Some bad news turned out to be very good for South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger.
The then-Iowa State assistant seemingly had the Milwaukee job in April 2016, so much so that he was reportedly told to get his family ready for the introductory press conference. That didn’t happen, as the athletic department’s decision was reportedly overruled by university officials up the chain, and LaVall Jordan ultimately got the position.
That looks like it was a stroke of good fortune for Otzelberger, who’s becoming a hot commodity on the coaching market.
He took over at SDSU later that same offseason, inheriting a Jackrabbits roster that was losing several seniors off an NCAA Tournament team. It did, however, include a rising sophomore center named Mike Daum that had averaged 15.2 points per game off the bench.
The Milwaukee job didn’t come with a Mike Daum.
Under Otzelberger, Daum has won two Summit League Player of the Year awards and scored a million points in a historic offensive career. He’s the face of Oztelberger’s tremendously successful run thus far in Brookings, which has included two very different seasons. Two years ago he rallied a team that had slipped to 8-13 in mid-January, while last season the Jackrabbits excelled as frontrunners in a 28-win campaign. In each, SDSU ended the season in the NCAA Tournament.
But that isn’t the only reason the third-year coach could have power conferences lining up to talk to him.
SDSU made headlines last week when it signed Class of 2019 guard Caleb Grill, which was newsworthy since Grill chose the Jackrabbits over a number of power conference teams. Pass up Nebraska and an upward-trending Texas Tech for the Summit League? That’s a big deal.
That Otzelberger locked up the program’s highest-rated recruit ever isn’t surprising. He made his name as a recruiter at Iowa State first for Greg McDermott, and then for Fred Hoiberg. He also had a stint at Washington under Lorenzo Romar who, regardless what some may say about him otherwise, is unquestionably one of the country’s best recruiters.
Otzelberger hasn’t lost his touch at a smaller school.
“It was really cool (getting Power 5 offers),” Grill said, “but the thing that makes South Dakota State so special too is we were playing (last month) at the same time as KC Run GMC, who had numerous D1 players, it has amazing talent, and I thought it meant a lot that all the head coaches that (were recruiting) me went and watched that game.
“South Dakota State, TJ Otzelberger, was the only coach I saw there watching that game. It just shows how much they really, really wanted me because they were at every single game.”
Grill wasn’t his first recruiting coup at SDSU. Amid another historic season from Daum, David Jenkins (16.1 PPG) turned in a great freshman campaign last year, and factored heavily into the Jackrabbits league-best offense. SDSU locked up the three-star recruit despite reported interest from Boise State and Saint Mary’s among others, and now has a potential building block once Daum graduates.
There have also been smaller wins for Oztelberger and his staff. They brought in Michael Orris, a well-traveled point guard coming off a pedestrian season at Northern Illinois, before the 2016-17 season. The grad transfer turned out to be a solid last-minute addition, contributing important minutes at point guard as SDSU surged down the stretch. Orris was replaced last season by Brandon Key, a three-star ESPN JuCo point guard that was a quality playmaker (28.4% assist rate) alongside Daum and Jenkins.
The Jackrabbits figure to be a heavy Summit favorite again, which should keep the attention on Otzelberger. He was floated as a candidate when Fred Hoiberg left Iowa State in 2015, but the hole in his resume was a lack of head coaching experience. He’s got that now, seemingly making him one of the most complete candidates once the coaching carousel twirls.
Yet Otzelberger also finds himself in a unique position. SDSU has carved out a role as the Summit heavyweight despite making the move to Division I just over a decade ago. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament five times since 2012, and have produced NBA-level star power in Nate Wolters and (inevitably) Daum. The program also enjoys tremendous fan support and will, for the foreseeable future, play its league tournament games in its home state in a navigable path to the NCAA Tournament.
That may be enough for Otzelberger to stay relevant and leave only for the perfect opportunity. In essence, he may be able to skip a move to a league like the Missouri Valley and jump directly into a power conference.
In the meantime, it appears like he’s assembling the pieces to continue SDSU’s reign over the Summit League, even after Daum is gone.