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Bison meet Fisher, San Diego State

By Jeff Kolpack

Forum News Service

SPOKANE, Wash. — North Dakota State matched wits with a future Hall of Fame coach on Thursday.

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Now the Bison get to do it all over again against another NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament coaching figurehead.

The Bison defeated Lon Kruger and Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime. For their reward, they get to face 68-year-old San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher and his 55-28 postseason record. He won an NCAA title in 1989 with Michigan, has coached in three national title games and is closing in on 500 career victories.

“He recruited the Fab Five, now that’s an iconic moment in college basketball history,” said NDSU head coach Saul Phillips. “And now he gets to recruit to San Diego. Okay. Beaches, weather, it’s just not fair. I mean, they should spot us 10 points. We’re in Fargo.”

Meanwhile, the oldest member of the Bison staff is Phillips, who is 41 years old and coaching in his third NCAA game.

The Aztecs have the experience advantage. They’re playing in their fifth straight NCAA tournament and have advanced to the third round for the second straight year. Fisher is 24-12 in his 14 years of making the tourney.

Guard Xavier Thames, who had 23 points in the second round win over New Mexico State, is the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. The Aztecs, 30-4, reached 30 wins for the second time ever, trailing only the 20010-11 team that won 34 and advanced to the Sweet 16.

“How many people knew San Diego State had a basketball program before he got there,” Phillips said.

Not many, something Fisher made reference to on Friday. In 2010, the Aztecs were ranked 25th in the Associated Press top 25 preseason poll — the first time the basketball program had ever been ranked.

“We made such a big deal out of that,” Fisher said. “I said that’s phenomenal for San Diego State. If (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) were rated 25th, they would want to fire him.”

The bar has been raised at San Diego State, however, and the Aztecs will be expected to beat NDSU today. They were expected to win this game last year when they faced Florida Gulf Coast in the third round.

Gulf Coast pulled an 81-71 upset victory to advance to the Sweet 16 two days after the No. 15 seed defeated Georgetown. The Aztec players haven’t forgotten.

“In my eyes, it’s like last year all over again,” said SDSU forward Winston Shepard. “We are playing a team that not a lot of people have heard of but if you look at their stats they’re a great team. So nobody in our locker room is taking them lightly and we definitely learned a lesson from last year.”

Fisher said he doesn’t expect the Gulf Coast game to factor into today’s outcome. He probably said the same thing before coaching in one of his national title games.

Fisher said he hasn’t changed his coaching style since his days at Michigan, with the exception of the pressures and expectations.

“When you’re at a school that has not had a great history of success and you win, people start to say, well it has to be the coaching,” Fisher said. “You get good players, you give them the freedom to play and you give them framework and you build and breed confidence in one another.”

Mission accomplished, said Thames, who said he likes the fact Fisher doesn’t yell at his players for making mistakes.

“He just lets us play,” he said. “He’s a Hall of Fame coach and he knows what he’s doing.”

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.