Somewhere within Frost Arena there is a conveyor belt, constantly humming, rolling out a new star player when needed. At least, that’s one explanation for the string of top-tier players South Dakota State has produced in its still-brief Division-I tenure.
Coaching and recruiting may also have something to do with it, but in any case the Jackrabbits have had no shortage of players challenging for top individual hardware in the last decade. From Nate Wolters to Mike Daum (Mike Daum!) to Baylor Scheierman to Douglas Wilson, it’s been such a consistent run of stars that four SDSU players have won the Summit League Player of the Year award six times in the last 10 seasons.
Zeke Mayo may be the next Jackrabbit to don the superstar suit.
The sophomore shooting guard had a December to remember with a pair of 30-point efforts that fueled dramatic SDSU wins. It started on Dec. 10, where the Jackrabbits – somehow – won the game below against Eastern Washington.
To overcome that glaring 23-point deficit, the Lawrence, Kansas, native scored 17 points in the second half en route to a then-career-high 30 points, which included a game-winning, banked-in jumper in the final seconds. After the game, head coach Eric Henderson talked about how he hoped Mayo would grow from that moment.
“We don’t want our guys to be fearful,” he said. “We want them to have confidence and swagger and — I think Zeke in particular — I have great belief that this will be a turning point when you talk about him in that sense.”
A few weeks later, the late-game magic was back. Against Western Illinois on Dec. 29, Mayo scored 15 points in the final five minutes to get SDSU past the Leathernecks.
That particular comeback, even if in a less-dramatic variety, allowed the Jackrabbits to bounce back from a league-opening blowout loss at Oral Roberts — something that has been a foreign concept to the program since joining the Summit. In both performances, Mayo spearheaded a shorthanded Jackrabbit team that was without a pair of injured, all-league level players in guard Charlie Easley and Luke Appel.
“He enjoys those moments, and especially in this building, he’s been pretty significant at it,” Henderson said. “They were pretty spread out, so we wanted to space the floor and give Zeke a little bit of room to work and obviously he was terrific.”
The sophomore served a critical, though supporting, role on last year’s historic SDSU team that ran through league play undefeated, acting as a defensive ace and complimentary scorer within the Scheierman-led whirring offense. While he was an important part of that team, and had the ball in his hands in key March moments, this year promised to be different, with Scheierman (reigning Summit POY) and Wilson (2019-20 Summit POY) both gone.
It figured Mayo would take on a bigger role as the team’s leading returner in minutes and scoring. The league coaches agreed, naming him to the preseason all-league first team. That’s precisely what has happened.
His 3-point shooting has taken a downturn outside of last year’s prolific offense, but he’s been a well-rounded offensive option for Henderson and SDSU (14.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.5 apg). He’s taken on more playmaking responsibilities, and has been a menace on the defensive glass, coming off a points and rebounds double-double in a Saturday win over St. Thomas (12 points, 11 rebounds, five assists). The 3-point shot has also been there when he’s needed it, such as when he hit back-to-back three’s against WIU to give SDSU the lead it would not relinquish.
All that production is fueling a Jackrabbits team that, while still shorthanded and under .500 (7-8, 2-1), appears to be gaining steam in the Summit. They have a big win at Boise State that continues to age well and reportedly could get Easley – one of the best defensive players in the Summit – back in February. That would be a boon to a team that surrounds Mayo with a pair of fifth-year program stalwarts in big man Matt Dentlinger (9.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Alex Arians (7.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg), and a budding freshman in forward William Kyle (9.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg).
Toppling Max Abmas and ORU will be a mountain to climb for any Summit team, but with Mayo’s star turn and SDSU’s penchant for March magic, the Jackrabbits may yet have the goods to challenge the surging Golden Eagles.