Everyone is jumping on the North Dakota State bandwagon. And I mean everyone, including the man with his hand on our country’s nuclear arsenal. Besides the dozens of college insiders like Jay Bilas and Joe Lunardi picking NDSU to upset Oklahoma, among the newest Bison fans is the commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama. Every year, the president, a noted college basketball fan, joins 50 million other Americans in filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket. On Wednesday morning’s SportsCenter, President Obama predicted the Bison would upset the Sooners. From the plains of Fargo, all the way to the Oval Office, the Bison are turning heads as a trendy No. 12 v. No. 5 upset pick.
“It’s kind of cool to watch SportsCenter and see President Obama picking us,” said senior forward Marshall Bjorklund. That doesn’t mean the Bison are taking the presidential seal of approval for granted, or even paying much attention to it. “The guys in our locker room, we know what we’re capable of and we know what we’re made of. So, yeah, it’s kind of cool to see that, but like (Taylor Braun) said, we’re going to get Oklahoma’s best shot.”
While picking the Bison is the en vogue thing to do, NDSU knows Oklahoma won’t be rolling out the green and yellow carpet for them in Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena. “I promise you that we don’t view ourselves as anything but an underdog,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips on the eve of his team’s second round tournament game versus the regular season runner-up from the Big XII conference. “Here’s the funny thing, I like to know how many people that picked us actually saw us play,” joked Phillips. “I know Obama wasn’t at any of our games, I would’ve known about that.”
For the Bison to spring the upset on the Sooners, they know defending the perimeter and three-point shot will be key. According to Phillips, the Sooners are as good as attacking off the dribble as any team the Bison have faced this year. “It’s a unique attack that way. It’s difficult to figure out where your help’s going to come from sometimes,” Phillips said. The Bison hope to benefit from their experience playing Summit League opponent Denver. Denver shot 654 threes this year. To put that in perspective, Oklahoma took 722, hitting 37.8 percent of them.
In their last regular season game, a game NDSU won, Denver hit 15 three-pointers against the Bison. In the Summit League Tournament semifinal rematch, NDSU shut down Denver’s sharp-shooters, holding them to 1-for-13 from beyond the arch in a 83 – 48 win. “They are really good at attacking you off the dribble and freeing up guys flat footed on the perimeter. … That’s a key component to us. We have to get them off that line and make them uncomfortable.” Unlike Denver, Phillips knows the Bison only get one chance to take down Oklahoma. “We don’t get a mulligan this time, you got to play the first ball, so we better.”
Phillips’ starting point guard, junior Lawrence Alexander, compared the Sooners to Notre Dame, a team the Bison beat in South Bend earlier this year. “Watching tape, we feel like their style of play plays like Notre Dame’s.” Alexander says if the Bison can control the perimeter, they’ll control the game. “They spread you out, penetrate, try to get flat footed threes.” With that said, Alexander added, “But, we believe if we stick to our principles, play defense, we’ll be able to come out with a W.”