A conversation with Saul Phillips


North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips, who signed a five-year extension last fall, is in the middle of his seventh season with the Bison, which currently lead the Summit League (7-2). Phillips guides the top-shooting team in America (51 percent). It helps that Taylor Braun, who leads the team with 18.1 PPG, is healthy again (kind of) after missing a chunk of last season with a foot injury.

Phillips, a former Wisconsin assistant, recently spoke with ESPN.com about this season's team.

Your team has the highest field-goal percentage in America right now [entering Monday]. What’s the secret?

Phillips: [On Saturday], my wife was reading the newspaper. She says, 'You’re No. 1 in what? What does field-goal percentage mean? … Wait, you’re better than Big Ten teams?' 'Yeah.' Marshall Bjorklund (13.9 PPG, 63 percent from the field) for a long time was leading the league in field-goal percentage. We’re not quite 'Dunk City,' but we dunk a lot. We’re good at going to the rim. It’s funny. When Taylor Braun went down last year for that 10- game stretch, we really struggled to score, I mean really struggled to score. It shows you how this group is a machine that’s learned to play together. It’s absolutely a group of unselfish players who know where they can score effectively.

How does it feel to finally have a healthy roster with Braun back in the mix?

Phillips: He won Summit League player of the month last month. We were sitting there going, 'Taylor, you need to start playing better.' [laughs]. He’s attracted the attention of some NBA scouts along the way. … We got him healthy, but he got sick last week. He lost 10 pounds with a bacterial infection. He played through it. He’s getting food back in him. He’s getting back to himself. Despite all that, he’s made huge plays for us all year. He’s an elite talent in this league. He’s a kid who had no Division I offers. He’s a special player.

There was a stretch from Nov. 20 through Dec. 14 where you all had six road games and just two home games? How do you handle that?

Phillips: When you live in Fargo, it gets cold, so being on the road can be a blessing sometime. … [Last season], we had a normal-looking schedule and then two teams left our league. We lost four games. Then, Bracketbusters gets canceled. That’s another home game. We lost six games after last year. Who wants to come to Fargo, North Dakota, to play a game against a team that has everybody back? The answer is nobody. … It got to the point when I woke up in my own bed for the first time in a long time, I didn’t realize where I was right away. If I’m feeling like that, I know our guys are feeling it. The Summit gets overlooked a lot of ways, but there are some difficult road trips in this league.

How does it feel to have the new contract and the stability that comes with it?

Phillips: Great. My athletic director [Gene Taylor], you need to understand that he and I have a very special relationship. I worked my first year of employment here on a letter of agreement. We didn’t have a contract. It started like that, and it’s been like that ever since. I don’t know if there is a situation in America where a coach feels more comfortable with his athletic director. That’s made it really easy for me to do it the right way. … I’ve got an AD [who] understands what we do and appreciates the results.