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Matt Mooney, Mike Daum took divergent paths in their final seasons

Mooney’s led him to the Final Four, but that doesn’t mean Daum chose poorly.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Texas Tech Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

For two years, Matt Mooney was one of the best mid-major players in the country. As the focal point of a resurgent South Dakota program, he propelled the Coyotes to heights they hadn’t seen previously at the Division I level, including a regular season title and the doorstep of an NCAA Tournament bid.

But for two years, Mooney was overshadowed by one of the greatest scorers in NCAA history.

Sharing a conference and a state with South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, Mooney was squeezed out of the Summit League’s individual hardware and, likely more important to him, the NCAA Tournament. In both of his years in Vermillion, Mooney had his shot at the Big Dance extinguished by Daum and the Jackrabbits. The first time in heart-stopping fashion in the 2017 Summit semifinals, and the second as he scored 30 points in a 97-87 loss to SDSU in the 2018 Summit final.

One year later, the spotlight couldn’t burn any brighter on Mooney.

The former Summit League rivals took divergent paths after the end of last season. Mooney, who started his career at Air Force, began exploring transfer options after his head coach, Craig Smith, left for the same position at Utah State. He had no shortage of teams blowing up his phone looking to add the proven scorer, three-point shooter and wing defender. After whittling his list to Texas Tech, Creighton and Northwestern, it was Chris Beard that won him over.

“Honestly their head coach reminded me a lot of my previous head coach Craig Smith,” Mooney said. “In a lot of ways, they are different, but similar. He was able to get me to believe in him and what he has going on there. I feel like he believes in me and my game and I feel like they are building something special.”

Something special was indeed in the works, as the Red Raiders now prepare for their first Final Four in program history. Mooney has yet again been at the center of it, starting each game this year and finishing third on the team in scoring (11.0 PPG) and second in assists (3.3 APG). He’s also been the vital cog in a Red Raiders defense that crippled the opposition en route to Minneapolis.

In his Hoop Vision NCAA Tournament Bible, Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) wrote about the role Mooney plays in the country’s most efficient defense.

“[Tariq Owens] and [Jarrett Culver] — plus this scheme — make a Tech nightmare to score on, and allow a guy like Matt Mooney more freedom to use quick hands and anticipation skills to roam around for steals.”

The senior racked up five steals in Texas Tech’s first round win over Northern Kentucky, and three more as the Red Raiders locked down Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Overall, he played the starring role (17 points, 6-12 FG, 5 assists) in last Saturday’s historic win over the WCC heavyweight.

It was the type of March run and moment that Daum never got to experience.

The idea of Daum — the scoring, floor-spacing, rebounding machine built for the modern game — entering the graduate transfer market was floated nationally as early as December 2017. Plenty of programs would’ve moved mountains to land him, but after exploring the NBA draft following the end of last season, Daum foreclosed wearing another college jersey.

“I really didn’t consider it,” said Daum, who enters his senior season second on SDSU’s all-time scoring list with 2,232 points. “The grad transfer thing was obviously something that was always there, but it was never really an option for me because of the relationships I’ve built at South Dakota State. It was an easy decision to come back.”

Alongside star sophomore guard David Jenkins Jr., returning made plenty of sense. The Jackrabbits figured to be the class of the Summit League, and were just that by winning a second consecutive regular season title. A fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament and fairy tale ending for Daum, however, were not in the cards as SDSU was stunned by last-seeded Western Illinois in their league tournament opener.

That leads to Minneapolis, where Mooney will suit up in front of millions of eyeballs, and Daum will not. But tempting and convenient a narrative as it may be, that doesn’t make Mooney right and Daum wrong. Both players looked at the graduate transfer route and made the decision that made the most individual sense.

At South Dakota, Mooney saw his head coach leaving and opted to survey the market himself, ultimately finding a power conference program that promised an opportunity for playing time. The magical March run wasn’t a guarantee. Even discounting the roll-the-dice nature of a single elimination tournament, the Red Raiders were losing a lot off an Elite Eight team; their ability to shrug that off and continue to contend has been well-chronicled.

At SDSU, Daum saw coaching continuity as the Jackrabbits fended off, for one offseason at least, outside interest in coach T.J. Otzelberger. He also saw a team capable of continuing to lord over the Summit League, with players like Jenkins, Skyler Flatten and others returning. And, most importantly, in his own words he spoke publicly about the value of not making the jump to another school, even if it may have meant a more navigable path to the March spotlight.

That didn’t mean he was wrong, nor does it mean Mooney was wrong for not finishing his career at South Dakota. Two great players, tied together for two years by state and conference, finished their careers on their own terms.

That can only be right.