MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Ben Woodside let his steely gaze relax for a second, and a sly smile crept across his face. His North Dakota State Bison, in this fifth and most special season, have officially stepped onto the national stage.
They’re about to play the defending NCAA champions at a major league stadium just a four-hour drive from their campus on the prairie, and people all over the country who couldn’t tell Bismarck from Fargo will be taking long lunches and logging onto their laptops to watch.
“It’s kind of the one team they have in the state. There are no pro teams or anything like that,” said center Lucas Moormann, one of the five seniors who redshirted as freshmen in 2004-05 while North Dakota State made the move up from Division II for the chance to do this.
“This is the one team they are always watching.”
The No. 14 seed in the Midwest Region, the Bison (26-6) face a bigger and presumably better Kansas team in the first round at the Metrodome on Friday. After being ineligible for the NCAA tournament the last four years, though, they could have been paired with the Boston Celtics and probably wouldn’t have minded.
“We’ve had a great time with it to this point,” coach Saul Phillips said, “and we just want to keep playing games.”
In their first season in the Summit League, the Bison came back from a double-digit deficit to beat Oakland in the conference championship and qualify for the famous field of 65.
“After that Oakland game we saw ourselves on ESPN,” Woodside said. “And most high majors, you know, they probably turn the channel because they see themselves so many times. I think myself and our teammates, we watched it a couple of extra times just to get a good look at it.”
They’ve had a good look at Kansas, too, starting with last year’s title game.
Point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich are the only players still around who contributed for the Jayhawks last season, but coach Bill Self has guided his team back to prominence despite the rampant inexperience on his roster.
“I’m not sure our team could have been in the situations that it was in last year and been successful if they hadn’t been through the wars before. We know that,” Self said. “But also I do think we play a pretty difficult schedule, and it’s a pretty good league.”
Despite an eyebrow-raising defeat to Baylor in their first Big 12 tournament game and a 19-point loss at Texas Tech the week before that, the Jayhawks (25-7) were regular season champions. Their last five games include victories at Oklahoma and at home against Missouri and Texas, after losing all five starters from last year’s title-winning team.
“Of course we’re defending it, but that’s not how we’re thinking,” Collins said. “We’re just trying to take this thing one game at a time.”
Kansas fans know the importance of that. The Jayhawks were also a No. 3 seed in 2005, when they were beaten in the first round by Bucknell. The next year, they lost their opener to 13th-seed Bradley.
The crowd is certain to be heavily colored in green and yellow, bellowing loudly for the Bison. As of Thursday afternoon, about 15,500 tickets had been sold.
There was a subtle “Hoosiers” feel to the Bison and their appearance at the Dome for interviews and practice Thursday.
Phillips sat at a podium and proudly held up his new dry erase board for the room to see, joking, “There is no way I draw up a play on here and it doesn’t work.” The coach acknowledged “a little wide-eye” in his players as they walked onto the floor and looked around at the blue seats and the graying Teflon ceiling. The players wore serious looks and spoke with the drawn-out “oh” that immediately identifies most natives of the Upper Midwest or Canada.
No. 14 seeds were 17-96 in the history of the NCAA tournament before this year, with Northwestern State’s win over Iowa in 2006 the most recent success. But North Dakota State—like all the other underdogs—isn’t here to gawk.
“They’re really good,” Aldrich said, sounding convincing even in his predictable butter-them-up response.
There were plenty of skeptics of NDSU’s grand plan to take their athletic programs to the top level, even in forward Brett Winkelman’s family.
“It just felt right from the beginning,” he said. “I kind of wanted to help be the foundation of that recruiting class and work our way up. It’s definitely been one of the best choices in my life.”
So far, during his career, they’ve won at Wisconsin and beaten Marquette. The football team came here and beat Minnesota in 2007, a year after a one-point loss.
So far, the transition has been smooth.
“We aren’t here as tourists,” Phillips said. “We’re here to play basketball.”