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Win or lose, NDSU has had banner year

Photo by Kirby Lee / USA TODAY North Dakota State forward and Bismarck High graduate Dexter Werner dunks during practice before the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament on Tuesday at Veterans Memorial Arena.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A school year in the national spotlight that started with ESPN’s “College GameDay,” carried over to an FCS national championship in Frisco, Texas, and has mushroomed to Spokane, Wash. North Dakota State takes to the biggest stage in college athletics today with an appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

It’s been some year.

And the players and coaches are more than happy to carry the torch. The Bison will be back at it again at 5:27 p.m. when they face Oklahoma in the West Region second-round game at the Spokane Arena.

“Our athletic department has kind of knocked it out of the park this year,” said head coach Saul Phillips. “You go from basketball wins, football wins to the fact we’re finalizing a $41 million renovation of our arena. That’s a decade for lot of athletic departments.”

Phillips entertained at his NCAA news conference, with many of the tournament’s news conferences carried nationally on an ESPN network. It got to the point where a reporter from a Tulsa, Okla., newspaper asked Phillips if he would care to apply to a college opening in Oklahoma.

The day before an NCAA tournament is more show than substance. Teams usually end their 40-minute practice with a slam dunk show. NDSU was no different, with Phillips asking CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb to throw a lob slam dunk to forward TrayVonn Wright.

It worked to perfection.

Just like this season for the university.

“I see our football team highlights on ESPN all the time,” said guard Taylor Braun. “‘The Scott Van Pelt Show’ has our football helmet on it all the time. So we have gotten a lot more national exposure as a community.

“This class that we have right now, we all came in at the same time the football team started having success, too. We’re close with a lot of the football players, and I think that both teams have done a very good job of putting Fargo on the map and being a name to recognize.”

Said center Marshall Bjorklund: “With football and basketball combined, I think we have the most wins. I think it’s really helped the university get attention and having College ‘GameDay’ out in Fargo — it’s been a joyride for us.”

A win today would increase the exposure, certainly. The 12th-seeded Bison have a tall task against the No. 5 Sooners. Phillips said a win would only mean he gets to coach his team one more game.

“I’ll think what it means long-term for our program after this is over,” he said. “For now, I want to keep coaching these guys because I’m having a blast.”

So much fun that a reporter asked Phillips about a national analyst saying he should be a candidate the head coaching vacancy down the road at Washington State. Phillips said he has not been contacted by anybody.

“I really like my school, and if I was thinking about anything other than this group of guys right now, that would be about as selfish as you could get,” he said.

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.