BY JEREMY HOECK
It started in October with a ‘guarantee’ from the coach.
Three and a half months later, that ‘guarantee’ is ringing true for the University of South Dakota men’s basketball program.
The comment made — “We will make the Summit League Tournament” — by head coach Dave Boots at last October’s media day session was spoken for a laugh: The Coyotes were already going to qualify for the post-season tournament, with only 8 eligible schools in the conference.
What followed since that day, however, was an up and down season for USD, marked by inconsistencies and defensive lapses. Experience, or lack there of, was an underlying theme for the Coyotes. As the lineups and rotations shifted, the key group emerged to be a first-year eligible senior transfer (Juevol Myles), a sophomore guard (Brandon Bos), a freshman guard (Casey Kasperbauer), a junior college transfer (Karim Rowson) and a junior center (Trevor Gruis).
Though the Coyotes had some ups, beating South Dakota State being the No. 1 high, they had their share of downs — getting swept by Kansas City and Fort Wayne, and a 6-game losing streak.
The thing, though, to keep in mind is, USD didn’t exactly fail to meet expectations. Picked sixth in the pre-season poll, only tiebreakers kept the Coyotes from jumping up to the No. 6 seed in the Summit League Tournament. Any one of those close games (six losses by 5 or fewer points) goes its way, and the Coyotes could be a 4 seed.
Instead of a 5-11 record in conference play, we could be talking about an 11-5 squad and potential championship contender.
For now, we’re here talking about a potential 7 vs. 2 upset for USD, as it gears up for Saturday night’s first-round game with Western Illinois (21-7).
That is about the only silver lining you could pinpoint with the Coyotes right now and feel good about a possible Cinderalla finish. USD lost both regular season matchups with Western Illinois, but each was a 2-point game.
In the first meeting last November in Vermillion, the Leathernecks won a buzzer-beating runner in the lane by senior Ceola Clark. That was directly following a dramatic USD three-pointer to tie the game.
In the second meeting, last Saturday, the Coyotes made a furious comeback in Macomb (down by 1 with 17 seconds left), only to have a desperation shot at the buzzer miss.
(The Leathernecks, I would imagine, are not all that thrilled with their first-round matchup, having to face a team it barely beat twice and a team that will have a sold-out crowd rooting it on in Sioux Falls).
And so, am I ready to pick the trendy upset?
I’m leaning that way, but you also have to keep in mind the experience stuff I mentioned earlier. Western Illinois is the team with tournament history and the one with the nation’s second-best defense, led by a sixth-year senior (Clark).
USD, on the other hand, is still trying to develop that kind of experience. Attracting, and keeping, high school recruits was no doubt a difficult task during the Division I transition, and the Coyotes are probably a year or two away from really being a Summit League championship threat.
Right now, fans could still be in for a memorable weekend.