BY JEREMY HOECK
It’s been two years since Huron senior Justin Decker committed to play basketball at the University of South Dakota.
First it was to play for head coach Dave Boots. Then it was to play for interim head coach Joey James. Now it’ll be for Craig Smith.
Decker, who will be announced as a first team Class AA all-state post Thursday, maintained Wednesday that yes, he is still committed to coming to USD this fall — he signed his letter of intent last fall. Now it’s just a matter of getting used to a new system under Smith, who was hired two weeks ago.
“I think it’ll be good for the university. He’s coming from a pretty good program, so I’m sure he’ll know what he’s talking about,” Decker said Wednesday.
Decker has yet to talk personally with Smith, but said he hopes to “pretty soon.” The original plan under former coach James was for Decker to come to Vermillion for the summer to work out with the program, he said.
That will be one thing Decker will discuss with Smith, he said.
“Just from what I hear, he likes full court presses, and he’s a run and gun guy,” Decker said. “That’ll be a little different, but I think I’ll be able to adjust.”
Like everyone else, Decker watched North Dakota State’s men win the Summit League crown this year and win a game in the NCAA Tournament. It proves that such a feat is possible at USD, he said.
“It’d be really fun to win the Summit and play in the tournament,” Decker said. “When I was younger, I never really thought much about it. Now that it’s possible, it’d be a fun experience.”
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck. Discuss this story at http://www.yankton.net.
Our first installment in a new weekly video segment, which we will shoot & upload every Monday afternoon. The video will include news and sports segments, and will feature photos & other clips we shoot from the previous week.
This week we focus on the April 8 Yankton city election. Kelly Hertz and Nathan Johnson look ahead to the election.
BY JEREMY HOECK
One year ago, the South Dakota State women’s basketball team lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament. And the University of South Dakota women made a run to the semifinals of another post-season tournament.
A year later, USD lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament, while the Jackrabbits made a run to the semifinals of another post-season tournament.
Yes, those ‘other’ tournaments were certainly different in nature — SDSU beat two Big Ten teams in the WNIT while USD beat Utah State and Lamar in the Women’s Basketball Invitational — but what those two in-state programs did was impressive given what they had to do.
They both had to hit the reset button.
Think about what the Coyote women had to overcome in 2013. They came up three points of rival SDSU in the Summit League tournament championship game, and then had to find some motivation — and interest — to keep playing.
I’m not a college athlete, but I can’t imagine that was easy to do.
That’s like having to play a consolation game in a South Dakota high school basketball tournament.
And yet, the Coyote coaches and players consistently credited that WBI run for the program’s success this season — winning the Summit League and getting to the NCAA Tournament.
Three extra games is a big deal, particularly for USD which realized it would have some new players (Tia Hemiller, Margaret McCloud, etc.) put into big-time roles this season. So when you can play meaningful playoff-style games, even if it’s not the ‘big one,’ you’ll take that opportunity.
And that’s exactly what the SDSU women did this season.
The Jackrabbits were, though, in a unique situation in that they had already locked up at least a WNIT auto bid by winning the Summit League regular season crown. It wasn’t the goal, though, but it was still something they had on the back burner.
Ultimately, a rough performance against USD in the Summit tournament semifinals cost SDSU a potential at-large spot into the NCAA Tournament. So, for a program that had made five consecutive trips to the ‘Big Dance,’ a sudden end was hard to swallow.
That’s when the Jackrabbit players had to stop and recharge their batteries, according to Yankton native and sophomore guard Chloe Cornemann.
“We thought, ‘Why not do something great in another aspect?’” she said this week. “We’ve taken that and run with it. It’s about winning post-season games, whatever tournament it is.”
To me, that’s what makes SDSU’s run through the WNIT even more impressive.
The Jackrabbits had to WANT it.
Again, that’s like having to play a consolation game in a South Dakota high school basketball tournament, but having to dig deep and find a desire to keep rolling.
Consecutive home wins over Butler, Creighton, Minnesota and Indiana proved that yes, SDSU was motivated. A 3-point loss to UTEP in Wednesday’s semifinal game doesn’t change anything. It was still the longest post-season run in Summit League history, and it will arguably prove beneficial for the 2014-15 season.
Not only because those players coming back like Cornemann will remember the sting of losing to USD in the Summit League tournament, but they’ll remember walking off the court in El Paso after a loss.
All I know is, the Summit League race next season is bound to be extra competitive, given what USD accomplished this season (beating the Jackrabbits) and what SDSU went through.
BY JEREMY HOECK
Pretty much every new coach ‘wins’ their introductory press conference.
That’s the first goal: Impress the public. As they say, first impressions are the last impressions.
With that in mind, Craig Smith easily won the room Monday at the Muenster University Center in Vermillion. The new head men’s basketball coach at the University of South Dakota said what he needed to (we’re here to win, to recruit the right kids, etc.), but in so many other ways, he didn’t need to say much.
His experience brought enough cache to leave the crowd — of which included USD’s basketball players — impressed.
Smith has been alongside Tim Miles at 10 of his 13 seasons as either an assistant coach or a head coach across all levels of college basketball.Smith has been a head coach at the NAIA level, an assistant at the Division II ranks, and has been with Miles at Colorado State and most recently at Nebraska.
At each stop along the way, the tandem has helped turn around those programs. I mean, since when was Nebraska a competitive men’s basketball team? Smith was also the head coach at Mayville State (N.D.) where he turned a 1-win team into a 17-win squad and a national tournament qualifier in one short season. Two years after that, Mayville State was in the NAIA national title game.
