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Sustained success is difficult

The exclamation point comes in Gainesville, Fla. The rest of the story, well, you'll have to wait until March 1 to see how that comes out. North Dakota State opens the men's basketball season tonight against a little outfit called Florida, a prog...

The exclamation point comes in Gainesville, Fla. The rest of the story, well, you'll have to wait until March 1 to see how that comes out.

North Dakota State opens the men's basketball season tonight against a little outfit called Florida, a program that's won the last two NCAA championships. The poor little unranked Gators might not be what they once were - listening to coach Billy Donavan, Florida will have to overachieve to avoid going

0-30 - but make no mistake: a Bison victory would be every bit as monumental as the upsets over Wisconsin and Marquette.

If it happens, bully to rookie coach Saul Phillips and the gang of players that keeps surprising the college basketball world. If not, enjoy the memories.

The real story, the one that matters in the big picture, doesn't come until much later in the season. That is when the Bison open their inaugural season in the Summit League. That is when we learn whether Ben Woodside, Mike Nelson, Brett Winkelman, Lucas Moormann and the rest are built for the rigors of a long, tough, grinding Division I schedule.

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A real schedule, in other words.

"No question, it's going to be tougher," Phillips said.

Lost in the hoopla of last season's 20-8 record, impressive as it was for a team in the netherworld of transition, is that the Bison's post-Christmas schedule was softer than Santa's belly.

Mayville State, Valley City State, Mary. And a whole bunch of D-I teams with RPI computer ratings that would make a good Division II team blush.

NDSU whipped the Dakota Athletic Conference teams. The Bison swept pairs of games from New Jersey Tech (which finished ranked 331st of 336 Division I teams in the final RPI with a 5-24 record), South Dakota State (329th, 6-24) and Winston-Salem State (304th, 2-24). NDSU got one late-season victory over Idaho (305th, 4-27) to add to a season-opening thrashing of the Vandals. There were also two wins over Texas-Pan American (242nd, 10-15).

Of the 14 post-Christmas games the Bison played against Division I teams, exactly two came against an opponent that finished with a winning record. That would be Utah Valley State (130th, 20-9). NDSU beat the Wolverines at home and lost in Orem, Utah.

This season, the Bison have no games against non-Division I teams after Christmas. There are two holiday tournament games against Bucknell (79th RPI, 22-9) and, in all likelihood, California (80th, 15-16).

The rest of the schedule is filled with Summit League games, including two against traditionally solid Oakland and one against powerful Oral Roberts.

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"You take the non-Division I teams off and you take the transitional Division I teams off and replace them with big late-season games against teams like Oakland and Oral Roberts, that's a different animal," Phillips said.

This group of Bison has shown it can compete and the Summit has its share of 98-pound weaklings. But if Bison fans see the upward victory arc continuing unabated as the core of Woodside and Co. grows older, they might want to check the schedule.

Minot State and Mayville State make cameos this month and then disappear like Jimmy Hoffa. Then we'll find out of what the Bison are made.

Forum sports columnist Mike McFeely can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show,

10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com . McFeely's blog can be found at www.areavoices.com Sustained success is difficult Mike McFeely 20071109

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