BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION — As Craig Smith approached the unofficial yet official start to his first season at the University of South Dakota, reality quickly set in.
Everything around him, on the court and in the office, was new.
He was faced with a 16-man roster that included eight returning players and eight newcomers, who would be playing for an entirely new coaching staff.
“I found myself putting guys in unfair positions, so we had to take a step back,” Smith said Friday, shortly before his program took to the court at the start of official practices for the 2014-15 season.
“We’ve even got such good chemistry on our staff, that at times I forget even we haven’t worked together for long.”
Smith, who was hired away from the Huskers and the Big Ten, brought in six transfers and two freshmen to help bolster a Coyote program that won 12 games last season.
Particularly in early practices, the key will be developing chemistry with such a mix, Smith said.
“It’s all new for everybody, both players and coaches,” he said.
“The terminology, defensive concepts, offensive concepts, everything, it’s all new.”
Even on the sidelines.
Smith quickly hired Austin Hansen (previously at South Dakota State), Gameli Ahelegbe and Eric Peterson to his staff. Their common bond?
“The only thing we know is to work our hands to the bone to build toward earning a championship,” Smith said.
To that end, the Coyotes got a bit of an early start over the summer.
Eleven of the 16 players were on campus to work out in groups of four until Sept. 15, the date at which all the players could take the court together. Smith and his held four team workouts in the two weeks leading up to Friday’s official start date.
Certainly, it helped having five of last season’s top six scorers back for USD.
Returning are senior Brandon Bos (11.9 ppg), junior Tyler Flack (8.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg), junior Trey Norris (8.0 ppg, 4.0 apg), junior Adam Thoseby (7.7 ppg), junior Casey Kasperbauer (6.7 ppg), senior Tyler Larson (5.0 ppg) and junior Eric Robertson (2.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg).
A group of transfers will also join the mix, including James Hunter (from Washington State), Duol Mayot (Northeastern JC), Sekou Harris (South Plains College), Edson Avila (Southern Miss), Tre Burnette (Williston State) and Zach Dickerson (Eastern Illinois).
Then there were two freshmen added to the roster, Logan Power (Lincoln, Neb.) and Dejon Davis (Bloomington, Minn.).
And so, Smith and his staff is faced with quite a challenge to blend those elements together, he said.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting at the same time,” Smith said. “It’s one of the reasons you love to coach. You love the Xs and Os, you love going to practice every day.”
Getting everyone on the same page is understandably a focus early in practices, he added.
“Every day is a chance to do that,” Smith said. “You have to win the locker room. When the locker room’s all in, it’s amazing what can happen.”
The Coyote men open the 2014-15 season Nov. 14 at Utah Valley.