Now, to be fair, nobody expects that out of Smith at USD.
What is expected — and he was the first to point this out Monday — is to compete annually for a Summit League championship. In three seasons in the league, the Coyote men are 16-33, and that includes a slight improvement to 6-8 this season.
Said Smith, “I firmly believe that we’ll make a major splash in Division I basketball and in the Summit League in the very near future.”
That’s why he was hired. That’s why he was offered a $185,000 salary (which, by the way, is more than his athletic director makes). That’s why USD wanted a national search.
USD needed to make a splashy hire. Men’s basketball is the face of your athletic program (some would say football is, but that’s at the FCS level. Basketball is where you’re going against the big boys in the NCAA Tournament). USD couldn’t afford to slip up in this hire, despite the challenges of only having 1-year contracts.
It needed a big name.
It needed a coach that would put butts in the seats and generate increased excitement from the Coyote fanbase.
It needed a coach that had proven he could win at the national level. Again, how many expected Nebraska to be a Big Ten contender?
And on the surface, Craig Smith appears to be the home run hire USD desired.
News & Notes From Monday’s Conference
• Smith’s salary of $185,000 is a $15,000 paycut from what he was making at Nebraska, but is a 46 percent raise from what previous head coach Dave Boots was making ($126,380, according to the most recent South Dakota payroll information). For reference sake, interim head coach Joey James had been making $90,000.
• Athletic director David Herbster said South Dakota’s policy of year-to-year contracts did play a role in the search process. He said “a quarter to a third” of the candidates were not interested because there was not the possibility of multi-year contracts. And if they were able to look past it, those candidates would have wanted up to $250,000. “That’s not realistic for us right now,” Herbster said.
• What will be Smith’s style? Expect a lot of motion offense with a fast-paced tempo and pressure defense, he said. “We give a lot of guys freedom, so you’ve got to be able to make decisions,” he said.
• My favorite moment of Monday’s gathering was Smith sharing his G.A.TA. style. That stands for Get After Their (Butts). You can figure out that last word. “It’s a relentless pursuit of excellence,” he said.
• On USD opening a new arena for the 2016-17 season, Smith said he can relate. Nebraska opened Pinnacle Bank Arena last year, and it “became an event.” He said, “Football is an event, so people get geared up for that game. You don’t always get that in basketball, but I feel like we had that at Nebraska.”
• As to what his staff will look like, Smith said he hadn’t narrowed it down. It’s one of many things on his short term to-do list. Stay tuned on that.
BY JEREMY HOECK
AMES, Iowa — It wasn’t long after the University of South Dakota women walked off the Hilton Coliseum court Saturday that talk of next year began.
What about it, Coyotes?
“It was a good experience to play against the best,” said sophomore Tia Hemiller after an 81-62 loss to Stanford in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first round game in Ames, Iowa.
“We learned a lot. We have a goal set for next year, and we can always set a goal to improve.”
The Coyotes, 19-14 this season, were understandably anxious about the topic of the 2014-15 season. They graduate just one player — Polly Harrington — and will return four starters and all their reserves from a team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
So yes, there is plenty to look forward to after Saturday’s loss.
“Just like last year, we lost in the championship game, and this year we didn’t want to feel that way again,” junior Nicole Seekamp said. “It makes it a bigger thing next year.
“We just want to get better every year.”
As has been the trend in two seasons under head coach Amy Williams, the Coyotes have gotten progressively better down the stretch.
Last year, USD went 7-2 to close the season — including a narrow loss in the Summit League championship game — and made a run to the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational. This season, the Coyotes won eight of their last 10 games before the NCAA Tournament.
How has the program continued to evolve?
“I feel good about the run we’ve made. We’re going to always try to continue to raise the bar,” Williams said Saturday. “I’ve mentioned it before with Stanford, that I have so much respect for the sustained success, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
She paused, then added with a smile, “Being able to do it time after time, and then maybe, maybe I’ll be satisfied.”
On paper, the Coyotes appear ready to make another run next season. USD will returns four starters, Hemiller, Seekamp, Raeshel Contreras (Jr.) and Lisa Loeffler (Jr.).
The Coyotes will also have reserves Margaret McCloud (So.), Kelly Stewart (So.), Taylor Moore (So.), Madeleine White (Fr.), Bridget Arens (Fr.), Jaylah Jackson (Fr.) and Bailey Milne (R-Fr.) back in the fold. Heidi Hoff (So.) and Emily Smith (Fr.) will also return from injury.
Just like a year ago, the Coyotes got a taste of post-season action this season, albeit on a bigger stage. By all accounts, the ESPN2 broadcast on Saturday was filled with compliments for USD and the way the team played against one of the nation’s elite programs.
“We did great this year; this is a big step for our program, so hopefully we can make improvements every year,” Seekamp said.
Among those improvements pointed by Harrington on Saturday included mostly chemistry and unity.
“They just need to keep doing what they’re doing, keep improving every day, keep working hard,” Harrington said. “This year a lot of people didn’t expect us to go this far, we stayed together.
“Just together and believe in each other, and working hard always, I know they can do it.”
On that idea of exceeding expectations, Seekamp made sure to mention that USD would prefer not to be picked third in next season’s Summit League preseason poll.
“Hopefully we don’t get preseason picked so low, but we showed that it obviously doesn’t bother us,” she said, smiling.