Photo By Dave Eggen/Inertia
Editor’s Note: This column was written and printed before the Summit League’s announcements to hold the conference tournament at the Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., without fans.
Without our annual January pilgrimage to Frisco, Texas, to provide a respite from the northern winters, paradise in March for North Dakota State fans could be a quick three and a half hour trip south down I-29 to Sioux Falls to watch the Summit League Basketball Tournament. The Bison men sit near the top of the ledger in the conference with a red-hot 5-1 league start. They look the part of a legitimate Summit League contender that could find themselves back in March Madness, winning the league tournament for a third consecutive year, and for a fourth time during Dave Richman’s tenure.
For their part, the Bison women are one of only two league teams to already notch three conference wins, at least as of this writing. The other team is South Dakota. This isn’t the Bison women’s team of the last decade. They are going places. Only in their second year under Jory Collins, this team is resembling something more akin to the women’s teams that dominated prairie hoops for years under Amy Ruley. To be clear, they aren’t at that level yet, but they’re on their way. It’s within the realm of possibilities that they will challenge for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth by 2023.
There is an exciting brand of high quality mid-major basketball being played at the Scheels Center inside the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. Which brings us back to our two tickets to paradise. Why haven’t we, collectively, as Bison Nation, packed our proverbial bags and left tonight? I’ve never quite understood why some Bison fans will travel 1,110 miles – many by car – to north Dallas, but have never made the trip only a few hours south to watch some really good NDSU teams compete for a spot in March Madness, the biggest sporting event in America. Is it because Sioux Falls doesn’t have a Wild Pitch, Tight Ends, or Scruffy Duffies?
I’ve had this discussion with other devoted Bison fans. Reasons range from the fact that the FCS Championship occurs over a weekend to fans being fatigued by a long football season. The argument goes that many fans only need to take a single day off from work to head to Frisco – they leave Thursday after work, drive through the night, then drive back right after the game on Saturday and are at work on Monday morning – versus the Summit League Tournament which, if the Bison advance to the title game, requires multiple days away from work to attend.
I don’t buy that.
The Bison have often played on a Saturday in Sioux Falls, and the NDSU crowd has always been sparse, particularly compared to our Rushmore friends. It’s a very doable drive from Fargo or Minneapolis to watch hoops Saturday, and head back home on Sunday, or to make the trip on Tuesday only if the Herd advances to the title game.
The next argument is the uncertainty, not knowing whether to buy tickets because of how far the Bison may advance. That argument also doesn’t stand up under examination. Many Bison fans buy their Frisco tickets the August before the championship, undaunted by how difficult it really is to get to a national championship game. You can order single tickets to the Sanford Premier Center to watch only a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon basketball session, and likewise buy only a ticket to the title game. I’ve literally showed up on Tuesday afternoon for a championship game the Bison were playing in, parked myself in the Sheraton lobby bar, had a few barley pops, and secured a ticket either in the lobby bar, or at a ticket window of the arena. It’s been harder to get a ticket to some of the FCS title games in Frisco than getting a ticket to the Summit League Tournament. And, to borrow a line from the great Bob Uecker, in case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attendance many of you haven’t, NDSU has been pretty freaking good on the men’s side under Richman, and Saul Phillips before him.
Bottom line, Bison men and women hoops deserve our support. Here’s a little secret that I’ll also let you in on. It’s a pretty good time, to boot, spending a few days watching Bison hoops in Sioux Falls. Just ask the awesomely dedicated Bison fans that yearly camp out behind the basket and dress up in their finest suits.
At the end of the day, it’s easier to get to Sioux Falls than Frisco, and the weather in early March in the two places is comparable. The NDSU basketball programs have the potential to be major players in mid-major hoops – and to be major players in the very near future, like, we’re talking within years you can count on a single hand – if only the legendary NDSU fan base would turn out and support them at a level that was even half that of how Bison Nation turns out for the football program. The possibilities, oh friends, the possibilities if that were to happen!
It would be something special, and could even push the programs to heights like seeing the men or women’s team ranked in the College Basketball Top 25 poll for the first time. Don’t tell me that’s pie in the sky. If we can beat Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Marquette, and Oklahoma in hoops, and darn near knock off Kansas at the Phog, it’s within reach.
Of course, we can’t, nor shouldn’t, downplay the safety concerns this year because of COVID-19. But for those of us that have had the virus, at least in recent weeks or months, or those that have received the vaccine, this March is a perfect opportunity to make like Eddie Money because we’ve waited so long, waited so long, for a live Bison sporting event and opportunity to get out of the house. I will personally save you a seat at our table at the Sheraton lobby bar in Sioux Falls, or at whatever local haunt we’re camped out at. My wife will be not be real happy about this next part, but hey, I’ll even promise to pick-up the first beverage down there, just keep your eyes below the top shelf.
Some of my fondest memories of NDSU athletics have come in Sioux Falls. I’ve been to every national championship in Frisco, and to 10 of the 12 Summit League Tournaments the Bison have played in since 2009. I can tell you with all my Bison sincerity, you will find the same level of comradery among Bison fans in both places. I can also tell you that the feeling of watching your team cut down the nets and advance to March Madness is something you have to experience as a Bison fan.
The buzz and electricity in the arena on a Tuesday night for a chance to get into the Big Dance rivals the excitement I’ve felt walking into Toyota Stadium. The hair on your neck stands at the Premier Center just like at Toyota Stadium. If nothing else convinces you, as I said, the first beverage down there is on me.
Everybody up for the tip off, the March is on!