When North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips was building the nucleus of his veteran-laden basketball team five years ago, a team that’s been dubbed “America’s team” after their second round NCAA Tournament win over Oklahoma, he wasn’t exactly fighting a pitched battle against other coaches to lure guys like Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, TrayVonn Wright and Lawrence Alexander to Fargo. Phillips found high-major talent that nobody else wanted and convinced them to play for the Bison. Fast-forward five years and Phillips has assembled a mid-major power on the cusp of a Sweet 16 appearance.
“I think you can count the number of [scholarship] offers we four [Braun, Alexander, Kory Brown and himself] had on our two hands really,” said Marshall Bjorklund, an agricultural systems management major with a minor in crop and weed sciences. Bjorklund said his decision to commit to NDSU was based, in large part, on the school’s nationally renowned agricultural program and the community of Fargo. “I only had two offers and so it was a pretty simple decision for myself. I wanted a good agricultural school which is kind of uncommon, but just the community, the coaching staff and it was a pretty simple decision for me.”
Oh, by the way, Bjorklund’s biography page on the team’s website boasts that he’s a member of the NDSU Saddle and Sirloin Club and Agronomy Club. It’s something Phillips takes joy in pointing out to the national media from places like the New York Times and Washington Post just learning about this unique team from the plains of North Dakota. “Marshall Bjorklund is more comfortable in front of 3,000 pigs than a group of – he’s a pig farmer,” said Phillips when comparing Bjorklund’s farming background to having to sit through one of the many press conferences players from winning teams must endure during the tournament.
Like Bjorklund, Braun, the Summit League player of the year and NBA prospect, wasn’t heavily recruited. In fact, NDSU was Braun’s only Division I scholarship offer. The Newberg, Ore., native was days away from committing to Western Oregon, a Division II school, when he got a phone call from then Bison assistant Jason Kemp. “I was going to sign with a Division II school and then right before I did that I got an opportunity or I got a phone call from Coach Kemp,” said Braun when describing his road to NDSU. “He pretty much just said they had a scholarship opening because another player signed somewhere else.” That player was Nate Wolters, the South Dakota State star now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. “He [Kemp] knew it was late but if I wanted to come take a visit, I could. I did that and then the last time I visited they offered me a scholarship and I just accepted it right there.”
Who could have guessed at the time it would turn out to be one of the most significant visits in the sports history of the Peace Garden State. The year after the Bison landed Braun and Bjorklund, Phillips found his point guard in Alexander. “Saul, how can I put this,” began Alexander in explaining his journey from Peoria, Ill., to Fargo. “When I first got to North Dakota State, I got in the car and the first thing he said to me was, Hi, I’m Saul Phillips, I’m going to offer you a full scholarship. There, it’s on the table. It’s yours if you want it.” A special bond exists between Phillips and his players, perhaps none more visible than that between point guard and head coach. “Saul’s the same guy that I met since on my first visit. I mean, he’s goofy, crazy at times, but a great coach to play for.”
Kory Brown, the team’s lockdown defender and two guard, echoed Bjorklund, choosing NDSU because of Fargo’s community feel. Brown, who graduated high school from Hoffman Estates, Ill., which is near Chicago, wasn’t sure what to expect when Phillips recruited him to come to Fargo and play for the Bison. “I didn’t really know what Fargo was. In my eyes, it was something totally different,” Brown said. Then Brown took his visit to Fargo and liked what he saw. “When I got out there, it was a great community. There’s a lot more around than what people think. And seeing the guys like this there, I connected with them really well and the coaches.” Go up and down NDSU’s roster and you’ll hear similar stories from the rest of the Bison.
According to Phillips, the trick is getting the recruit to Fargo and NDSU so they can see what the city and university are really like. Such visits, like Brown’s, open eyes and allow Phillips to show recruits that Fargo is nothing like the outdated and inaccurate stereotype made popular by the 1996 hit movie Fargo. The exposure and outpouring of love the Bison have received from their Oklahoma win has also helped acknowledged Phillips. “It will help. We had to smash some perceptions about Fargo. We do.” Phillips specifically noted that many media members on the Bison bandwagon and in attendance at his Friday press conference have never been to North Dakota’s largest city. “A lot of people in this room haven’t been there. Moments like last night help. Fargo’s actually a really cool place and it’s got a ton of youth with the colleges in town, ton of energy, great employment, just a nice place.”
While the Bison appreciate the limelight, after being overlooked out of high school, they’re playing with chips on their shoulder, feeling that they have something to prove to area Big Ten schools like Minnesota and Iowa, and Big XII’s Iowa State, that doubted their ability. “I think it’s just a determination of kids like us that they didn’t give much of a chance anywhere else,” Bjorklund said. Those same schools were regretting their decision to ignore Bjorklund and his teammates while watching the Bison defeat the Sooners on Thursday. “I think we all played with a little chip on our shoulder our entire career. Coming to a stage like this, that kind of thing really shows and just the effort that we put forth, we’re trying to prove something every time we set foot on the court.” If there were any doubts they belonged, the Bison put those to bed and did so before an entire country in dramatic fashion – and in so doing, they find themselves as America’s Cinderella.