North Dakota State is going to Spokane Wash., for their NCAA Tournament matchup against Oklahoma with one thing in mind: winning. Just showing up and seeing their names in bright lights isn’t enough. Not for this team. After having a few days to let the emotions from their Summit League championship sink in, NDSU is ready to get to work in preparing for Oklahoma. The Bison play the Sooners this Thursday, tip-off set for 6:27 p.m. on truTV.
Expect the coffee and Red Bull to be flowing late into the night at the Phillips’ household. “I haven’t watched a lot of Oklahoma, I’ve seen them play on tv in passing,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips at the Bison Sports Arena viewing party after learning his team was facing the Sooners. “All through the night working to figure out what we have to do to beat them. They’re an extremely efficient offensive and defensive team that mirrors us a little bit. They played in a conference that was as good as any in the country this year.”
A crowd of about 500 watched and cheered as the video board at the BSA broadcasted the live CBS selection show. Oklahoma finished second in the Big XII, which leads all conferences with seven teams making the tournament’s field. Bison players took in the scene from recliners and couches brought onto the newly named Pioneer Court at Scheels Center in the Sanford Heath Athletics Complex. Taylor Braun, the Summit League player of the year, predicts the Sooners will have their hands full with the Bison. “We’re going out onto the court and expecting to win,” said Braun. “We’re going to go with the mindset that Oklahoma is in for a long forty minutes.”
NDSU is no stranger to taking on big-time opponents during Braun’s time at NDSU. Last season, the Bison opened against then No. 1 nationally ranked Indiana. This year, the Bison have played Notre Dame and Ohio State, winning the former and dropping the latter. NDSU also has wins against fellow tournament teams Delaware and Western Michigan. The tough nonconference schedule propelled the Bison to a No. 35 RPI ranking en route to Spokane. “It was hard, there is a little element of being battled tested,” Phillips explained. These big game experiences over the last four years have helped mold the Bison into the mature team that many experts are picking as a mid-major that could win a few games in the tournament. “The cumulative experience is over four or five years, by the time you’re at the end of that fifth year for us, you have some pretty mature guys and guys that feel like they can handle anything.”
That maturity and feeling of confidence was on display Sunday afternoon when Braun, along with Marshall Bjorklund and Fred Newell, were asked to describe the team’s mindset heading into the tournament matchup with Oklahoma. “We’re going to prepare to win this game,” said Braun. “It’s 40 minutes and whoever puts the best product out there is going to win. This is March so anything can happen.” Bjorklund agreed, indicating that NDSU didn’t come this far not to wreak some havoc. “Last couple days have been pretty exciting, but once we heard the news, it’s time to buckle down,” Bjorklund said. “We didn’t come this far to lay down. We’re going to go out there and give them our best shot.”
In a bit of delicious irony, the trip to Spokane is nearly the same distance from Fargo as Fargo is to Frisco. NDSU has become well acquainted with the Texas city after winning the last three Football Championship Subdivision titles there. “I really hope they (Bison fans) can make it,” said Phillips. “I would like to point out, the drive from Fargo to Spokane is the same as the drive from Fargo to Frisco.” It’s 1,146 miles to Spokane as compared to 1,061 miles to Frisco. Phillips quipped he’d pay for those extra 80 miles for any Bison fans making the trip. It will be worth the trip for NDSU fans. If the Bison beat Oklahoma, it will instantly become a signature moment in the school’s athletic history. It’s a moment Phillips and his team are fully expecting.