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Schnepf: March Madness and North Dakota? Against all odds, state has more teams in tournament than Indiana

North Dakota State University coach Saul Phillips and his players react at the Bison Sports Arena Sunday to the announced pairing of the Bison against Oklahoma in the NCAA basketball tournament to be played Thursday in Spokane, Wash. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - March Madness and North Dakota. About a decade ago, the odds of that association were about as astronomical as picking a perfect bracket for the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Those odds are 1 in 9 quintillion, in case you’re wondering. That’s a 19-digit number.

So on a day when millions of you will be filling out those brackets, you’ll come across North Dakota State and a couple of other teams with strong North Dakota ties.

And had NDSU’s rival to the north, the University of North Dakota, won Saturday night, it would have been not one, but two teams from North Dakota making the Big Dance.

That would have been two more than the number of qualifiers from Indiana – a state famously known as the land of hoops but shut out from the tournament this year. No Indiana (Bobby Knight), no Indiana State (Larry Bird), no Purdue (Rick Mount), no Notre Dame (Austin Carr), no Butler (Hinkle Fieldhouse), no Valparaiso (Homer Drew).

What are the odds?

“Hey, Indiana has hogged it for all these years … we deserved this,” NDSU head coach Saul Phillips said during Sunday’s selection-show party that attracted 500 fans to the Bison Sports Arena. “This is twice for us in the last six years. That’s a little bit crazy when you think about it.”

It was Phillips’ 2009 Bison team that became the first college basketball team from North Dakota to reach the NCAA tournament. After moving up from Division II, it was NDSU’s first year of being eligible for the Big Dance.

Five years later, in their second year of eligibility, UND nearly became the third men’s team to put on its dancing shoes before losing to Weber State in the Big Sky championship game. With the UND women qualifying for its own NCAA tournament, the buzz in Grand Forks this past weekend was basketball – not hockey.

What are the odds?

At 5:12 p.m. Sunday, CBS’ selection show – beamed in on the BSA scoreboard – announced that NDSU would be playing Oklahoma on Thursday in Spokane, Wash. The BSA crowd, somewhat diminished with students gone for spring break, still made as much noise as if they had just seen TrayVonn Wright dunk.

It wasn’t the only time the crowd’s ears perked up during the selection show. Defying all odds, there were a couple of other North Dakota connections.

Minutes later, the show announced that Creighton was awarded a No. 3 seed. Creighton is coached by Greg McDermott – who as an assistant coach helped UND reach five Division II tournaments from 1989 to 1994 and was a head coach at NDSU for the 2000-01 season.

Minutes after that, the show announced Nebraska would be playing in the tournament, prompting the BSA crowd to offer some friendly claps. That’s because the Huskers are coached by Tim Miles – who began his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Mary in Bismarck before becoming a head coach at Mayville State and NDSU.

Husker fans who watched the same selection show in the brand new, 15,000-seat, $179 million Pinnacle Bank Arena had plenty to cheer about Sunday. It was Nebraska’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1998.

“I couldn’t be happier for Miles,” said Phillips, who was Miles’ assistant coach at NDSU from 2004-08.

It was in the spring of 2004 when Phillips and his wife, Nicole, ran into Miles at a San Antonio restaurant during the Final Four. Phillips, an assistant at Wisconsin who got to know Miles while recruiting, asked him how the move to Division I was going.

Miles told him he was looking for an assistant with Division I experience.

“That’s when I looked at my wife and said: ‘Have you ever been to Fargo?’ ” Phillips said.

Nearly two decades later, Phillips is coaching a team that earned a No. 12 seed – the highest a Summit League team has gotten since the 1997 Valparaiso team. One year later, the team pulled off two stunning victories to reach the Sweet 16.

Can this year’s Bison team do the same?

Well, the odds are better with a 12 seed.

We all know a 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in this tournament since 1985. A 15 seed has beaten a No. 2 seed 4 percent of the time. A 14 seed (which the Bison were when it lost to Kansas in 2009) has beaten a No. 3 seed 15 percent of the time. And the 13 seed has beaten a No. 4 seed 21 percent chance of the time.

As a 12 seed, the Bison will have a 33 percent chance of beating No. 5-seeded Oklahoma.

Those aren’t bad odds – especially for a team from North Dakota.

Kevin Schnepf
Kevin Schnepf is the sports editor for The Forum. He has been working at The Forum since 1986.
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