McGrath: If this Moos is smart, he’ll go after a Bison

March 19, 2014 

North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips, 41, guided the sharpshooting Bison – who led the nation in field goal percentage (.513) – to a 25-6 record and a 12th seed in the NCAA tournament.

STEVEN BRANSCOMBE/USA TODAY SPORTS

As soon as Washington State’s inevitable firing of basketball coach Ken Bone was made official Tuesday, Cougars fans began pondering what athletic director Bill Moos’ search list might look like.

Former UCLA coach Ben Howland is available. Among the three “active” coaches to have led a team to three consecutive trips to the Final Four – the others are Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski – Howland is a nationally recognized name familiar with the region. (He earned a master’s degree at Gonzaga, where he was an assistant for two seasons.)

But Howland’s UCLA career ended abruptly, with a stench in the air. A 2012 Sports Illustrated article depicted him as tolerant of a player’s bullying of teammates on and off the floor, which could explain why 11 Bruins left the program after their most recent Final Four appearance in 2008.

Although Moos isn’t averse to hiring coaches with baggage (see Leach, Mike), I suspect he’s not eager to endure more headaches regarding disillusioned players. Leach created enough of those in 2012.

Also looming as a candidate is Ernie Kent, the former Oregon coach who worked for Moos – then the Ducks’ AD – between 1997 and 2007. Kent knows the region and the conference (he’s a basketball analyst for the Pac-12 Network), but he’s 59, looking to return to an occupation more stressful than, say, the seniors golf tour. If the Cougars bring Kent aboard, it’s fair to wonder if the next coaching search won’t be sooner than later.

And then there’s Montana’s Wayne Tinkle, whose

Grizzlies qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2012 and 2013. Tinkle doesn’t seem like a sexy choice, but maybe he is. CollegeInsider.com recently named him No. 1 on its list of the 100 sexiest men in college basketball.

“The snow-capped mountain of a coach may look tough but he truly is a gentle giant,” CollegeInsider.com informed. “Coach Tinkle has kept Montana among the top mid-major programs in the country. … He has that movie star appeal. He truly is the Cary Grant of college basketball.”

The “Cary Grant of college basketball.” Now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day. It’s sort of like calling an actor “the Phog Allen of Hollywood.”

I’ll throw another name into the ring: Saul Phillips, coach of a North Dakota State team that got into the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed. North Dakota State’s nickname is the Bison, although a more appropriate moniker would be the Sharpshooters. They led the nation with a .513 field-goal percentage.

Full disclosure: I’ve haven’t seen the Bison in person this season. I haven’t seen the Bison on TV, either. But field-goal percentage is one of those stats (along with the turnover ratio in football, and runners stranded in baseball) that directly reflects how well a team is coached.

Another reflection on how well a team is coached – duh – is wins and losses. After replacing the talented Tim Miles at North Dakota State in 2007, Phillips took the Bison to the NCAA tournament with 26-7 record and some possession of history: Never had a team qualified for the tournament in its first season of tournament eligibility.

Great job, yes, but Phillips won with players largely recruited by his predecessor. Phillips was forced to go back to the drawing board. He went 11-18 in his third season, 14-15 in his fourth, 17-14 in his fifth, 24-10 in his sixth and 25-6 this season.

Phillips has none of Howland’s player-disillusionment issues, and at 41, he’s a generation younger than Kent. And though he’s not a “snow-capped mountain of a coach,” Phillips once beat Creighton shooting star Doug McDermott in a game of one-on-one. (OK, so McDermott was 5 years old at the time, but it’s a fun story told by an amiable coach who’s got this crazy notion that it’s permissible to smile every now and then.)

Phillips’ drawbacks are obvious: He has no connection with the Pacific Northwest and, thus, no instant recruiting edge. Furthermore, he’s enjoyed success in the Summit League, which includes three schools from the Dakotas and two branch-campus schools affiliated with both Indiana and Purdue.

But Phillips has some ties to the Big Ten, a conference so major that it identifies Indiana and Purdue as separate entities. He once served an assistant to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, on the same staff that turned out such 2014 NCAA tournament coaches as Milwaukee’s Rob Jeter and Virginia’s Tony Bennett, whose name should ring a bell.

Before he guided the Cavaliers to their first ACC tournament championship since the 1976 team anchored by Wally Walker, Bennett was the consensus choice as 2007 national coach of the year at WSU. In 2008, Bennett had the Cougars in the Sweet 16.

As Bennett was bound for bigger and better, so too is fellow Wisconsin native Phillips. Pullman doesn’t fit most common definitions of paradise – it’s freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer – but the basketball climate can be sublime on a campus where big-time athletes are surrounded by small-town charm.

In any case, Pullman’s harsh weather and permanent status as the Pac-12 Conference’s most obscure outpost shouldn’t faze Phillips. He works in Fargo, N.D., where a typical year finds 52 inches of snow on the ground, and 43 nights with temperatures below zero.

Would Phillips be interested in coaching the Cougars? I presume he’d listen to an offer enabling him to jump from the Summit League to the Pac-12.

Would Moos be interested in Phillips? If Moos is as adept at doing homework as his reputation suggests, he won’t have to go far to compile a firsthand scouting report.

North Dakota State will play Oklahoma in Spokane on Thursday, at 4:37 p.m. If the Bison prevail, it’ll take the court Saturday to face the winner of Thursday’s San Diego State-New Mexico State nightcap match.

Until then, consider the parallels: Bennett and Phillips, two Wisconsinites. Fargo and Pullman, sister cities in harsh-climate spirit.

And finally, Moos and Bison.

The dots so connect.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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