BY JEREMY HOECK
There are going to be other matchups between Summit League basketball teams later in the season that will have more on the line, leading up to and then of course during the post-season tournament.
But in terms of early-season showdowns, there’s certainly a lot of buzz for Saturday’s men’s and women’s games between the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State. The women meet in Vermillion at 2 p.m., with the men to play in Brookings at 4:30 p.m.
Of the two games, the women’s matchup once again features two of the league’s top teams — the last two champions (SDSU five straight years, USD last year).
“Usually you don’t have to get either one of these teams ready for that game,” USD head coach Amy Williams said after Thursday’s win over North Dakota State. “It’ll be a fun, intense battle.”
The Coyotes (13-4 overall) lead the league at 3-1, with a win over Western Illinois which is also 3-1. The Jackrabbits (12-6 overall) are in a 3-way tie for third place 3-2 with NDSU and Denver.
Although the Coyotes won the most recent meeting in last year’s Summit League tournament semifinals, the Jackrabbits have won the last four regular season meetings.
All USD is worried about, though, is protecting home court where the Coyotes have won all seven games this season, its players maintained.
“It’s great for us that we have a home game, and we’ll have confidence going into that game,” junior guard Tia Hemiller said.
“We have to play it like any other game.”
If that’s the case, it could be a rather high-scoring affair in the DakotaDome.
The Coyotes are ranked nationally in scoring (80.8) and have scored 101 and 84 points in their last two league games, while the Jackrabbits put up 101 points in a win Thursday.
On the men’s side, it’s much the same story: The Coyotes (9-9, 3-1) are slightly ahead of the Jackrabbits (12-7, 3-2) in the standings, with each team on a 3-game winning streak.
“It’s going to be a monstrous challenge for us, but you know what, a lot of the games we’ve played have been that way,” first-year USD head coach Craig Smith said.
Winners in six of their last seven games, the Coyotes have turned things around since an 0-5 start to the season thanks to the production of a group of experienced guards — Tyler Larson (15.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Brandon Bos (14.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Casey Kasperbauer (10.6 ppg, 49 three-pointers).
“They have some better athletes than they’ve had in the past, so I’d imagine they’d have a different style of play,” Bos said.
Different faces are leading the Jackrabbits, led by newcomers George Marshall (13.9 ppg) and Deondre Parks (13.7 ppg). The Coyotes, though, are familiar with facing Cody Larson (13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
“Especially after playing such a good team like this (North Dakota State), we’re very excited to go into Frost Arena and try to get a win,” Larson said after Wednesday’s win over the Bison.
Smith, who joked that as a history major he looks up stats like this, realizes that his program hasn’t won in Brookings since 2000.
“To be a great rivalry, both teams have to win consistency,” Smith said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”
It’s also the first time in at least 25 years that neither USD coach has any personal ties to the rivalry. The Coyote men were led for two and a half decades by Dave Boots, who guided the program through the North Central Conference battles with Scott Nagy and the Jackrabbits. And then there was the 1-season stint with former Coyote standout Joey James as the interim coach.
Not that any of that matters, of course.
“It’s the next game on our schedule,” Hemiller said.
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