BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION — Craig Smith and his staff like to joke that their University of South Dakota men’s basketball players should stay in a hotel in Yankton the night before a home game, and then bus over to Vermillion hours before tip-off.
The Coyotes (13-14), who won all of two road games last season, have now jumped up to eight road victories this season and rank among the nation’s best in success away from home.
“It’s a fighter’s mentality,” Smith said Monday night.
“Now we have to flip the script and have a fighting mentality whether we’re home or away.”
Exactly how they’ve found success on the road is something the coaches haven’t been able to pinpoint, but luckily — or perhaps unfortunately — the Coyotes are done with road games. They kick off a 4-game homestand tonight (Tuesday) with a lower-level game against NAIA Avila University at 7 p.m. in Vermillion.
Though they stand 7-6 and in fifth place in the Summit League, the Coyotes have won five conference games away from the DakotaDome — including wins last week at Omaha and Oral Roberts.
In terms of the national picture, Albany leads all of Division I with 11 road victories. Three others have 10, four have nine, and then there’s a 14-way tie — including the likes of Gonzaga, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and USD — with eight road wins.
The Coyotes are 8-7 in true road games and 0-3 in neutral site games (two at a Fairfield tournament and one against UNLV in Sioux Falls).
And so, technically, USD is 8-10 in games played away from Vermillion, but considering the program won six road games over the previous two seasons, it’s a drastic improvement. Not to mention an early rallying cry from the coaches.
“All summer and all fall, we probably talked about it too much to our guys,” Smith said. “We challenged them and tested them with the fact we won two road games last year.”
Again, it was a mentality, he added.
“To win on the road, you have to eliminate losing,” Smith said.
Part of that play away from home was out of necessity.
With the overlap between football and basketball in the DakotaDome, the men’s team had just three practices on its playing court before the home opener on Nov. 26. And by the time the Coyotes hosted Youngstown State nine days later, they had eight practices on their home floor.
And so, with only two of their first nine games of the season at the DakotaDome, the Coyotes had to develop some early momentum on the road — especially in league play, with five of the first seven away from Vermillion.
“As crazy as it sounds, there was a comfort level,” said Smith, who joked that it was almost like playing on a neutral floor.
“It’s been a bizarre schedule.”
Before they resume their final three Summit League regular season games, the Coyotes will tonight host Avila, a 13-12 NAIA program out of Kansas City.
With an opening in the schedule (to reach the maximum number of 31 games), the USD staff searched all across the country for a team that could play a mid-week game during conference season, Smith said.
“Not knowing with a new team, we didn’t want to have a week off and have the potential of losing your rhythm,” he said.