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Surprise, surprise: South Dakota State is atop the Summit again

It’s still early, but the Jackrabbits are again leading the pack, this time with plenty of new faces.

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Arizona
Doug Wilson has been at the heart of a revamped South Dakota State team.
Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of points walked out of Brookings this offseason.

3,067 of them — a Summit League record — courtesy of Mike Daum’s graduation, and another 1,194 courtesy of David Jenkins Jr. and his decision to transfer. The latter had to do with another big development for the Jackrabbits: third-year coach T.J. Otzelberger leaving for the same job at UNLV (where Jenkins ultimately headed as well).

That seemingly put a dent into a team that had more or less ruled the Summit League since Otzelberger took over in 2016. Over that stretch, fueled by Daum’s meteoric rise and a potent offense, the Jackrabbits won two regular season titles and made two NCAA Tournament appearances. Paired with a sterling reputation as a recruiter, it seemed inevitable that success like that would lead Otzelberger up the coaching ladder.

But one month into league play, without Otzelberger, Daum and Jenkins Jr., the Jackrabbits nonetheless find themselves in a familiar spot: atop the league standings due to a high-flying offense.

At 6-2, SDSU sits in first place in the Summit League and is halfway home in a season that runs slightly askew of what was expected when they were pegged as fifth in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll. While this was understandable given the turnover, there was some continuity.

The school handed the program to Eric Henderson, who had served as an assistant during the entirety of Otzelberger’s three-year tenure, and before that had spells working on the staffs at North Dakota State and Iowa State. With plenty of new faces, Henderson has engineered yet another efficient Jackrabbits’ offense — the best in league play — but done so in a different way.

SDSU offense, per KenPom

Year Coach AdjO Rank AdjTempo Rank
Year Coach AdjO Rank AdjTempo Rank
2019-20 Eric Henderson 45 227
2018-19 T.J. Otzelberger 37 40
2017-18 T.J. Otzelberger 47 61
2016-17 T.J. Otzelberger 71 222

The past three years, the Jackrabbits leaned on the brilliance of Daum and Jenkins Jr. to generally hunt for looks early in the shot clock and overwhelm opponents with that offensive talent by maximizing the amount of possessions. And with shooters like those two (and others) on the roster, they were fairly reliant on the three, scoring at least 35.8 percent of their points from beyond the arc in each of those three seasons.

That led to some obscene numbers at times, like putting up 100 points in a win over Western Illinois last year, or 97 points in the Summit League Tournament final against South Dakota in 2018.

Despite a slower pace, Henderson’s first squad is yet again planting numbers like that on opponents. They bounced back from an 0-1 start to league play with wins over Oral Roberts and WIU in which they scored 91 and 96 points, respectively. And unlike last year, they’ve ridden a hot offense to the league’s early pole position without relying heavily on the three-point shot.

The current version of SDSU has been oriented more around the paint, scoring over half its points (54.1%) within the arc, and doing so efficiently (56.3 2P%, eighth best in the country). This has been tied heavily to the emergence of JuCo transfer forward Doug Wilson, who has stepped into Daum’s impossibly large shoes as the go-to scorer in Brookings. The breakout star has been one of the league’s most efficient players in the post (20.4 PPG, 62.1 FG% in league play) and punished league favorite North Dakota State down the stretch in a big Jackrabbits’ win last week.

Otzelberger, who signed Wilson last season, seemingly expected that sort of impact when he discussed his potential in a release.

”Doug possess a tremendous motor and elite-level athleticism. Offensively, he is a mismatch player and defensively, he has the unique ability to defend all five positions.”

Alongside Wilson, sophomore Matt Dentlinger has flourished in an expanded role. After serving as a quick dose of low post muscle a year ago, he’s turned into the team’s second-leading scorer (11.6 PPG, 61.5 FG%), and another efficient low post scorer and pick and roll threat.

Paired with an increasingly deep perimeter group headlined by sophomore jack-of-all-trades wing Alex Arians and freshman three-point threat Noah Freidel, SDSU looks like it’s conference title bid has staying power. That’ll be bolstered even more if senior point guard Brandon Key — who redshirted last year to play a bigger role this season — recovers from a knee injury that has limited to just nine minutes over the past eight games.

That’s not to say the Jackrabbits are running away with the Summit. The Bison sit at 5-2 and have the muscle memory of grabbing the league’s auto bid a season ago. Omaha has proven itself as a constant threat, South Dakota has blistering offensive potential and Oral Roberts creates its own matchup problems with star forward Emmanuel Nzekwesi. But the Jackrabbits are more than in the mix, which wasn’t necessarily something many expected.

Before the year, Henderson talked to the Argus Leader about the prospect of rebuilding with a young team.

To be frank, it’s gonna be exciting to be a hunter instead of the hunted. It’s OK to be in that spot for maybe a year, but we don’t want to be there long. I can guarantee you this: I know what college basketball is all about and I know what I’m gonna be judged on — to win basketball games. But more importantly next year we’re gonna get better every day, learn to play together every day and be tough. If we do those things I think we’re gonna like the outcome.

If the current trend continues, SDSU may enjoy that outcome more than many originally thought.