Paging Rip Van Winkle. Did I spend a late night at Chubs or the Turf and hibernate all the way through winter? Did I doze into next August to wake up on the eve of North Dakota State’s football opener against Iowa State? All signs are pointing that way. Tickets are impossible to get. Sounds like Bison football. Folks around the office are talking about NDSU facing South Dakota State in a game with conference-title implications. Again, sounds like Bison football. Local media outlets, and even the chattering class at ESPN, are starting to buzz about a talented Bison team poised to make some national noise.
Yep, it must be Bison football. Only, it’s not Bison football. And, mercifully, I haven’t missed our brief sabbatical from winter and woke up in August. Saul Phillips and his guys from “Dunk Township,” the alley-ooping, high-flying, rim-rockers are on the brink of doing something only one other Bison hoops team has ever done – make the NCAA Basketball Tournament, a.k.a. March Madness, a.k.a. “Let’s go cut down some nets.” The latter a reference to Phillips’ pregame locker room speech before NDSU’s come from behind victory over Oakland sent them dancing in 2009, a distant five years ago.
Phillips christened his veteran squad, which features four 1,000-point career scorers with the capability of hammering down crowd-pleasing dunks, with the fitting country moniker after a recent win. A win, like several others, that saw NDSU turn the game into a slam-dunk contest. “We’re not ‘Dunk City,’ we’re ‘Dunk Township,’” joked Phillips. “I’m making t-shirts.” In an interview with ESPN’s Myron Metcalf, the Bison head coach summed up his team’s aerial acrobatics near the rim. “We’re not quite ‘Dunk City,’ but we dunk a lot. We’re good at going to the rim.”
While the “Dunk Township” nickname may need some work, the Bison are peaking at the right time. With only three games remaining on the Summit League calendar, a win Saturday against the rival Jackrabbits would clinch NDSU a share of the league’s regular season title. It would also put NDSU on the cusp of the top overall seed heading into the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. starting in two weeks, which includes a first-round bye into the tournament’s semi-finals.
How big is this game? Big. Program-changing big. Big like the football team’s 2011 win over Northern Iowa at the FargoDome, a win that many look to as the beginning of turning the FargoDome into one of the greatest home field advantages in all of college sports. The FargoDome changed that game and hasn’t been the same since. Could a win this Saturday over SDSU serve the same purpose? Before NDSU football beat UNI on Oct. 29, 2011, UNI was the king of Missouri Valley Football. After the win? You know that story. The Bison have been the undisputed kings of the conference with the championship hardware to prove it. SDSU hoops in 2014 is what UNI football was in 2011, an obstacle the Bison have to overcome to win a conference championship.
Would a win over the Jacks springboard the Bison into the Summit League Tournament, then into the Big Dance, and ultimately into a new arena with the fanfare Bison Nation has reserved only for football to this point? It certainly wouldn’t hurt. In the twenty-plus years I’ve been following Bison hoops, I can’t remember the last time a basketball ticket was this hot of a commodity. Even President Dean Bresciani is getting in on the action. The NDSU Alumni Association is hosting a pregame party Saturday afternoon at the McGovern Alumni Center featuring Bresciani, Phillips, and Athletic Director Gene Taylor. When was the last time the Alumni Association hosted a basketball pregame party? Probably March 2009 in Minneapolis, that’s when.
The atmosphere in the Bison Sports Arena will feel like the FargoDome on game day. The student section will be loud, full, and standing the entire game, just like the FargoDome on game day. The BSA will literally be packed to the rafters in a Gold Rush, just like the FargoDome on game day. Starting to see a pattern? And, just like the FargoDome on a Bison-Jacks game day, the standing room only crowd will be expecting a big Bison win. Maybe they’ll even bring out the Dakota Marker for good measure.
This Bison team is good. They’re one of the best mid-major teams in the country good, ranked No. 4 is the latest mid-major poll. Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s resident bracketologist who is the Mel Kipper of March Madness, has the Bison as a No. 12 seed in his latest Bracketology playing defending national champion Louisville in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Should they win the Summit League Tournament, NDSU will be a trendy pick in a lot of expert brackets as a lower-seeded team that could make a run beyond the first weekend of the tournament into the Sweet 16, and, from there, who knows how far.
But before the Bison can go dancing, before Phillips and Dunk Township can cut down the nets in Sioux Falls, before they can even start thinking about Cinderella’s glass slipper and March Madness, they have to get past the Jacks this Saturday and probably once more during the Summit League Tournament. Fitting it all starts this weekend at the BSA in one last sendoff for a building that’s scheduled for demolition after the season. A changing of the guard in the Summit League, a new arena, the beginning of a new era in Bison basketball and regular NCAA Tournament appearances? Like I said, this Saturday is big, program-changing big.