The trendy thing is to stop comparing this year’s Bison men’s basketball team to the 2009 squad, but for the sake of this post bare with me; as NDSU did something tonight that they haven’t done since 2009; win at Western Illinois.
It wasn’t pretty, no games ever are with WIU, and NDSU never seemed to be in a comfort zone in this one, get up by eight in the second half, then see the ‘Necks rally and make it a two point game. It was not the greatest of shooting nights for the leading field goal percentage team in the country; shooting just 40 percent, TrayVonn Wright was not good; 1-10 and just two points. Lawrence Alexander picked up the slack, he had 10 early points before notching a second foul and Taylor Braun was big when he needed to be nailing free throws down the strech. Kory Brown had two huge baskets as well, including a follow tip to put the Bison up five in what Saul Phillips called after “the biggest basket of the game.”
NDSU now sits at 19-6 and 8-2 in the Summit League and it’s starting to look like a three horse race for the number one seed. Denver lost at IUPUI on Thursday night, while IPFW and SDSU both won, so they stay just a game back of the Bison at 7-3. The Jacks go to Western on Saturday, while the Dons host Denver. NDSU will travel to Omaha for Saturday’s matchup, the Mavericks play better at home, but the Bison won handily in the first matchup. A win Saturday and with three home games left, things would certainly start to look good for NDSU to capture the number one seed.
Before I wrap up, some words on the head coach of the Bison. The next NDSU win would get them to 20; a mark of a highly successful season. It’s important to note the twenty win plateau, because it’s been 17 years since NDSU has done it in back to back seasons; the last time it happened was 1995-96 and 1996-97; in the Division 2 days under Tom Billeter, where the Bison did it four straight years. Add in the 26 win season Phillips had in 2009, that would mark three in seven years; to me that’s pretty impressive. Throw in a 16 and 17 win season and what you’ve got is one of the most successful mid-major coaches in the country. I know your resume is defined by NCAA Tourney appearances and conference titles, but look at your normal mid-majors. Those teams blow up once every five years and recede. Northern Iowa makes the Sweet 16 in 2010, haven’t made the dance since. Richmond and Ohio the past couple of years are in the same boat. I don’t count Butler, Gonzaga, Wichita State or VCU, they’re not mid-majors; A) most don’t play football and B) if you make the Elite 8 or Final 4, no way are you considered mid-major in my mind.
I know plenty of NDSU fans were worried over the past few years after the football team would beat another FBS team would Craig Bohl be whisked away and it did happen this year. I’d start watching Phillips as well, because with three 20 win seasons, 3 straight postseason appearances and possibly two of those NCAA trips, it’s highly likely someone bigger than Ball State may be calling in April. Many of his detractors will say his first trip to the dance was done with Tim Miles kids and there’s great merit to that. But he’s built a program in Fargo, North Dakota; at a clear football-first school and done it in an arena that’s forty years old and falling apart. He got his signature non-conference win over Notre Dame and who knows maybe another shot at scaring a powerhouse in March.