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March Madness takes UND's winning year to a bigger stage

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UND men's basketball coach Brian Jones talks about the Fighting Hawks historic victory winning the Big Sky tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

SALT LAKE CITY—On a bright, sunny Wednesday afternoon in Salt Lake City, where the temperature approached a record 75 degrees, UND players entered the 20,000-seat Vivint Smart Home Arena wearing smiles and feeling confident.

All was well with the UND men's basketball team. And it should be.

The Fighting Hawks, in their ninth Division I season, have reached the ultimate goal in college basketball—the NCAA Tournament. It's March Madness, a spectacle that has become one of the country's biggest sporting events each year.

You can't go anywhere in Salt Lake City without being reminded March Madness is here. And UND is right in the middle of it.

It's a feel-good story for the UND men's basketball team, one that has kept coach Brian Jones and his players answering questions the past week from media outlets across the country. Earlier this week, Jones said he had received roughly 350 text messages after his team qualified for the tournament.

UND basketball has become a breath of fresh air this season for the university. The program's accomplishment is something the school, the community and fans of the Fighting Hawks can embrace as UND continues to deal with a budget crisis that ultimately will result in jobs being lost and athletic programs being cut.

UND players and coaches realize times are tough at UND, which somehow has to reduce its budget 12 percent across the board during the next two years.

UND athletics, however, have shown that positive results can be accomplished in the face of financial difficulty, which, in this case, hasn't soured the competitive nature of the school's athletic program despite the swirl of uncertainty.

That, in itself, is a lesson for UND, which won Big Sky championships this season in men's basketball, women's basketball, volleyball and football.

"This has been so uplifting for the university, the community and our alumni," said UND coach Brian Jones. "It's been a tough, tough year. But being able to give our fans, our kids and campus the year we've had athletically is something. Four championships in one season; it just doesn't happen. I don't know if anyone else has done that in any other Division I league.

"We need to embrace that, take a step back and be grateful for that."

If attitudes at UND have soured, a talk with UND sophomore guard Geno Crandall, whose energy and confidence is limitless, should help.

What UND did to reach the Big Dance is "something that this campus and community can rally around," said Crandall. "In this time of uncertainty and worry, this has been great for the university. And I'm really proud to be a part of it."

UND moved to Division I athletics in 2008. And the biggest accomplishment athletically during the Division I era has been the basketball program's trip to the NCAA Tournament.

It's not easy for a mid-major program like UND to reach the tournament, which is dominated by Power 5 schools. Northwestern of the Big Ten is making its first appearance in 77 years.

UND's path to the tournament hasn't been easy. This season, however, UND won with players who refuse to quit. They won a handful of games they had no business winning.

"Our guys are just competitors; they don't give in," said Jones. "They play to the final horn. They've always done that. They just believe. When you come to North Dakota, nothing is given to you. You have to earn everything. Everything we do seems to be on the road less traveled.''

That philosophy worked well for the school's basketball team.

Maybe it can work for the rest of the university, too.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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