There’s a character in the $10 glossies sold at the Summit League Tournament that bothers South Dakota senior center Tyler Hagedorn. A character he desperately wants to change.
“They have these programs at Summit League Tournament, and if you look at our page in there it says zero Summit League Tournament championships, and and zero NCAA Tournament appearances,” he said. “There’s no better time than now to put a one in those two spots.”
That dream — of helping the Coyotes cut down the nets in Sioux Falls for the first time and planting that number one in ink — was put on hold a season ago. Hagedorn suffered a plantar fascia injury over last offseason that looked like it would sideline him for at least the beginning of the year. First-year USD coach Todd Lee was left without an impact player coming off a second team all-league season, as Hagedorn had averaged 13 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 39.6 percent from three.
Understandably, the Coyotes felt his absence.
The team lost a slew of close games in November — including at Baylor — and stood at an uneven 7-8 when January and the meat of the conference schedule rolled around. By that time, Hagedorn was back at practice with his legs under him, and in the process putting a bittersweet bow on those practices for Lee and his staff.
“It was tough watching him in practice every day because he was at times dominating, and getting things that we weren’t getting in a game,” Lee said. “It was tough to watch it because you go into a game and you don’t have him.”
And despite his health, those dominating stretches in the post would remain confined to USD’s practice floor, as Hagedorn — working with his parents and Lee — decided to redshirt and preserve a final year eligibility. For him, it was heartbreak. Heartbreak to travel with the team and not be able to help on the court, and heartbreak to tell seniors like Trey Burch-Manning that he wouldn’t suit up with them again.
Tough as it was, the decision puts a veteran, all-league caliber player back into the fold for a Coyotes team that already wasn’t light on experience, and keeps them very much in the mix in what could be a more open Summit League.
“We’ve got five seniors on this roster, we’ve got two juniors so we’re an old team,” Lee said. “And I think at the mid-major level you need to be old to be good.”
One of those juniors is Stanley Umude, the preseason Summit League Player of the Year. While Hagedorn is familiar with him — they’ve been teammates since 2017 — they haven’t spent much game time playing with each other. Umude played under three minutes per game as a freshman in 2017-18, and then exploded when Hagedorn’s injury thrust him into an expanded role a season ago. He ultimately averaged 14.4 points and 5.5 rebounds in one of the biggest year-over-year statistical improvements in the country, but the jump wasn’t instantaneous.
To Lee, it all started in a mid-December game at Colorado State. Umude scored 15 points to lead the Coyotoes to a road win over the Rams, and from then on was a different player.
“Stan stepped up and showed what he could do,” Lee said. “In the Fall we were trying to get him to compete harder, to go harder, and he was really just learning. By the time the middle of the year came around he was a completely different player, and has been a different player in practice. Competing in every drill, and he didn’t do that at the start of last year.”
Hagedorn said he’s more excited then he can express to get back on the court with Umude, fellow preseason all-league first team guard Triston Simpson (14.0 PPG, 3.6 APG) and the rest of the Coyotes. He’s talked to a USD women’s basketball player who used a redshirt, and counted out each of the 600-plus days she went between playing in actual games.
It’s an anxiety Hagedorn can’t wait to shake.
“It’s been a long-time coming,” he said. “I’m really excited to get back out there and actually be involved in a game day routine, to play under the lights, and excited to play in front of family and friends.”
The second-to-the-last time Hagedorn played under the lights, he stretched the floor with 15 points and three three pointers in a tough loss to Mike Daum and South Dakota State in the 2018 league tournament title game. His return sees Daum no longer in the picture but even gone, Daum still hangs over the league. While the Jackrabbits didn’t claim the auto bid last year, they were still the class of the Summit and with their colossal scorer, as well as coach T.J. Otzelberger and guard David Jenkins also gone, there may be a renewed sense of opportunity.
SDSU went for continuity in promoting assistant Eric Henderson, who was on Otzelberger each of his three years in Brookings. There is still talent at the guard spot, particularly with a solid group of returnees led by Brandon Key (6.3 PPG, 3.3 APG in 2017-18), who took a redshirt last year to be a focal point during his final year. But a rebuilding year would be more than understandable, and the league favorite status has shifted north for the time being.
“I think it’s wide open,” said Lee when asked about the state of the league. “North Dakota State has been picked because they won the league tournament and have almost everyone back, and rightfully so.”
And picked the Bison were, getting 23 out of the 34 first place votes in the preseason poll. Dave Richman’s team has impact players at every level, with senior point guard Vinnie Shahid, senior wing Tyson Ward and center Rocky Kreuser. And while they did lose athletic forward Deng Geu, they have breakout candidates in sophomores Tyree Eady and Sam Griesel. NDSU should field a deep team with a highly-efficient offense, making it the understandable favorite.
Shahid talked to Bison Illustrated about dealing with the expectations that have come with returning so much from a team that went on that March run and won a First Four game last year.
“You try not to think about it, but I would lie to you and say we’re not human, everyone thinks about it. It’s one of those things where you just got to put your head down and go to practice,” he said. “Once you do that, expectations and opportunities come from preparation. If you’re preparing like you’re the best team in the conference, you’re going to play like the best team in the conference.”
Omaha may have something to say about that, as it has done nothing but compete under Derrin Hansen and pushed SDSU to the limit in the regular season race last year. The Mavericks posted a quality offense despite playing slower than their typically frenetic pace, and have a great inside-outside duo in forward Matt Pile and guard JT Gibson. Oral Roberts also figures to be in the mix with its dominant interior combo of Emmanuel Nzekwesi (14.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and Kevin Obanor (14.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG), as Paul Mills attempts to return the Golden Eagles to the conference power they were in the late 2000’s.
But USD, which finished second in the preseason poll, is convinced it will be in the mix as well. That starts with that experience; in addition to Hagedorn, Simpson and Umude, the Coyotes also have seniors Tyler Peterson, Brandon Armstrong and Cody Kelley in important roles. With Hagedorn back, Lee said there’s a new dimension to his team.
“We got nothing easy at the basket [last year], and he’s a very skilled player. You can run offense through him,” he said. “Hags has a chance to be one the best players in the league, or the best player, I believe.”
USD hopes that addition, plus the its veteran punch, helps it emerge from the pack of quality teams vying to win a seemingly more open, Daum-less Summit League. If the season breaks right for the Coyotes, Hagedorn may finally see those pair of one’s he’s been desperately trying to insert into the conference tournament program for a long time.