North Dakota State seniors on brink of dream; BracketBuster forecast
Ben Woodside has led North Dakota State to a first-place tie in the Summit League
After moving to Division I, it is their first chance to compete in the NCAA tourney
VMI's Travis and Chavis Holmes set the all-time NCAA scoring mark for twins
To most of America, Fargo is known for three things: its namesake 1996 Academy Award-winning film, brutal winter weather (Tuesday's high: 5 degrees) and college basketball. Actually, the third item may not be true yet, but a remarkable story is being played out that will have its final act in March.
The story started five years ago, when a surprisingly strong recruiting class was given word that North Dakota State's transition period from Division II to Division I would be reduced from 13 years to five per a new NCAA rule. The 2008-09 season, then, would be the first year the Bison would be eligible to compete in the NCAA tournament.
If these five incoming freshmen wanted at least a chance at playing in the Big Dance, they would have to redshirt. As fifth-year seniors, they might have a shot, but realistically, they would need to find a conference by then, no easy task.
So the five players, led by Ben Woodside, spent their true freshman seasons on the equivalent of a scout team, beating the upperclassmen more than they lost. "I remember days where the older guys would get mad because we were really taking it to them," Woodside said.
Now, the four remaining members of the class (the fifth member of that class quit basketball due to multiple concussions, but is still enrolled at NDSU) start and have North Dakota State tied for first in the Summit League at 8-1 (14-5 overall). More importantly, they will participate in the Summit League tournament in March for the first time, and if they win that, Woodside, Brett Winkelman, Mike Nelson and Lucas Moorman will see their long-range plan play out as hoped.
"It would be a dream come true for everyone around this program, a dream that was thought to be unreachable when we started this," said coach Saul Phillips, who was an assistant when the group came in before becoming head coach two years ago. "The victory is in the fact that we can even talk about it without being laughed out of the conversation."
There hasn't been much laughing at the Bison since they've become a Division I squad. North Dakota State pulled off a stunning upset at Wisconsin when Woodside was a freshman, then pulled off another stunner at Marquette the next season.
"The Wisconsin game showed we were going to survive this transition," Phillips said. "We didn't hear a whole lot of second-guessing [on the transition] after that."
North Dakota State joined the Mid-Continent Conference (since renamed the Summit Conference) last year and finished 10-8, but wasn't allowed to participate in the conference tournament because it was a provisional member.
In December, Woodside made national headlines with a remarkable 60-point outburst in a triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin at a tournament at Drake. The game tipped off in front of about 100 people at 5 p.m. on a Friday, the first game of the doubleheader. As the Drake fans began to show up to see the home team, they were treated to three overtimes and Woodside's fantastic play, which included 48 points in the game's final 23 minutes.
"The Drake student section gave me a standing ovation as I left the court," Woodside said. "I had mixed emotions because we lost [112-111], but that is a moment I'll never forget."
Woodside is averaging 24.2 points and 6.4 assists per game despite being just 5-foot-11. He also shoots 47 percent from three and is averaging 8.9 free throw attempts per game. According to KenPom.com, Woodside is seventh in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, the only sub-six-footer in the top 45.
"He is a freak athlete," Phillips said. "He has a freakish first step that allows him to get in the lane, and he is a great shooter."
The four fifth-year seniors will be leaning heavily on their experience when they try to keep their emotions in check at the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., March 7-10. A five-year plan will hinge on the outcome of that weekend.
"It is years or work going into one weekend," Phillips said. "But it is imperative we don't view it that way and just play the best we can. But that is going to be easier said than done."
And if the Bison pull it off?
"They'll have to make a movie out of it," Woodside said.
Fargo II coming to an arena near you.
ESPN will announce its BracketBuster pairings on Monday, and unfortunately, the matchup of Liberty freshman Seth Curry vs. older brother Steph Curry is unlikely. While Davidson is on the home list and Liberty is on the road list, Liberty's RPI of 170 is likely too low for ESPN to consider pairing with Davidson, who has an RPI of 37. Wouldn't it make great television?
My best guess for the top matchups:
Butler at Davidson -- Steph Curry would face one of the toughest defenses in the nation.
George Mason at Siena -- The veteran Saints are on a roll right now and Mason would give them a stern test.
VCU at St. Mary's -- Extraordinary matchup of two future NBA point guards -- Eric Maynor of VCU and Patrick Mills of St. Mary's.
Travis and Chavis Holmes set the all-time NCAA scoring mark for twins last weekend with a combined 47-point effort in VMI's 92-85 win over High Point. The Holmes brothers have scored 3,262 points in their careers since arriving from the Christ School in Arden, N.C., four years ago.
The Holmes brothers were coach Duggar Baucom's first recruits, and four years later, they are on the verge of adding to a sparse history at VMI. The Keydets are 16-3 and 8-1 in the Big South with a win at Kentucky on their resume. A postseason berth would be VMI's since the 1977 team made the Sweet 16.
Interestingly, the Holmes brothers passed Ramon and Damon Williams of VMI to break the record. Former Clemson standout Horace and twin Harvey Grant (who started his career with the Tigers before transferring to Oklahoma) are third.
Army-Navy not just for football
One of the quieter, but still passionate, hoops rivalries in the nation was played in front of more than 4,000 fans on Sunday. Army, suffering through a tough season, handed Navy a surprising 76-71 loss.
Army entered the game at 5-12 and 0-3 in the Patriot League, shooting 32.7 percent during a four-game losing streak. So what do the Knights do against Navy, who was 14-5 and 3-1? Shoot 65 percent from the field and score a season-high in points.
At the other end, Navy shot just 31.1 percent and leading scorer Kaleo Kina matched a season-low with nine points.
Army better not get too high, however. The Knights have lost the game after a Navy win six times in a row.