That's good in any business. It's an upward trend," Phillips said.

He turned to Braun and Wright at the news conference and gave them a lesson from the 2009 NCAA tournament team. They won 16 games in 2007-08 and worked tirelessly in the off season.

"This is a big off season for both of you guys," Phillips said. "You know that and I know that. I expect a lot of this group. Early in the season, we lived up to that in the early stage of development. Late in the season, it was more of a struggle."

NDSU loses seniors Eric Carlson and Drew Lundberg, who were in and out of the lineup this season and did not play in the Summit League first round loss to Western Illinois. The only junior is guard Nate Zastrow, who played limited minutes before being sidelined late in the year with a broken foot.

Point guard Lawrence Alexander was named the Summit's Newcomer of the Year. Center Chris Kading redshirted and there are expectations that incoming recruit Brett VandenBergh from DePere, Wis., may immediately challenge for court time.

"Some of it is just getting older," Phillips said. "Another candle on the birthday cake. ... You can get low right now. Use that to drive you. Let it hurt and channel that in the right direction and this will be OK.

"We were in a similar state the year before we went to the NCAA tournament. We worked really hard that summer. I've seen it happen and it's going to happen. But that doesn't mean I like where we're at in this exact moment."

Kolpack is a sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.