Mid-Con affiliation is next big step for NDSU

Northern exposure
In many ways, it's fairly amazing that North Dakota State athletic director Gene Taylor didn't spend his April looking for a new men's basketball coach.

Generally speaking, coaches at many low-major programs are looking for that next job, that next opportunity. Win a bunch of games, pull off an eye-popping upset or two and create a little buzz. Do that, and the window of opportunity opens for a gig where there are better facilities, a bigger budget, more exposure and more cash.

And when those opportunities present themselves, coaches are all but required to take them. After all, there are few guarantees in the business of coaching. The low-major coach who passes on an opportunity to move up the food chain does so realizing there might never be that kind of opportunity again.

That brings us to NDSU coach Tim Miles. When last season began, the expectations for the Bison were quite low. It was the first season in which the former Division II school would play a full Division I schedule. Throw in the fact that the Bison would be extremely young -- Miles would spend much of the season starting four freshmen -- and it seemed as if victories would be difficult to obtain.

So what happened? Not only did the Bison win 16 games, they picked up some quality victories in the process. First were late December victories at Montana State and over Northern Illinois to win the Holiday Stores GranTree Inn tournament. Then came the road shocker at Big Ten heavyweight Wisconsin.

"We beat Montana State on the road and then beat a Northern Illinois team that won its side of the MAC," Miles said. "I thought those were great wins for us at this stage of the game. And then three weeks later in Madison, all heck broke loose."

The result? In addition to giving some immediate legitimacy to North Dakota State's move to Division I, it also created some buzz about Miles. Suddenly, the guy who got his first head coaching job at Mayville (N.D.) State was being courted to replace Brad Brownell at UNC Wilmington.

At first glance, there seems to be little reason Miles wouldn't have left for Wilmington. NDSU is a school without a league; UNCW was the co-champion of the very solid Colonial Athletic Association. The Bison aren't currently eligible for the NCAA Tournament; the Seahawks have reached the tournament four times in the past seven seasons.

Even Taylor thought Miles was gone.

"He told me toward the end that, 'At this point, I'm going,' " Taylor said. "I was prepared for him to be on a plane to Wilmington. The next morning, he called me and said, 'I want to meet with the team.' I said, 'I thought you were going to Wilmington,' and he said, 'I'm staying.'"

Miles understands he has taken a bit of a gamble -- "I've never been accused of being very smart," he said -- but staying at NDSU just felt right to him.

"I truly love our team," said Miles, whose club was in the top 10 nationally last season in 3-point field goal percentage and rebounding margin. "I'm from the Midwest, and I would like to stay in the Midwest. To move to the Southeast, I just didn't see myself doing that. This is where we want to raise our family, and we worked very hard to get our program in the order it is now, and I want to see this through and be able to do more than we did last year."

Miles now will be able to do so with the help of a conference affiliation. On Thursday, the Bison accepted an invitation to join the Mid-Continent Conference for the 2007-08 season. They will be joined by fellow independent Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and neighboring South Dakota State, both of which also accepted invites this week. All three will immediately be eligible to compete for the league championship.

"In April, when the Wilmington thing arose, I asked our administration, 'What's your gut on the conference thing?' -- because that [was] the missing piece to the puzzle for us in the move to Division I. ... My view is that there [was] just no one like North Dakota State as an independent."

Before the Bison join the Mid-Con, though, the 2006-07 season season will be an interesting one. After what happened last year, NDSU isn't going to surprise anybody. It does, however, have all but one player back.

"We've done the easy part," Miles said. "Now comes the hard part, and we have to get our players to realize that."

With games against Minnesota and Texas Tech, a potential tournament matchup with Marquette and a home game against Kansas State, NDSU certainly will have chances to generate some more buzz.

Even that, however, might not be enough to pry Miles out of Fargo.

Summer indicators
Good signs: Joining a conference has become a trend, partly because -- let's be honest -- nobody wants to be a basketball independent. Scheduling becomes next to impossible, especially in January and February. The travel is brutal. Getting into the NCAA Tournament is tougher than winning Powerball.

Since the end of last season, several other schools besides NDSU, IPFW and SDSU also have found new homes. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi joined the Southland, along with transitional Division I school Central Arkansas; Northern Colorado joined the Big Sky; a season after admitting D-I newbies North Florida and Kennesaw State, the Atlantic Sun again dipped into the ranks of the newly minted by tabbing South Carolina-Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast University as members; and former D-II power Winston-Salem State will get into the MEAC for the 2007-08 season.

Red flag: Chicago State is a new independent this season as the Cougars have left the Mid-Continent. Although Chicago State's schedule hasn't been officially released, the Cougars have popped up as visiting opponents for several major conference schools. Chicago State is expected to play at Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas State, DePaul and Wichita State and at Cal's tournament. Chicago State also is playing single road games at several Mid-Con schools. One bonus: lots of frequent-flier miles.

