VERMILLION, S.D. | Picked to finish no better than seventh place in the Summit League in preseason prognostications, the South Dakota Coyotes pulled off the ultimate surprise by winning the regular season men’s basketball championship.
The Coyotes (21-10, 12-4) earned the No. 1 seed in the Summit League tournament and play Western Illinois in a first-round game Saturday at 6 p.m. at Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls.
The fact that USD is in this position at all is remarkable, considering it played seven games without senior Tyler Flack, who’s been one of the best players in the league since his return.
And, third-year Coach Craig Smith’s roster includes eight freshmen or sophomore.
The cachet? Three of those sophomores are Division I transfers and each have played key roles in the drive to the title.
“Those guys played monster minutes for us so you’re going to have inconsistencies and you’re not always going to know what to expect from those young guys,” Smith said. “The one staple we really had was Tyler Flack, he’d been through the league before. Tyler is a stabilizing guy but when he went down I felt confident we could do it because I believed in our other guys and I knew other guys would have to step up their games.”
Trey Dickerson (Iowa), Matt Mooney (Air Force) and Carlton Hurst (Colorado State) are the three Division I transfers who sat out last season. Mooney has turned into a star in the Summit League while Dickerson has had some outstanding games of late and Hurst has been a solid contributor in all phases.
Flack and junior college transfer Trey Burch-Manning complement the three down low. Burch-Manning is a ferocious rebounder and defender while Flack has regained the offensive skills that made him a force before his knee injury.
The Coyotes, by the way, were 4-3 while Flack was out. His absence allowed players like Tyler Hagedorn, a 6-10 sophomore from Norfolk, Nebraska, to blossom into an offensive weapon. Since Flack’s return, USD has won seven of eight, including six in a row.
“Hags has become very comfortable in his own skin and he’s really stepped it up,” Smith said. “He’s become a very good defender for us and just know how to play.”
Freshmen Triston Simpson, Tyler Peterson and Brandon Armstrong each normally play double digit minutes each game. Simpson made 8 of 8 free throws in the final minute of last Saturday’s 92-85 win at IUPUI that clinched a share of the Summit League crown. The Coyotes won it outright when North Dakota State lost to Nebraska-Omaha.
Austin Sparks, Dan Jech and Logan Power are holdovers from last year’s squad who have also provided valuable minutes.
South Dakota finished 13-1 in its new Sanford Coyote Sports Center and, most impressively, was 7-7 on the road. There were some very important wins away from home, including two in a row to close the season and wrap up the regular season championship.
“You have to earn respect,” Smith said. “Preseason polls are what they are. Nobody has a crystal ball, nobody knows. Nobody knew Matt Mooney, nobody knew Trey Dickerson, nobody knew Carlton Hurst, nobody knew Trey Burch-Manning.
“It tells you where you’re program is at when you’re picked nine, nine, eight and the league actually picked us seventh. You can’t cry about it, you have to go earn it.”
Since the Summit League normally gets only one berth to the NCAA Tournament, the Coyotes would probably have to win the tournament title to make it. Only twice in the last five tournaments has the No. 1 seed emerged with the championship.
Regardless, an NIT berth awaits and you can’t take away the regular season title that a team expected to finish last was able to capture.