Phillips and his Bison are just living the dream

March, 11, 2009
Saul Phillips froze. He didn't know what to do.

The plan to redshirt freshmen for this moment, for one game to get into the NCAA tournament, had worked. A team in its first season as a full-fledged member of Division I was going dancing. So here he was, witnessing North Dakota State's historic accomplishment, and Phillips had nothing.

"I spent my whole life waiting for this moment," Phillips said Tuesday night after the Bison beat Oakland in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the Summit League championship. "It's your Steve Merfeld moment from Hampton from a couple of years back."

Merfeld's moment came when No. 15 Hampton upset No. 2 Iowa State in the first round of the 2001 NCAA tournament in Boise. Merfeld was so excited that he was in the arms of one of his players, his legs flailing off the court.

Phillips said he just turned and hugged his wife and kids.

"It's indescribable, the pride I feel for what this class has done," Phillips said on Wednesday's ESPNU Podcast . "A lot of college players that get to the NCAA almost always have more than one shot. These guys had to put it all on one night. I'm still not quite sure how we won it and when it was over I wasn't quite sure what to do."

The plan to redshirt what was then five freshmen (only four made it to the fifth year) was a gamble. But it has become the model for provisional Division I schools. Bryant University's Tim O'Shea said he was going to look at doing the same thing with his incoming freshmen since the Bulldogs have four more years of waiting out the NCAA's provisional period of being eligible for postseason.

Phillips was the redshirt freshmen coach when the players arrived in Fargo under head coach Tim Miles. Miles left two seasons ago to take the head coaching job at Colorado State. But Phillips and the seniors had built so much trust that it was no surprise that he didn't call a timeout after Oakland had tied it with under 10 seconds remaining.

Phillips said Ben Woodside knew there wouldn't be a timeout. He knew that the open court was his domain.

"He invented a shot that I hadn't seen in a while, a new one, a kind of leaner and knocked it in," Phillips said of Woodside's winning jumper. "I could have drawn up plays until the dry erase board wore out, but he wasn't going to get a better look than that. It's easy to have faith in a young man (like Woodside)."

Lost amid discussion of dismissing teams like North Dakota State is what this will mean to the school, to the city of Fargo, to the alumni. The NCAA tournament is the great equalizer among the membership. A high-ranking vice president in the NCAA said Tuesday that there has never been any discussion to get rid of the automatic berths. Expanding the field was addressed by the selection committee but dismissed last spring.

Two-thirds of the membership comes from lower-profile conferences, or one-bid leagues, and there is no movement for them to vote themselves out of earning automatic berths. If this ever occurred, according to the NCAA hierarchy, it would mean essentially splitting the organization. That already exists in football where there are subdivisions. The Division I group keeps the revenue from its Bowl Championship Series television contracts. The men's basketball TV deal is shared among the entire membership. ESPN analyst Tom Brennan said Vermont's NCAA berths were life-altering for him and his players and changed the way the school was perceived. Getting a bid for North Dakota State puts the school on the national map. It also is a feel-good story for Fargo. No one expects the Bison to win the event, but the NCAA tournament's first weekend is about storylines like the Bison, which draw in the mainstream fan. Millions of fans considering NDSU to win a game in their brackets will keep more interest than yet another matchup between two middling majors.

But there is still pressure at this level. Phillips said there was attention in Fargo that put added stress on the team. The focus on NDSU was real. Nationally, though, the Bison aren't feeling a pinch of pressure.

"A lot of people will wake up surprised to see North Dakota State in the bracket," Phillips said.

By the way, it was a few degrees in Sioux Falls on Tuesday night. The weather wasn't much better in Fargo. If any team deserves a trip to Miami in the first-and-second round, it's the Bison. But don't have pity on this group. They earned the right to be in the event and don't plan on being a pushover.

"We've been competitive with everybody we've played with the exception of Minnesota," Phillips said of the 14-point loss to the Gophers in November. The Bison lost to USC by only four a month later at the Galen Center. "I'll put this group on any court against anyone. They're special. I'm thankful we'll get a chance to play on that (NCAA) stage."

• Davidson coach Bob McKillop is holding out hope the Wildcats will get a bid on Selection Sunday. McKillop said during Wednesday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast that the Wildcats won 26 games in consecutive seasons entering Selection Sunday and sees more wins against better competition this season and fewer bad losses. The biggest difference, of course, is that Davidson got the automatic Southern Conference bid a year ago, while this season it lost in the SoCon semifinals.

McKillop pointed out that Stephen Curry was injured for the loss to The Citadel and wasn't at full strength in the home loss to Butler. McKillop said Curry is handling the possibility that he might not play in the NCAAs this season well, saying he was just wondering what time they will practice Sunday. McKillop, who said the Wildcats won't gather as a team to watch the Selection Show, will gather the team to practice for whatever postseason event they are playing in next week.

• Gary Waters' raw emotion after Cleveland State's win over Butler probably comes from years toiling at the bottom of the Big East at Rutgers. Waters went back to the state of Ohio, where he had been successful at Kent State. Waters made the right call in going back. You could tell he was overjoyed in getting to the NCAAs. Cleveland State's victory will knock someone else out of the at-large pool since Butler is expected to get a bid, too. You can't point out one team this hurts, though. It could be a mid- or a high-major -- all depends on how each committee member ranks its teams toward the bottom of the at-large pool.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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