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Mike Daum is proud to lead a group of ‘hidden gem’ recruits at South Dakota State

Daum was an unheralded prospect who drove hours from his Nebraska home to play AAU ball in Colorado. Now he’s one of the best college basketball players in the country.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-South Dakota State vs Ohio State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

“Do we even have a chance to get him to swing over to Nebraska?”

One day this spring, Brandon Valdez’s phone lit up with a newly arrived message. It wasn’t rare that the Rocky Mountain Fever’s coach heard from college basketball coaches, but getting texts from one at such a high-profile school was out of the ordinary.

Then again, the specific player he was calling about was also unique. It was former Rocky Mountain Fever star and current South Dakota State Jackrabbit Mike Daum — college basketball’s sixth-leading scorer last year (23.9 points per game) and a bona fide All-American candidate for 2018-19. Daum was the only top-five scorer last season taller than 6’5, and he added 20 double-doubles to go with it on 85 percent shooting from the line and 40 percent shooting from three.

He was also eligible to graduate and transfer to a bigger school without sitting out a year.

So of course Nebraska head coach Tim Miles was after Valdez to get the so-called “Daum update.”

As for Daum, he couldn’t care less that the “big dogs” wanted him. He saw the tweets from Kentucky, Ohio State, and Butler fans. He knew he could have been one of the many mid-major grad transfers to move to bigger programs at the end of last season.

“I had a bunch of fans from other schools reach out on social media, but it wasn’t really an option for me because of how awesome my head coach is and how awesome my teammates are,” Daum said.

His mother, a University of Wyoming basketball legend herself, laughed off the notion that Daum would go anywhere else.

“If they had looked at him they might have just seen this slow, white farmboy,” Michele Daum said.

And she’s not wrong. The Daums reside in Kimball, Nebraska, a town of just over 2,000 people. The town’s Wikipedia page lists just two notable people from Kimball: Daum and a former congressman who passed away in 1967.

“My town is a small country farm town,” Daum said. “I actually played AAU out of Fort Collins, Colorado.”

The not-so-well-known Rocky Mountain Fever have just one other former AAU player in Division I in UTSA’s Toby Van Ry. The rest of the alumni go on to places like Fort Lewis College, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Briar Cliff.

At South Dakota State, Daum is just one of a handful of hidden gems that head coach T.J. Otzelberger or Otz, as he’s lovingly referred to by most of his players, has been able to pry. Sophomore sensation David Jenkins Jr. received no more than head nods from Cal, Washington State and other West Coast programs. South Dakota State stood alone in going the extra mile.

“[Otzelberger] was the only coach who came out to see me,” Jenkins Jr. said. “He drove seven hours just to see me for 30 minutes.”

Jenkins Jr. went on to average 16.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game as a freshman and his future looks bright. The feisty guard riveted folks in the Summit League with a monstrous stat line of 16.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. And it was just his first year getting to know Daum.

“I think we’re one of the best duos in the country,” Jenkins Jr. said. “If we [show it], that will help us get to the next level in the tournament.”

So while SDSU finding Daum and Jenkins goes to show that there are talented players in all corners of America, it seems to be quite the niche in particular for Otzelberger. The Jackrabbits boast players from rural country towns in South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest. So far, all of these players have gelled together to form a well-oiled machine.

“T.J. has been the best head coach I’ve ever had,” Daum said. “It was him giving me the freedom to do whatever I want on offense, defense and I think that was one of the things that opened me up, confidence-wise.”

This season, South Dakota State will try to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth year in a row. The Jackrabbits have given both Maryland and Ohio State strong fights in past years, but have yet to make it out of the first round. In the regular season, they will have tests against Nevada, Montana, and Florida Gulf Coast to start the year. And Daum, their self-proclaimed “farm boy,” is leading the charge.

“Now we’re getting to the point where [we]’re not satisfied with just getting there anymore,” he said.