VERMILLION, S.D. | My, how things have changed for the University of South Dakota men’s basketball team since this time last year.
Entering what turned out to be a spectacular 2016-17 season, the Coyotes were picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Summit League by the coaches and media. However, they turned the tables by winning the program’s first Summit title and finishing 22-12.
Three starters – including first-team all-leaguer Matt Mooney – and 11 letterwinners return from that squad, so the expectations are extremely higher this time around.
“The biggest challenge, and coach has harped on it a lot, is just not being entitled, thinking we’re better than we are and not taking opponents for granted,” Mooney said during the team’s media day Wednesday. “We still have a lot to prove and a long way to go, so every day we have to focus on getting better and staying humble and not being entitled.”
Mooney, a 6-3 sharpshooter, was the Summit League transfer of the year (from the Air Force Academy) and finished second in the conference with an 18.6 points per game average. He ranked 10th in the nation with 75 steals and along with teammate Trey Burch-Manning is a preseason all-conference selection.
Burch-Manning, a 6-6 junior forward, contributed 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in his first season at USD after transferring from North Idaho College. The Coyotes will also rely heavily on Carlton Hurst, a 6-3 senior who started all 34 games last season and shot 48.5 percent from the floor. Hurst is also one of the top defensive players in the conference.
“We did come off a really good season but still have a lot to prove,” said Hurst, who came to USD from Colorado State University. “A lot of people didn’t expect that but we knew what we were capable of. We know we fell short and still have that bitter taste and there’s still a lot we still have to prove.
“I think our team chemistry is really strong and we were one of the better defensive teams last year. Just really having a feel for each other and being close carries over to the games and it helps.”
The Coyotes suffered a heartbreaking 74-71 loss to South Dakota State on a last-second shot in a Summit League Tournament semifinal. They made the NIT and played well against Iowa, but fell to the Hawkeyes 87-75.
“We want to win the conference again and personally I think the rest of the guys are kind of tired of hearing about South Dakota State,” Mooney said. “We know they got us last year so that’s just fuel to the fire. I’ve been looking at a lot of preseason polls and nobody’s got us picked first and we think that’s disrespectful to us. We’ve gained some respect around the country and the league but we still have a lot of work to do and a lot to prove.”
One thing is for certain, don’t tell fourth-year Coach Craig Smith that his team is the “hunted” and not the “hunter” this season.
“That’s been brought up a lot and to me that’s just mindset,” Smith said. “We talk to our guys a lot about pressure is a privilege, pressure is what you make out of it. It’s all about how you approach things, your attitude. The old cliché is the two things you can control every day are your attitude and effort.
“I don’t view us as the hunted because we’ve never gotten to where we want to be. We won the regular season title and that is hard, but then March comes and it’s ramped up even more. We’re not even close to where we want to be. I would say we’re still the hunters.”
Last year at this time USD had 15 players on the roster and only five returnees and 10 newly eligible players and seven brand new guys. It’s the polar opposite right now.
The Coyotes lost first-team all-leaguer Tyler Flack and Trey Dickerson, who graduated and transferred to Georgetown. But Mooney, Burch-Manning and Hurst return, and several other players got an opportunity for more playing time when Flack missed seven games because of an injury.
“The silver lining was Tyler Hagedorn really coming on in conference play the second half of the year,” Smith said. “We lost 36 percent of our offense and so we’re going to have to find some way to replace that. This year we have a pretty good feel of who can do what and the guys are acclimated to our terminology and our system and style of play.
“Every year is a little different and you’re going to tweak some things and add some things schematically on both sides of the floor. We finished the season on a real hot streak, winning four of the last six on the road and winning the conference was a great accomplishment for our team. It was a bittersweet moment losing in the conference tournament but a great experience.”
Along with the Hagedorn, a 6-foot-10 junior from Norfolk, Nebraska, sophomores Triston Simpson, Tyler Peterson and Brandon Armstong gained valuable experience. Joshua Doss and Austin Sparks are two senior veterans while juniors Dan Jech and Logan Powers are also expected to play pivotal roles.
Smith said newcomer Nick Fuller, a graduate transfer from Nebraska, will be a key addition to the team. Smith coached Fuller while he was an assistant at Nebraska so the two are familiar with each other.
South Dakota faces a demanding non-conference schedule, but one that most teams would welcome with open arms. The Coyotes play at two historic venues – Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and UCLA’s Pauley Pavillion – and also take on TCU, last year’s NIT champions.
“You don’t really have to be a big basketball fan to know that those are some of the most historic places, not just in college basketball but basketball in general,” Burch-Manning said. “For most of us it’s going to be a dream come true to play at Cameron Indoor and go to UCLA with all the historic teams and players. It’s going to be a great feeling to be on those courts and go out there and get the biggest upsets of the year.”