GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — University of North Dakota officials still smarting from a nickname controversy and reeling from budget cuts that put some athletic programs on the chopping block have found a team to sell its new brand on the national stage.
The school is making its first appearance in the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, one of the premier events in college sports. Even on on a campus where hockey is king, coach Brian Jones and his players are showing their fans what it means to make it to March Madness.
"You literally have millions of people across the country looking down their brackets and seeing North Dakota," said Mark Kennedy, who's in his first year as university president. "There is perhaps no better advertising than that."
It is advertising that its rival school, North Dakota State, has already enjoyed with three March Madness berths and its run of five straight Football Championship Subdivision titles. The Bison moved from the Division II to Division I five years earlier than North Dakota.
Kennedy also is happy to see the new Fighting Hawks logo on display. The moniker was rolled out this year after a three-year moratorium to let people cool down from the demise of the Fighting Sioux nickname that the NCAA deemed hostile and abusive.
Not everyone has warmed up to the new logo, including those in the hockey program. But Jones and his players have embraced it.
"We have a lot of pride in the Fighting Hawks scenario," Jones said. "We're still building our brand, building who we are nationally from a basketball standpoint. March Madness is the best deal out there because of the story lines that can happen."
Both Jones and guard Quinton Hooker, the team's scoring and emotional leader who averages 19.1 points a game, pointed out that four of the school's teams won Big Sky Conference championships this year, new nickname and all.
"The Fighting Hawks are known for winning conference championships now," Hooker said. "I think it's great, especially since the new brand is trying to make it through the ranks."
The 15th-seeded Hawks (22-9) open the tournament Thursday in Salt Lake City against second-seeded Arizona (30-4), a mammoth challenge that will likely have few bracketologists circling North Dakota. But just getting there was a thriller when the Hawks used a furious rally to defeat Weber State in the Big Sky tourney finale on Saturday night. North Dakota trailed by 11 points with less than 8 minutes left and by six points in the last minute before forcing overtime.
"That's been this team. You look at these kids, they have no quit, no die," Jones said. "You can't coach that. That's how these kids are wired."
North Dakota's scoring prowess is on the perimeter with Hooker and fellow guards Geno Crandall and Corey Baldwin. Crandall, who like Hooker was recruited from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, averages 15.6 points and leads the team in assists. Baldwin, a Connecticut native and junior college transfer, averages 10.3 points.
Crandall played at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis under David Thorson, who grew up in Fargo following North Dakota State.
"He was a Fargo guy and I think he had a little NDSU bias, but I think I've turned him into a Fighting Hawks fan," Crandall said with a smile.
Baldwin said he chose North Dakota for his final two seasons because he saw it as his best opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament.
"Oh, man, I walked outside and the wind chill hit me. My eyes teared up going to class," he said. "But being here every day and practicing with these guys, it makes everything OK."
Baldwin, like Jones and the other players, say they feel good about providing a morale boost for a college stung by budget cuts due primarily to low oil and crop prices. In addition to academic cuts, Kennedy is considering cutting sports programs. Eight have gone through a review: men's and women's tennis, men's and women's swimming and diving, men's and women's golf, women's soccer and softball.
"I don't think they can cut basketball now," Baldwin said with a grin.
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