BY JEREMY HOECK
SIOUX FALLS — At some point, it can be hard to positively evaluate a team that finishes a basketball season with a 10-20 record.
But then there’s the University of South Dakota men’s basketball team.
The Coyotes, making their first-ever appearance in the Summit League Tournament lost a 54-53 affair to No. 2 Western Illinois in Saturday night’s quarterfinal round in Sioux Falls.
The 1-point loss ended the season for USD and marked the third close loss to Western Illinois this season — by a combined five points.
Naturally, losing a series of games like those (and in all, USD lost eight games this season by 5 points or fewer, seven in league play) is a bitter pill to swallow, as Coyote sophomore guard Brandon Bos said after Saturday’s loss.
“Any time you lose by one, I think that’s more than enough to motivate you. We’ll probably remember it for a long time; it’ll always be in the back of our minds. We got our feet wet in the tournament. We’ll just it to fuel us in the off-season and come back stronger.”
Most of the talk this season from coaches and players was about building for the future; about progressing to the point where the Coyotes could be perennial contenders.
When it came to this season, however, USD was certainly competitive. The Coyotes beat league elites South Dakota State, Oakland and was, as pointed out, close with co-champion South Dakota State.
Along the way, USD lost conference games by scores of 73-71, 90-86, 62-60, 95-90, 76-75, 61-59 and 54-53. It’s only real narrow victory was a 3-point home win over rival SDSU in early January.
With any luck, the Coyotes could have vaulted themselves to 11 or 12 wins in the Summit League, instead of five. Of course, it’s easy to second-guess now, but USD coach Dave Boots said Saturday he was pleased with certain improvements.
“If you look at our roster, outside of Trevor (Gruis), all these guys are first or second year guys. You lose close games; it’s such a fine line between winning and losing. We showed well this year in the Summit League. If you look at our team last year, we had some blowouts. Outside of the North Dakota State game, we were really competitive all the way through; we lost all the close games.”
As the Coyotes have progressed and come to the end of the Division I transition, the program found it difficult to maintain a veteran roster. This year for example, USD boasted five juniors (3 who played heavy minutes) and two seniors (a starter and a reserve). The rest of the roster were sophomores and freshmen.
That’ll be key to improvement for this program, sticking with a core group of kids who can develop together into a consistent winner. Next season, the Coyotes will see 3 redshirts become eligible — Tyler Larson (Jr., G), Adam Thoseby (So., G) and Trey Norris (So., G). All three are expected to be big-time players, possible all-conference level kids.
That next season, though, 2014-15, will be when USD is really solidified as a veteran team, and will likely be a Summit League title contender.
If this season is any indication, however, the program may not be that far off, given a few different circumstances in close games.