Q&A with new Jacks men’s hoops coach



T.J. Otzelberger was eventually going to be hired as a Division I men’s basketball head coach.

It was just a matter of where and when.

The 38-year-old Wisconsin native and assistant coach at Iowa State got that opportunity in April, when he was hired by South Dakota State.

T.J. Otzelberger
New South Dakota State head men’s basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger, right, talks with SDSU fan Dave Cornemann during a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social on Wednesday evening at Riverside Park. (Jeremy Hoeck/P&D)

He was handed the keys to a program that had reached the NCAA Tournament three times in the past five seasons, not to mention one that had been coached by Scott Nagy (the school’s career wins leader, with 410) for 21 seasons.

That could be a daunting task, but as Otzelberger would tell you, he was more than ready for the challenge.

He was in Yankton on Wednesday evening for a Yankton Jackrabbit Club social at Riverside Park, and took a few minutes to chat with the Press & Dakotan.

When you got the job, what it was like to come into a brand new place and take over for someone like Scott Nagy who had been there seemingly forever?

First of all, the opportunity was a dream come true. And from a lot of different standpoints. Professionally, for me, basketball and developing young men has been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. To be able to have the opportunity to be a coach was something I was excited about and started to think a few years back was something I was prepared for. To come into a place where there’s such passion, such unbelievable tradition, where the fans are amazing, where Frost Arena is such an unbelievable home court, you get your dream come true. To do it in a place like Brookings is awesome for my family. When I got the job, Justin Sell (athletic director) had said, ‘Every day will get better. You’ll have to almost pinch yourself because every day will get better.’ And that’s held true for the five months I’ve been here. Every day’s been great.

That’s the kind of program you’d want to come into, right? Where they have those high expectations, rather than having to build from the bottom up?

Absolutely. You can tell with the guys, coach Nagy did a great job with the culture of the program and the character of the guys he recruited. With that foundation in place, we hope we can add and continue to build on that. When you’re coming in as a head coach, to come into a place that already has that tradition; that winning expectation, it’s a huge advantage. And we’re going to capitalize.

Have you gotten a sense from the guys coming back that they know what it takes to reach the NCAA Tournament?

They know it’s something you can’t take for granted. It takes a lot of hard work every day, and a commitment to each other and to the process. It starts with a guy like Mike Daum, who had opportunities to leave and go to some other places but chose to stay here and finish the job he started. Not only be in the NCAA Tournament, but be on the winning side of games in the NCAA Tournament. That’s extremely exciting for us.

How about the Summit League, have you gotten a sense for where this league is nationally?

You look at the RPI, getting to 11th last year, that’s pretty impressive. I think the league as a hwole, and the coaches, have done a great job in scheduling up the level of competition. A lot of the coaches in this league are guys I’ve gotten to know through the recruiting trails or even coached against, so it’s a league that I have a lot of respect for. I think if we can continue this vision and keep scheduling better teams, there’s no limit to where we can go.

I imagine when you were at Iowa State, you got a sense for where South Dakota State was at the mid-major level?

Absolutely. In 2008, South Dakota State came in right before Christmas and beat us at Hilton Coliseum. That certainly created a greater sense of awareness. And I remember coach (Lorenzo) Romar (head coach at Washington) talking about them coming in (in 2011) and winning with Nate Wolters, so I’ve always been aware of the program. It’s always been one of those schools when you’re at Iowa State or at Washington that we don’t want to schedule. It’s a no-win situation. Now, to be on the inside of it and find games and try to get people to come to Frost, it’s a pretty awesome vibe.

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USD men have ‘fighter’s mentality’ on the road


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.


2014-15 SDSU men’s basketball schedule


In the world of good-problems-to-have, the South Dakota State men’s basketball program has found it challenging to lure bigger names to Frost Arena.
Put simply: Teams, especially of the mid-major variety, want to schedule road games they can win. And opponents have had a hard time leaving Brookings with a victory.
Dating back to the start of the 2010-11 season, the Jackrabbits are 48-8 at Frost Arena. And their 2014-15 schedule released Friday reflects those challenges, according to head coach Scott Nagy.
“At our level, we’re just not positioned to have the number of home games some people do,” he said Friday, while on the road recruiting.
“It’s tough to get people up here to play us.”
The Jackrabbits, coming off a 19-win season, were able to lock in 13 home dates — five in non-conference action, with two of those coming against Division II opponents.
South Dakota State will host a pair of lower-level exhibitions with South Dakota Tech and Dakota Wesleyan before the season opener Nov. 14 at Buffalo.
The Jacks will also visit Idaho, Florida Gulf Coast (in Sioux Falls), Saint Louis and Northern Iowa.
Coming to Frost Arena will be North Dakota, Chadron State (Nebraska), Wayne State (Nebraska), Kansas City and Idaho. The games with UND and Kansas City are both returns from last season, while Idaho is a home-and-home in the same season.
In many cases, those home-and-home contracts come against programs that are also finding it tough to schedule games, Nagy said.
“We’ve been successful the last couple years, and that makes it difficult,” he said. “They’re looking for games they can win, and it’s tough win at our place.”
Among the home games are two against lower-level opponents, D-II Chadron State and Wayne State. Last season, the Jacks hosted three non D-I games, including Wayne State.
Typically, those are the last games to be scheduled, Nagy said.
“Those games are difficult, but it’s also a chance for your team to get healthy and for players that don’t play much to get a chance,” he said.
Four other road games for the Jackrabbits will be played in the state of Utah.
They will compete in the World Vision Classic, Dec. 18-20 in Logan, Utah, where SDSU will play Idaho State, Cal State Bakersfield and Utah State. SDSU will then, three days later, face the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The Jackrabbits, who host rival University of South Dakota on Jan. 17, would — like every other program in the country — prefer to play more games at home, Nagy said.
“You always wish you had more, but the way I look at it, they’re all tough,” he said. “Every Division I game is tough, and it’s very difficult to win non-conference away games.”
The Jackrabbits, who lost in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational last season, will be led in 2014-15 by senior posts Cody Larson and Zach Horstman.

Other schedule items of note:
• According to Nagy, the games with Saint Louis, Northern Iowa and Utah are all guarantee games (essentially “one-time” contracts where SDSU is paid to make the trip). The Jacks will make a return trip to Florida Gulf Coast in 2015-16, and are still owed a return game from Murray State.
• There will be an interesting sub-plot to the Dec. 3 game between SDSU and Wayne State. Nagy’s son, Tyler, will be a freshman for the Wildcats next season.
• The game at Buffalo was originally scheduled to be played last season, but was postponed because of weather in January. The two teams met in the now-defunct ESPN BracketBusters series back in 2011-12.
• If you go by RPI of the non-conference teams on the schedule for the Jacks, the “best” game would be at Saint Louis. The Billikens finished 27-7 last season, good for a 24 RPI, but also graduated a bulk of their top talent from 2013-14. The only other top-100 RPI non-conference opponent for SDSU is Utah — North Dakota State was No. 32 in the final rankings last season.
• SDSU will face two teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season, Saint Louis and, of course, North Dakota State.