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.
Yankton will look to end its 2014 postseason as it began: by turning the tide on an ESD opponent that swept them in the regular season.
The Bucks face a 22-2 Huron squad that beat Yankton 67-57 and 59-52. The Tigers are led by Gatorade Player of the Year Justin Decker. The USD basketball recruit averaged 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds this season.
Caleb Carr (13 ppg, 7.6 rpg) is the only other Tiger in double figures, but Lucas Morrison (8.8 ppg) and JP Noonan (8.7 ppg) are close. Will Carr (4.6 ppg) is the other starter for Huron.
Hayden Busch (6 ppg, 4 rpg) and Tre Henderson (4.7 ppg) provide a lift off the bench. Houstyn Heinz (1.3 ppg) and Tate Sporrer (1.2 ppg) also see time off the bench.
Huron, which averaged 65.3 points a game, is a veteran squad, starting 5 seniors and bringing two more off the bench.
Today will mark the final games for 5 Bucks: starters JJ Hejna, Ryan Olson and Lane Sawatzke, and reserves Chipper Granflaten and Mitchell Gullikson.
Here’s a quick preview of Sturgis, Yankton’s consolation opponent today at 2:45 pm. Both teams come in with 14-10 records.
The Scoopers have 4 players averaging in double figures, led by bigs Tanner Weaver (Sr., 6-3, 15.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Kellen Barten (Jr.,6-8, 14.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Guards Kody Kracht (Jr., 5-11, 11.5 ppg), Jeremy Guttierez (Sr., 5-10, 4.7 ppg) and Jason Schneider (Jr., 5-11, 3.0 ppg) round out the first five.
Junior Jacob Simmons (Jr., 6-2, 10.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is also averaging in double figures. Senior Bailey Ruff (Sr., 6-4, 1.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg) and junior Kadin Bestgen (Jr., 6-1, 1.5 ppg) are also top reserves for the Scoopers.
Kracht scored 16, Barton 15 and Weaver 11 in Sturgis’ 72-48 loss to Stevens on Thursday. The Scoopers were out of the game from the start, down 21-11 after 1 and 40-21 at the half.
BY JEREMY HOECK
Six years ago, the USD women’s basketball team put together one of the craziest and most storybook seasons you could imagine. The Coyotes reeled off 31 straight wins, swept through their conference, won the league title, won the region crowd, and advanced all the way to the national championship game — losing by five points to Northern Kentucky.
That was at the Division II level.
Not that 2008 was less impressive, but what USD is embarking on this weekend at the NCAA Tournament is a whole different situation.
You’re talking the Big Dance. National exposure. ESPN2. Stanford.
This is the big time.
I remember thinking the day I heard USD announced Ryun Williams as its next head coach to replace Chad Lavin (who retired after the 2008 campaign) that there was a sense that it was the end of the national tournaments.
No way they could do it at this new thing called Division I?
South Dakota State had found success right away at the next level, so yes there was a sense that it could happen, but it still felt so far away.
From competing with Washburn and Delta State, the Coyotes would suddenly be thrown into the world of Connecticut and Tennessee.
Six years went by. Ryun Williams guided USD through the early stages of the D-I transition, eventually getting the program to the WBI and WNIT. He then turned that success into the head coaching job at Colorado State — certainly a step up the ladder.
In came Amy Williams, a South Dakota native with experiences as an assistant with a number of D-I programs.
Year one with her came up three points short in the Summit League championship game, and her team then made a run to the semifinals of the WBI.
And now, here we are, talking about the NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance. National exposure. ESPN2. Stanford.
Times have sure changed since 2008, haven’t they?
On that subject, former Coyote Maggie Youngberg (a Yankton native who was on that 2008 team) said watching this year’s squad win the Summit League and advance to the NCAA Tournament brought back memories of those games in Kearney.
How could they not?
She remembers well what it felt like to enjoy such success (though, as should be pointed out, USD went to Kearney as one of eight teams remaining, not 64 like in the NCAA Tournament). Still, Youngberg and her former teammates can relate.
They helped set the table for 2014. They established a tradition that still lingers today — Amy Williams has mentioned on more than one occasion how her current team owes a lot to its predecessors.
If the program had suddenly vaulted from transitional struggles into a surprising NCAA Tournament run, sure, you could say the 2014 squad did it on its own. But I doubt anyone would say that now. Not when teams before them brought USD, in different ways, on to the D-I radar.
It’s with that history in mind that the Coyotes will walk away from Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa on Saturday happy with their season. The sting of an expected loss will obviously be right at the surface, but deep inside, you can be guaranteed those players will count this season as a win.
And to be more accurate, it’s been a historic season.
Because whatever happens next season or the next few seasons, no matter how many NCAA tournaments USD qualifies for, that first one is special. That was the first time.