Safe bet: Longwood should be improved. Remember two years ago when the Lancers went 1-30? That seems like quite a while ago. Longwood returns five starters and 11 letterwinners from last season's 10-20 team.

Worth watching: What schools will be next? The list of transitional Division I schools seems to grow on an annual basis. One school that already has indicated it will enter the D-I fray is North Dakota.

What to watch
Editor's note: Schools had to be entering at least their second season of D-I reclassification and not playing a full league conference schedule in 2006-07 to make this list.

Chicago St.Chicago State: As the Cougars make the high-major rounds during the big schools' nonconference play, fans of the "big" schools should enjoy watching Chicago State's Royce Parran, one of the nation's most exciting players under 6 feet. The 5-9 senior guard averaged 18.0 ppg, 3.9 apg and 3.4 rpg last season while shooting almost 40 percent from 3-point range. He lit up Illinois-Chicago for 37 points in a one-point Chicago State win.

IPFWIndiana-Purdue Fort Wayne: Dane Fife is still the youngest head coach in Division I, but his Mastodons are far from green. Assuming they all return, the team's top five scorers from last season will all be upperclassmen this year. They were led by then sophomore DeWitt Scott, a forward who averaged 14.2 ppg last season.

LongwoodLongwood: Here's another guy you probably haven't heard of: Maurice Sumter. A year ago, Sumter averaged 15.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as a junior for the Lancers. He dropped 25 points on Valparaiso, 28 on IPFW and 27 on James Madison.

New Jersey Institute of Technology: Does Division II translate into Division I? Well, NJIT's Clayton Barker will be a good test case. A year ago, 5-10 Barker finished 12th nationally in D-II at 21.9 points per game. This season, he will get to play a full, but still fairly manageable, Division I schedule. Although most independents play a very aggressive, moneymaking schedule early in the season, NJIT is playing primarily America East, Northeast Conference and MAAC teams and other independents. The only high-major on the schedule is a game at St. John's.

NDSUNorth Dakota State: Ben Woodside certainly was impressive as a freshman, averaging 17.5 points and 5.1 assists per game. Even more impressive is that he did it all with a broken bone in his left wrist. Woodside complained about pain in the wrist -- which he had broken previously -- but X-rays came back negative. The problem was that a callus had grown over the break, making it difficult to detect. After the season, a small piece from Woodside's hip was grafted onto his wrist. He is expected to be out of a hard cast by Labor Day.

Sav. StateSavannah State: Over the past four seasons, Savannah State has gone a combined 10-103 on the court, including 0-28 in '05, and had to forfeit its victories in the 2004-05 season because of player ineligibility issues. Will this season be any different? Perhaps. This is the second season as head coach for former Georgetown player Horace Broadnax, who will oversee a much more experienced Tigers roster. There were no seniors on last year's roster, and Broadnax is bringing in five junior college recruits to supplement a returning cast that includes guards Javon Randolph (17.0 ppg) and Joseph Flegler (10.0 ppg), the Tigers' two double-digit scorers last season.

SDSUSouth Dakota State: It's not a great thing when a player leaves a low-major program to walk on at a major conference program, but that's exactly what happened to the Jackrabbits. Injured for much of last season, Steve Holdren then returned to his hometown of Champaign, Ill., and will walk on at Illinois. That comes on the heels of the Jacks having to use several football players to fill out the roster after two SDSU players were suspended from the team midseason after being implicated in a rape case on campus.

UTPATexas-Pan American: For some guys, getting that first head coaching job isn't all that tough. For others, it seems to take an eternity. First-year UTPA coach Tom Schuberth certainly falls into the latter category. Schuberth spent the past 24 seasons as an assistant coach, working at a list of schools that includes Central Florida, Southeast Missouri State, Memphis, Louisiana-Monroe, UAB and North Alabama. Schuberth inherits a difficult job. Last season, Pan Am went 7-24 and was No. 330 in the RPI.

UVSCUtah Valley State: The Wolverines might be one school that could struggle to get into a conference. The school certainly had interest in the Mid-Con, and the former junior college would have been a natural travel partner with current league member Southern Utah, but even though the league is actively looking for members, it passed on the Wolverines this summer. Also worth noting: Last season, UVSC was the rare independent to finish with an over-.500 record. The Wolverines finished 16-13 against an almost exclusively D-I schedule, even if a number of their opponents were also transitional D-I schools.

UC DavisUC Davis: This will be the final season on this list for the Aggies. The former Division II power will fully move into the Big West Conference after this season. The Aggies will bring at least a little experience with them when they make the move. Last season, four UC Davis freshmen averaged at least 20 minutes per game; by the time the 2007-08 season begins, those players will be experienced juniors.

Being conferenceless is tough. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi doesn't see any independents worthy of an at-large bid to the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

2007 Bracketology

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.