Following the dream season is never easy. At least it is a familiar road for North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips.
"It feels a lot like it did with the last group," Phillips said. "It's taken me back a couple years."
Wichita State (11-1) will try to improve its 7-0 home record tonight against the Bison (4-6) at Koch Arena. It is a much different team than the one that went 26-7 and lost by 10 points to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Phillips, first as an assistant coach, helped build to that season when North Dakota State moved from NCAA Division II to Division I six years ago. Five players redshirted early in the process and played as fifth-year seniors last season, when NDSU first became eligible for the tournament. With guard Ben Woodside as the star, the Bison won the Summit League. Woodside scored 37 points against Kansas and the Bison trailed the Jayhawks 73-67 before KU won 84-74.
"I was talking to Ben the other day and I told him he could probably come back and run our practices," Phillips said. "We're running the exact same things."
It is a rebuilding season after losing four starters. Phillips, in his third season as head coach, is sticking with what works. Four of the players who started in Saturday's 68-54 loss at Fresno State redshirted.
"Twenty-three-year-olds usually beat 18-year-olds," he said.
One of those is sophomore forward Eric Carlson, who averaged 2.8 points and played 10.6 minutes a game last season. Carlson leads the Bison with averages of 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds this season.
"He's probably our toughest guy," Phillips said. "He does everything at a very tough level."
North Dakota State has lost three of its past four games and tonight's game doesn't figure to help turn things around. Two of their wins are against NAIA opponents. The Shockers are on an eight-game winning streak after Saturday's 85-83 win over No. 16 Texas Tech.
The Shockers won their closest game of the season by rallying from a 61-57 deficit in the final six minutes. It was the first time WSU had trailed in the second half in any of its 10 victories.
The Shockers needed to make 11 straight free throws in the final 1:05 _ and handle Tech's press _ to withstand 17 points by the Red Raiders in the final 55 seconds.
That test against a ranked team will pay off, the Shockers believe.
"Being down in crunch time, we stepped up," guard Toure Murry said. "We'll be ready when a close game happens again."