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Bison are the trendy pick, but they remain the underdog

by Mike McFeely

Spokane, Wash.

President Obama favors North Dakota State over Oklahoma in his bracket, which does not give Bison head coach Saul Phillips any comfort. Not based on politics or popularity polls, mind you. Saul is a basketball coach, meaning he thinks in terms of being a basketball coach.

"Obama was not at any of our games. I would have known that," Phillips said Wednesday as he and his Bison showed their verbal stuff for the media at Spokane Arena. "He didn't make his way to Fargo to see us play."

The Bison play Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament Thursday and, Air Force One scouting trips to Fargo aside, there is one thing that's caught the attention of the writers and broadcasters from Norman and Tulsa and other cities in enemy territory: It has become chic to pick the Bison over the Sooners.

ESPN's Digger Phelps did it first. Then came Jay Bilas. Other, lesser-known but possibly better-informed luminaries followed. Capped by the guy in the Oval Office. 

A team from the little old Summit League favored over a team from the might Big 12? Bison Pride over Boomer Sooner? Dogs and cats living together? It has Phillips trying to turn his underdog team back into the underdog.

"I promise that we don't view ourselves as anything but an underdog," he said in the midst of his 30-minute standup routine for the Oklahoma and national media. "And you look at it from any different angle, right down to their coach who has taken five -- five! -- programs to the NCAA tournament, they're the favorite. They know it, we know it."

A big part of what's going here involves the tournament seeding. The Sooners are the No. 5 seed, the Bison No. 12. Historically, this is the seeding that's led to the most upsets in NCAA first-round games. Key word: historically. This means even those bracketologists who couldn't locate Fargo on a map and think the greatest basketball coach in Oklahoma history is Barry Switzer automatically gravitate toward picking the 12th seed.

"Five-twelves are always trendy, it's the way it's always going to be," Phillips said. "We have got some statistics on paper that make us stand out a little bit. The field goal percentage in particular, the number of upper classmen we have ... but that's what people are going on. Live I say, let's have them dissect our program right now, because I think they would probably struggle to go for more than a minute and a half."

Lon Kruger is the Oklahoma coach, the person to whom Phillips was referring when he mentioned the five-different-schools-to-the-NCAA thing. Just in case you need the answer in a trivia contest, the schools are Oklahoma, Kansas State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Florida and Illinois. Lon's made many coaching stops, including the NBA's Atlanta Hawks for a little less than three seasons. Given Kruger's record in Atlanta, the NCAA tournament would not have been guaranteed if the Hawks had been eligible.

When asked what he thought of Obama's pick, Kruger dead-panned: "It changed our entire practice this morning."

Lon is a good guy, by the account of the Oklahoma writers who cover him. But that was the funniest line of his press conference. He is no Shecky Phillips, although Kruger has the advantage in the NCAA victories department, 14-to-zero.

Lon continued: "I can understand. North Dakota State's a really good ballclub. Coach Phillips does a great job and they have a lot of experience. They have guys that make shots, they have got (Marshall) Bjorklund inside, (Taylor) Braun on the perimeter, other really good players around those two. They're a good team. They have had a great year and our guys respect that and if we don't play well, then we're not going to win. I think we have to play well to win and that's what you expect come tournament time."

Never knowing quite when to stop pounding a narrative into the ground, we the jackals also asked players on each team about Obama and the trendiness of picking the Bison. 

First up, Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler.

"I think we can control what we do," he said. "We're ready to play, both teams are good. It's going to be a well-fought game, but ... blah, blah, blah." 

OK, he didn't say that last part. But we'll stop there. He went on for awhile, but didn't take the Obama bait.

Next up, the Bison's Braun.

"I don't think these more high profile people picking us to win changes our mindset. I definitely think we're not going to catch Oklahoma off-guard. I'm pretty sure we're going to get their best effort and best game," Braun said. "We have, both teams, earned the right to be in this position and both teams are preparing hard and it's going to be a very good, exciting game."

Here is the guarantee this basketball non-expert will make: Trendy picks, upsets, presidential predictions and coaching comedy routines mean nothing if the Bison don't shoot well, defend capably, stay out of foul trouble and limit turnovers. If those things happen, the team from Big 12 will best the team from the Summit League. These are not two equal programs from two equal leagues. The Bison are a very fine Summit League team. The Sooners are a second-place Big 12 team. If NDSU plays well and shoots well, it has a good chance to win. If it doesn't, it won't.

"It's kind of cool to watch SportsCenter and see President Obama picking us, but there's a lot of (guys) who've followed us all year who are picking us," said post Marshall Bjorklund. "The guys in our locker room, we know what we're capable of and we know what we're made of. So, yeah, it's kind of cool to see that, but ... we're going to get Oklahoma's best shot."

Spoken like a true underdog, which the Bison truly are, despite some truly trendy brackets. 

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