Big Dance becoming commonplace for South Dakota State
The South Dakota State men’s basketball team is bringing more to the Big Dance than just a big man with an intimidating nickname and NBA potential.
While two-time defending Summit League Player of the Year Mike ”The Dauminator” Daum is the team’s centerpiece, the squad from the small Midwestern university features seven other tournament-experienced players seeking the school’s first NCAA Tournament win.
It won’t be easy – the West Region No. 12 seed takes on fifth-seed Ohio State (24-8) on Thursday in Boise, Idaho. But the Jackrabbits (28-6) have had plenty of practice. The school will be making its third straight appearance in the tournament and its fifth in the last seven seasons.
The spotlight will be on Daum, a 6-foot-9 junior who is sixth nationally in scoring and a finalist for the Karl Malone Award given annually to the nation’s top power forward. But the Jackrabbits are a diverse team, according to head coach T.J. Otzelberger.
”We’ve got a team that has depth. We’ve got a team that can go big, that can go small. We’ve got different guys that can step up,” he said. ”We can beat you where Mike has 30 points, and we can beat you where seven guys are in double figures. It’s really a credit to our guys – their togetherness and unity.”
The success of the men’s program – and the SDSU women, who are making their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years – can be credited to several factors, athletic director Justin Sell said.
When the school with an enrollment of 12,500 made the jump from Division II in 2004, it already had a history of basketball success, including a 2003 women’s national championship.
”That just carried over,” Sell said. ”I really believe that group was the one that gave our university and its supporters the idea or notion that we can do this, and we can be good.”
Rather than compete with major D-1 schools that recruit in high school hotbeds such as Florida and California, SDSU has concentrated on talent regionally. Twenty of the players on this year’s men’s and women’s squads are from South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Another five hail from North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, with one each coming from Illinois and Washington state.
”I think it shows the talent in the region,” Sell said. ”You wonder how many kids have left our state and region (in the past) to go somewhere else because they had Division I talent.”
The university attracts those athletes in part with a solid sports program – the athletic department’s operating budget has grown from about $11 million in 2009, the school’s first year of Division I postseason eligibility, to $21 million. In recent years it has built a $65 million football stadium and a $32 million multi-sport indoor practice facility it bills as the largest of its kind at the Division I level.
Fundraising by the Jackrabbit Club boosters group has grown from about $333,000 annually to more than $1.4 million since 2009, and the city of 23,000 people puts about 2,800 in the seats for every men’s home game.
”We’ve got a Big Ten or Big 12 mentality with ma-and-pa values, and I think that’s hard to find nowadays,” Sell said.
Daum, from Kimball, Nebraska, in a recent interview posted online by the NCAA said the ”fantastic” atmosphere he found at the school during a recruiting visit sold him on SDSU.
”There was just a great program, and you could tell that this community had such a great feel and atmosphere to it, that it was something hard to resist,” he said.
Daum also credited players like Nate Wolters for ”laying such a solid foundation for the coaching staff to bring in high-level recruits.” Wolters was an All-American for SDSU in 2013 and has gone on to play in the NBA.
David Richman, head coach of rival North Dakota State, which made NCAA Tournament appearances in 2009, 2014 and 2015, said SDSU is a tough opponent because of ”the passionate fan base that they have, their history and tradition.”
SDSU’s success has progressed to the point where simply making it to the tournament is no longer the primary goal. The men want a win. For the women, who have advanced to the tournament’s second round twice and will face Villanova on Friday, the target is even loftier – the Sweet Sixteen.
”That’s how we’ve built these teams – to win games in the tournament,” Sell said.
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