It doesn’t take more than a few minutes listening to North Dakota State’s basketball players and their head coach to realize there is a strong bond between them. Following NDSU’s victory in the Summit League Tournament championship game against Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, a win that sends the Bison to the NCAA Tournament, the word they used regularly in referring to each other? Love. That’s right. Love. This from a squad of tough, veteran players that were diving for loose balls in the second half of a 35-point win over Denver in the tournament’s semifinals.
They were a group specifically recruited by Bison head coach Saul Phillips with a plan in mind for reaching the NCAA Tournament. “You need to have a patient athletic director, a patient president, and if you have those elements, you can build that just the way you want it,” said Phillips. Despite the high-flying aerial acrobatics above the rim that have earned the Bison the nickname “Dunk Township,” they were a team built stressing defense. Phillips built his team to compete for this moment and the opportunity now in front of them. “I never once felt heat or pressure for anything other than getting my kids to what their ultimate dream is, they were recruited on the dream that they could make it [to the NCAA Tournament].”
There’s no “I” in this team. Not by a long shot. The group has bonded together in a way where egos are cast aside and individual accolades ignored. Take Braun, for example. His late-game heroics were featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter many times in the 24-hours following the title game against IPFW. You’ll see plenty of those highlights in the lead-up to the NCAA Tournament. Who did Braun credit for that Bison win? His teammates, especially Wright. “We wouldn’t have been there if Tray wouldn’t have carried us the whole way, you played your butt off, I love you,” Braun said, looking at Wright, both with the freshly cut championship nets from Sioux Falls Arena draped around their necks.
Phillips echoed Braun. “TrayVonn, the journey you’ve gone on through, wow,” began Phillips in assessing Wright’s championship game performance, which included a game-high 19 points. “I love you kid.” Wright, in-turn, described Phillips as a stepdad, although Phillips sees himself more like a crazy uncle. “He’s honestly like a stepdad kind of,” to which Phillips quickly responded, “More like crazy uncle.” Wright said he’d take that one too. In an era where many coaches have adopted the Bill Belichick model and treat interacting with the media like a root canal, Phillips and his players interact with each other freely and openly during press conferences, to the point they often finish each others’ sentences and do so with more quotable banter than there’s room to print. And it’s no act – these men and their coach genuinely enjoy being together.
Following both Summit League tournament games, Braun, who was named the tournament’s MVP, stressed that NDSU is a team and takes pride in attacking opponents as a team. “There are so many ways we can attack teams,” Braun said after NDSU’s win over Denver. Likewise, after beating IPFW, Braun put the team ahead of his own performance. “It doesn’t matter who gets the attention and accolades. … The fact is we are everything that is a team. We don’t have one star player, you shut him down the team is going to crumble. We can hurt people from so many different areas.”
The Bison take their cue from Phillips. Just because they’re winning, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to enjoy the ride. This is something Phillips learned from his experience taking NDSU to the NCAA Tournament in 2009, where they nearly upset defending national champion Kansas in an opening round match-up in Minneapolis.
“The one thing I took away from the last time was that it was the experience of our young men’s lifetime,” Phillips explained. “I’ve learned you can do both. You can soak up every second of this, we’re not too cool for school now, we’re giddy. Put that tough game face away, you can smile once in awhile too.” Phillips’ summed up his mindset, and that of his team, heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament. “This is going to be a blast. This is going to be an absolute thrill ride for our guys, I’m going to make sure it is.” Who can blame Phillips for his giddy attitude? After all, it’s a team he built, and a moment several years in the making. And, if the ball bounces right, it could lead to plenty more smiles for Phillips, his players and NDSU fans in coming weeks.