North Dakota State hasn’t played a game in this year’s NCAA Tournament and they’ve already become a quasi media darling. The Bison are a favorite among college basketball insiders to spring the standard No. 12 v. No. 5 upset in Thursday’s second round tournament matchup against Oklahoma. The publicity has been well-documented by NDSU fans on Twitter and Facebook as many sports websites, ranging from Bleacher Report to SB Nation to ESPN experts like Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Joe Lunardi, are all picking the Bison to beat the Sooners. Lunardi, ESPN’s resident bracketologist, went so far as to pick NDSU as the double-digit seeded team that will advance beyond this weekend and into the Sweet 16.
One factor contributing to the upset fervor is the fact teams play each other on a neutral court. This is a key component of March Madness. During the regular season, teams in major conferences like the Big XII rarely venture away from their home gym to play a mid-major power on their own turf. You can count with one finger how many times a team from a “power six” conference has played at the Bison Sports Arena in the last ten years. That came on Dec. 9, 2006, when Kansas State escaped the BSA with an 83 – 81 win. “That will be something new, I don’t know what to expect,” said Bison guard Taylor Braun. Braun himself is quickly gaining notoriety as numerous experts have tabbed him as a player that could emerge as a household name this tournament. “I’ve got to assume it will be a little more friendly to us instead of going to their place.”
Playing on a neutral court is an equalizer. NDSU fans shouldn’t be surprised if there’s more “Let’s Go Bison” chants in the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena than “Boomer Sooner” sing-alongs come tip-off. The Sooners find themselves 1,717 miles from Norman, Okla., and the Lloyd Noble Center. By comparison, the Bison are a mere 1,146 miles from Fargo and the comforts of the BSA. “This is the first time we’ve ever played a high major on a neutral floor and that’s why you see the upsets,” explained Bison head coach Saul Phillips when asked if there were any advantages of playing in Spokane. “If we hosted Big Ten and Big XII teams more regularly at the BSA, you’d see more top 50 wins out of us.”
Should NDSU keep the game close heading into the latter stages of the second half, look for thousands of otherwise neutral fans in Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena to jump on the Bison bandwagon. America loves an upset, and fans of higher seeded teams love nothing more than seeing other higher seeded teams fall victim to the mid-major underdog. The history of No. 12’s upsetting No. 5’s isn’t lost on the Bison. “We would’ve been a little upset if we didn’t get the No. 12 seed,” said Bison power forward Marshall Bjorklund. “That 5/12 matchup, every year there’s always some upsets.”
Pete Thamel, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, also liked NDSU in the No. 12 v. No. 5 matchup. “The No. 12 that jumped out of the bracket at me was North Dakota State,” Thamel said in a video posted Tuesday on Sports Illustrated’s website. “I was texting some coaches in the Summit League last night…these coaches were dead set that North Dakota State was good enough to win a game and maybe two.”