NDSU Bison make the big dance for the first timeby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
North Dakota State University is making its first appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament. Thousands of fans from North Dakota and Minnesota will be in Minneapolis to watch the Bison take on defending champion Kansas.
Fargo, N.D. — A handful of reporters stand around watching the NDSU basketball team go through shooting drills in their last practice on their home court before the tournament.
This is the first year NDSU is eligible for March Madness, after moving up to NCAA Division I sports.
North Dakota State University basketball coach Saul Phillips has never been so popular.
"How many interviews have I done? Probably a hundred?" said Phillips in response to a reporter's question.
"My 5-year-old daughter looked at me when the phone rang last night for another phone interview and said, 'Dad, just don't answer it anymore,'" Phillips said. "It will all go back to the way it was sooner rather than later, but I'm enjoying the heck out of every last second of this."
Phillips remembers a time when he wasn't so popular. He tells stories of big schools laughing when he called to schedule a game.
He knows making it to college basketball's biggest event is a step toward earning respect for his program. And Phillips is thrilled to be playing in Minneapolis.
"We have such a Minnesota base anyway. We have seven Minnesota kids on our roster and to be placed in Minneapolis, hey you couldn't put us in a better area from a recruiting standpoint," said Phillips.
Two of the best players on the team are Minnesotans.
Ben Woodside played his high school basketball in Albert Lea. Woodside attracted national media attention this year when he scored 60 points in a game. It's been eight years since any college basketball player reached that milestone.
Brett Winkelman grew up in Morris. He's one of the leading scorers on the team. He's also an Academic All-American who has a 3.8 GPA in industrial engineering.
Winkelman has been dreaming of this moment since elementary school.
"I was always saying March Madness in the gym by myself," recalled Winkelman. "Now we get to go up against one of the best teams in the country first round, and hopefully get an upset."
Winkelman chose to play at NDSU knowing this year would be a chance to go to the big dance.
The team had two goals this year, according to Winkelman -- win the league championship and make the NCAA tournament.
Now there's a new goal -- to play well against the Kansas Jayhawks, one of the best college basketball teams in the country.
"We're going to have our hands completely full, and we're going to have to play a very good game to compete. But I think we're confident enough to go in there," said Winkelman. "We've played ranked teams before and gotten wins against Marquette and Wisconsin when they were ranked. So it's doable. It's going to be tough but we're looking forward to the chance."
Winkelman expects a big contingent from his hometown of Morris to be at the Metrodome.
Thousands of Fargo-Moorhead residents have tickets to the game. In fact, Fargo had to reschedule a Friday morning meeting to talk about the region's flood preparation, to accommodate the Bison game.
Fargo-Moorhead Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Martin is loving the national media attention.
"This is a positive message to the nation that there are good things happening in Fargo-Moorhead. I smiled as I told somebody last week, 'We were on the national news twice. Once for the weather and once for the Bison,'" said Martin.
The chamber office has been fielding calls from people wanting to know more about Fargo-Moorhead, according to Martin, who is confident whatever the outcome of the basketball game, this will be a win for North Dakota State and the local community.
- Morning Edition, 03/20/2009, 7:25 a.m.