N. Dakota St.-San Diego St. Preview
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) When Saul Phillips arrived at the Spokane Arena on Friday afternoon, he walked out 22 feet from the basket on the east end of the court, knelt down and gave the hardwood a little kiss.
It was the spot where Lawrence Alexander rattled in a 3-pointer to send North Dakota State to overtime a night earlier, when they eventually knocked off Oklahoma. Phillips wanted to say, ''Thanks.''
Perhaps Alexander was correct when he called the NDSU coach, ''goofy, crazy at times.''
''You got to coach to your personality and I'm a happy guy. I am. I've been happy since birth. I just came out with a smile on my face,'' Phillips said. ''I can't change that. I could try to be ornery and negative and that would be fake. I can't do that. In the very corporate, cold world of college basketball, that's just not my personality.''
The 12th-seeded Bison (26-6) get another chance to capture national attention on Saturday when they face No. 4 seed San Diego State (30-6) with a spot in the Sweet 16 at stake. The Bison grabbed some of that March magic when they rallied to force overtime against the Sooners, then pulled out an 80-75 victory over the No. 5 seed in the West.
NDSU - with its smiles, fist pumps and the celebration that followed - relished the moment, and the fans in Spokane seemed to appreciate it.
''For a mid-major team to get some attention, you need to win some big games. So, once you do that, you get people's attention, it's kind of nice,'' NDSU forward Marshall Bjorklund said. ''But, then again, that only takes you so far.''
Phillips is a firecracker of energy and one-liners. He was the first one run over to the NDSU fans after Thursday's win, throwing up the Bison horns and leading the celebration. He played for and later worked under Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. Even while watching tape Thursday night, Ryan kept tabs on the Bison, since his son, Will, is an assistant for Phillips.
''I don't know if anybody's wit compares to his,'' Ryan said of Phillips on Friday. ''He enjoys doing what he's doing. He always tells people, `Hey, I could be running my dad's hardware store now. Look, I'm doing this. This is a lot of fun.'''
Philips can't help but joke because that's him. He said the reason he got the job at NDSU was due to having pictures of his boss, a crack that made athletic director Gene Taylor laugh. Phillips joked the Bison should be spotted 10 points since the Aztecs get to recruit to San Diego.
''Saul's the same guy that I met since my first visit,'' Alexander said.
The excitement caused by the Bison's victory was noticed by San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. Still in the locker room, Fisher heard the exhilaration as the Bison rumbled off the floor after their upset Thursday.
It sounded familiar to the cheers the Aztecs heard a year ago as they were slammed out of the tournament by Florida Gulf Coast.
''In my eyes it's like last year all over again,'' SDSU forward Winston Shepard said. ''We beat a good team in the first round, had a tough game, and we are playing a team that not a lot of people have heard of.''
Here are five more things to watch in Saturday's matchup:
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: San Diego State finished the regular season with the No. 2 scoring defense in the country giving up only 57 points per game. North Dakota State was the best shooting team in the country and shot 52.9 percent against Oklahoma.
X MAN: Phillips had a simple solution when asked how he was going to try and slow SDSU star Xavier Thames: hope he gets stuck in an elevator. Thames had 23 points and five assists against New Mexico State, including 14 in the second half and overtime.
''Everything they do, I believe, starts going through him,'' Phillips said.
FORGET THE PAST: While they still draw lessons from last year's loss to FGCU, the Aztecs would like a new tournament memory. A win would send the Aztecs to the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history and just up the road in Anaheim.
POWER OF 12: In five of the past six tournaments a No. 12 seed has reached the round of 16. In Spokane alone, both NDSU and Harvard have chances to join that fraternity if either can pull off another stunner.
MWC BANNER: A year after the Mountain West received five bids, the conference got only two this year. New Mexico was ousted by Stanford on Friday, leaving SDSU as the only remaining representative.
AP Sports Writer Genaro C. Armas in Milwaukee contributed to this report.