A men’s college basketball year unlike any other continues at Wachs Arena this weekend when Northern State hosts the Central Region Tournament for the first time in school history.
The Wolves enter as the top-seeded team following a loss by Northwest Missouri State on a 70-shot at the buzzer in its conference tournament.
“The only thing that’s normal about the whole thing is that a 70-foot shot determines what happens in March,” said Northern State Coach Saul Phillips.
While the second-year NSU Coach doesn’t have a ton of background with the tourney, he knows the Hub City getting to host it is a big deal.
“I don’t have the historical context of people around here, but I know that it’s pretty special to be able to do it,” he said. “It’s been a season of firsts in every way imaginable.”
The tournament gets underway today with two games. Wayne State (11-6) faces Minnesota State Moorhead (10-4) in a battle of Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference foes at 6 p.m. That contest will be followed by Washburn (19-6) against Missouri Western (14-10) at 8:45 p.m.
Northern (18-1) plays the Wayne-Moorhead winner at 5 p.m. Sunday, while Northwest Missouri State (23-2) takes on the winner of the Washburn-Missouri Western contest at 7:45 p.m. Sunday.
Tuesday night’s championship is set for 7 p.m.
“You’re in the NCAA Tournament and we you know you’re going to be playing excellent teams. I could make a compelling case for why each team could win this region,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot that could go on this weekend and you just hope that you come out on the right side of it.”
The Wolves shouldn’t need much of a scouting report for their first game. They played Wayne State twice and Moorhead three times already this season.
Phillips noted that Wayne is playing much better than it did the opening week of the season when the Wolves won back-to-back contests in Nebraska.
The Wolves split with Moorhead at Wachs Arena late last month, and then put one on the Dragons in the finals of the NSIC tournament.
“If we play them again, they’re coming to come in absolutely steaming about how it went last time,” Phillips said, “and that’s going to be a challenge of its own.”
The Wolves, who are the second-rated team in the country, just need to be themselves, according to Phillips.
“The biggest thing when you get into this part of the season is to not let the moment get too big for you. It doesn’t take a super-human effort. It takes an effort comparable to what you’ve done all year,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to win one game on Sunday. That’s it right now. That’s all we can control. We’ve got 40 minutes of basketball that we can control and then you move on then and you do it again. For me, the team that most looks like themselves in March usually does the best.”
Phillips said it has been an historical season with COVID and the numerous things associated with it.
“We’ve been fortunate to play every week, but it’s still been a choppy year. We’ll never play teams back-to-back in the same gym again. Ever. As long as I’m coaching it will never happen again. We’ll never have the same refs two nights in a row. Ever,” Phillips said. “I haven’t felt confident that any game that we played in this year was actually going to happen until we were on the court with three referees standing there.”
Phillips is excited to see what his team can do in the Central Region. He has enjoyed the ride so far, even if it has been anything but smooth.
“The biggest thing is that it’s a fun group to be around. They’ve dealt with a lot of different things thrown at them. Everything other than the 40 minutes on the floor is work. That part is just fun. The time on the floor is special. It’s why you do what you do,” Phillips said. “Regardless of what happens from this point out, this has been a history making season in a lot of ways. Enjoy it and go out there and don’t let anything distract from the moment at hand.”
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