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Bemidji St. men's basketball: BSU will open season vs. Wisconsin Badgers

Bemidji State's Brady Fairbanks races up the court during a game last season against Jamestown College. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

On, to Wisconsin!

The 2009-10 Bemidji State men's basketball schedule was released Wednesday and the Beavers will open against a Division I team from the Big 10 Conference for the third time in four years.

The 2009-10 season will begin with an exhibition game in Madison against Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers on Nov. 4

"Kind of like with Indiana last year, I was persistent almost to the point of annoying," Bemidji State men's basketball coach Matt Bowen said. "Putting us on their schedule is a great thing for our program and our kids are definitely excited to go there and play."

Bowen also used some family connections to get the game on the schedule.

Bowen's father, Rick, and Ryan were assistant coaches in the early 1980s at Wisconsin. Matt was a ball boy for the team while he attended middle school and watched Big 10 players Scott Skiles, Steve Alford and Lute Olson's Iowa Hawkeye teams.

"Of course Wisconsin wasn't as good then as they are now," Bowen joked. "But I got to know Bo and our families became friends. I've always stayed in contact and I've tried to follow successful coaches. Obviously, Bo's been really successful."

Wisconsin reached the NCAA Tournament last season as a No. 12 seed and upset No. 5 Florida State in the first round before losing to Xavier. The Badgers finished the season 20-13.

Bemidji State's trip to Madison will be the Beavers first trip into Wisconsin next season.

After an exhibition game at North Dakota on Nov. 8 in the second game of the year, Bemidji State will take two separate road trips to Wisconsin within an eight-day period.

The Beavers are at the Viterbo Pepsi Tournament in LaCrosse from Nov. 20-21 and will play College of the Ozarks and Viterbo or Silver Lake College.

Bemidji State returns to BSU Gymnasium for the home opener on Nov. 24 against Jamestown College. The Beavers lost to Jamestown last year at home on a last-second shot and later beat the Jimmies on the road to split the season series.

On Nov. 27-28, Bemidji State heads to Kenosha for the Wisconsin-Parkside Classic and will play Purdue North Central and Parkside.

The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference schedule begins on Dec. 4 with back-to-back home games against MSU, Moorhead and Minnesota-Crookston.

The only other non-conference games on the schedule the rest of the season are a Dec. 29 contest at Northern Michigan and a Feb. 14 home game against Finlandia.

This NSIC schedule is generally favorable in terms of travel for the Beavers. The longest stretch on the road is three games: two on the road at Winona State and Upper Iowa, which is followed by the game against Northern Michigan.

Bemidji State will play four of the final six games of the season on the road, but those four are divided with the game against Finlandia and the final regular season home game against Winona State on Feb. 20.

Bemidji State made strides forward last year in Bowen's third season and finished 8-19 overall (6-14 NSIC, 10th place) while fighting through injuries with a roster dominated by underclassmen.

"I think there is a really good balance for us on the schedule this year," Bowen said. "Bemidji is so far off the main interstate that it can be hard to schedule games, so I feel very fortunate. I think there's a good balance between home games and road games."

That does not mean the scheduling was easy for Bowen.

The chief challenge was scheduling 22 Division-II games, a NCAA mandated number that must be met for national tournament eligibility.

Last year, the Beavers were able to reach 22 games with the NSIC HoopsFest, an event that features eight NSIC teams playing in games that do not count toward league standings. The Beavers played two games at the event last year in Sioux, Falls, S.D.

Bowen was able to fill those missing two games on the schedule this season with Northern Michigan and Parkside.

"We're on the odd end of the HoopsFest this year, so then you have to roll out a map and look at Division II teams not in the league and you have to go a long way to find programs," Bowen said. "But we have to get those games scheduled because you want to give your team at least a fighting chance (at making the national tournament). That's why it's so important to get 22."

Non-conference scheduling will be recurring problem for NSIC teams each season in basketball.

In the 14-team NSIC, only 20 league games are guaranteed each season. The HoopsFest generates the two games needed to reach 22 D-II games for the eight teams competing.

The other six teams in the league must find two non-conference games on their own, which can present a challenge.

"When you talk about the traveling involved and the financial situations at most of our league schools ... the distance can be too far and some don't have the money right now," Bowen said. "So we have to find a solution or we do the non-league games with the HoopsFest. I'm sure that is going to be a topic at the league's summer meetings."

One possible solution is expansion of the NSIC.

Much like the Bemidji State men's hockey team's admittance to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association hinges on having an even-numbered amount of league teams due to scheduling concerns, the NSIC could alleviate scheduling problems in men's and women's basketball by expanding to 16 teams.

If two programs were added, that 22-game requirement in basketball would be met each season.

Minot State (N.D) University recently submitted an application for Division II membership and will be looking for a conference home. Minot State plays BSU in football each season.

The University of Sioux Falls recently announced its intentions to apply for Division II membership.

NSIC commissioner Butch Raymond has not committed to expansion, but has not closed the door either.

"It's something that is always on a commissioner's radar list no matter what," Raymond recently told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. "You're always keeping your doors open."

Raymond said the league is in the process of putting together a five-year strategic plan and expansion is one part of that.

"It doesn't necessarily say we should or shouldn't expand," said Raymond, who has talked with Minot State Athletic Director Rick Hedberg. "I can't even give them (Minot State) a concrete answer whether expansion is going to be on our agenda or not."

If expansion is approved, the earliest likely date for any new programs to join the NSIC would be the 2012-13 season.

2009-10 BSU men's basketball schedule

Nov. 4 at Wisconsin*

Nov. 8 at North Dakota*

Nov. 20-21 at Vitterbo Pepsi Tourney^

Nov. 24 Jamestown College

Nov. 27-28 at UW-Parkside Classic^

Dec. 4 MSU, Moorhead

Dec. 5 Minn.-Crookston

Dec. 12 at Winona State

Dec. 13 at Upper Iowa

Dec. 29 at Northern Michigan^

Jan. 2 Augustana

Jan. 3 Wayne State

Jan. 8 at Concordia-St. Paul

Jan. 9 at St. Cloud State.

Jan. 15 Northern State

Jan. 16 U-Mary

Jan. 23 Minn.-Duluth

Jan. 29 at MSU, Mankato

Jan. 30 at Southwest Minn. State

Feb. 5 Concordia-St. Paul

Feb. 6 St. Cloud State

Feb. 12 at MSU, Moorhead

Feb. 13 at Minn.-Crookston

Feb. 14 Finlandia^

Feb. 20 Winona State

Feb. 24 at Minn.-Duluth

Feb. 27 at Wayne St.

* exhibition

^ non-conference