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Unfortunately, these Bison can't escape shadow of Woodside, '09 team

by Mike McFeely

Blame Ben Woodside. With assists from Brett Winkelman, Mike Nelson and Luke Moorman.

Try as it might, this season's version of the North Dakota State men's basketball team can't escape comparisons to the 2008-09 team, led by Woodside, that won the Summit League regular-season and conference championships before losing to Kansas at the Metrodome in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

Those were heady days for Bison men's basketball. You could make the case Woodside and Co. owned Fargo for that one year, as Craig Bohl's football team was coming off a 6-5 year and headed for 3-8. There was more talk of whether Bohl would survive than there was of winning national titles.

He survived, by the way.

Saul Phillips was the basketball coach then and he is the basketball coach now. You don't need to listen very closely to detect some frustration in Saul's voice over the public perception of the current collection of Bison.

It seems as if everybody wants to compare 2014 to 2009. It makes no sense since one team has nothing to do with the other. Saul's message: Get over it and appreciate what is on the floor now.

NDSU beat Fort Wayne 69-58 Saturday at the Bison Sports Arena before a season-high announced crowd of 4,557, which was involved and energetic. The victory gave the Bison first place alone atop the Summit with five league games remaining. It was a big win, if you believe getting the top seed in the conference tournament is important.

Trayvonn Wright and this year's Bison are more athletic than their 2008-09 colleagues. (Photo credit NDSU)

Was it perfect? No, as even Phillips admitted. The Bison jumped to a 16-2 lead and seemed on the verge of burying the Mastadons early, didn't, and spent the rest of the evening fighting off mini-rallies. But the Bison are 7-2 in the league and 18-6 overall.

Yet, Phillips spent a chunk of his postgame presser reminding us that Woodside's crew didn't glide easily to the NCAA tourney either, even if our memories trick us into thinking they did.

"We beat IUPUI the other night and all I hear the next day is people talking about how we didn't play very well," Phillips said. "Before people start rewriting history, they have to remember that '09 team lost at home to Southern Utah and beat Kansas City in overtime. It wasn't easy."

Bison fans would be wise to remember this, too: At the Summit League tourney in Sioux Falls that spring, NDSU struggled to beat lowly Centenary in the first round and it took a last-second shot by Woodside to beat Oakland in the title game. The Bison trailed by as many as 14 in the first half against Oakland and were behind by six with less than 5 minutes left.

What fans remember is that team beating Wisconsin and Marquette earlier in their careers and giving the powerful Jayhawks a run as Woodside lit up the Metrodome for 37 points. 

They bought into that team early and didn't stop. Still haven't. This team? There is no buying, only comparing.

There are a few things at play here. Division I is no longer new and fresh. Woodside's team, and Woodside himself, reached mythical status. This year's team is centered more on defense than offense, which doesn't please the crowd so much. The Bison football team set such a high standard of success, and has so many people emotionally and financially invested, nothing else can live up to it.

At various points this season, Phillips felt the need to cajole the local sporting public into support his team. That includes last night, when the coach said: "There is no doubt our group really, really revels in playing in front of our crowd. The crowd was good. They were loud, they were good, they were into it. We've got three games left in this building this year and they are all going to be quality games. I'm begging, pleading to bring that energy we had in there today again and again because this could be a lot of fun down the stretch."

One piece of advice for Saul: Just coach the team. Don't worry how the fans and media are treating your program. Just coach.

This collection has some things going for it the '09 team didn't. These Bison play far, far better defense. These Bison are more athletic. These Bison have one of the best post players in program history (Marshall Bjorklund, who needs to get back into form). 

It is as solid of a mid-major team as you're going to see based in Fargo that, as the six dunks in Saturday's game show, is highly entertaining. The Bison are damn good.

People just don't seem to believe it. I blame Woodside and crew. 

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