VERMILLION, S.D. | Now that South Dakota men’s basketball coach Craig Smith has had a chance to catch his breath, he was able to reflect on what turned into a magical 2016-17 season for the Coyotes.
Picked to finish seventh in the pre-season Summit League poll, the young and unheralded Coyotes won 22 games, the program’s most victories since 2010, captured the conference championship and advanced to the league tournament semifinals before falling in the last second to South Dakota State.
Since a season-ending loss to Iowa in the NIT (USD’s first back-to-back losses since early December) a lot has transpired, and as it turned out, all positive, for a program on the rise.
“Usually at this time you’re always recruiting for next year’s team, but for the first time since I’ve been here we’re not doing that at this time of year,” said Smith, who just finished his third season. “We were fortunate enough to really get rolling with the recruiting class for this year and the following year. Now just having time to sit back and reflect, it truly was an amazing year.
“Like I said in pre-season media day, it felt so much like year one in so many ways, because it was our first time coaching 10 of these 15 guys. So from the first day of practice last summer and really explaining everything and teaching a new language to so many guys, to really catch stride late in the year speaks volumes.”
South Dakota won eight of its last nine regular season games and, even more impressive was the fact that four of those were on the road.
“Certainly we had a lot of talent, but with so many new guys and being one of the youngest teams in the country, it speaks volumes to the young men we have in our program, both with their talent and character,” Smith said. “Just wanting to be coached and working together to truly be a team was really exciting and made it enjoyable every day.”
Smith went on to earn Summit League and NABC District 12 Coach of the Year honors. Senior Tyler Flack and sophomore Matt Mooney were named to the all-league first team and three of the five players on the All-Newcomer team – Mooney, Trey Burch-Manning and Trey Dickerson – were Coyotes.
“Pre-season polls aren’t a predictor of your success, but it is a good gauge at the respect level that we’ve earned,” Smith said. “That just told you what people thought about our program and that we hadn’t earned any respect. Hopefully we’ve come a long ways doing that this past season.”
Shortly after the season ended, a report on Twitter that Smith had accepted the head coaching position at Drake sent shockwaves through Coyote Nation. Those turned out to be unsubstantiated rumors and Smith signed a new three-year contract worth $275,000 per season.
“I’ve said this all the time, there’s never been a better time to be at USD, not only where we are as a program but even as an athletic department,” Smith said. “Since I first joined three years ago it’s just astounding the strides we’ve made, certainly with wins and losses and building a culture, but you look at the new arena and the financial backing we get in terms of a recruiting budget and travel.
“Up and down every facet of our program and athletic department, it’s certainly been thrilling to be a part of. We still have a ways to go but there’s no doubt we’re going to get there.”
The landscape will no doubt change next season, when USD becomes the hunted instead of Cinderella. However, that’s a good problem to have.
“We’ve certainly earned that right, when you’re the outright conference champs and to do what we did last year,” Smith said. “We lose a couple guys and one of those, Tyler Flack, was an all-leaguer, so that’s something we have to figure out.
“The nice part for us is that we played nine games without him last year (because of an injury). That’s where you want to be as a program, you want to be at a point where you’re defending your conference championship. Pressure is what you make out of it so that’s all relative. Our guys have high expectations for our program and themselves, so we’re certainly looking forward to the challenge.”
Dickerson, another of last year’s starters, left the program as a graduate transfer and is now at Georgetown. The Coyotes, though, brought in graduate transfer Nick Fuller, a 6-foot-7 forward who spent the previous four seasons at Nebraska.
“Nick is a very good player and will fit who we are and what we’re about,” said Smith, who worked with Fuller as an assistant at Nebraska. “He’s a three-time All-Big Ten Academic pick and is totally different than anybody we have in our program in terms of a skill set, a guy that can play three different positions, a motion guy and a ‘GATA’ guy.”
The big news of late is that the Coyotes will play at two of college basketball’s most storied venues next season. They’ll play Duke at fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 2 and UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.
“Wow, what a great opportunity for our program,” Smith said. “We can’t thank Coach K and all of the people at Duke that made this happen. It’s something we’ve been trying to do since the day we were hired but it’s hard to come by.
“We played there my last year at Colorado State. The tradition, the history, the nostalgia and everything else it entails is truly an experience like no other. It’s something our players will remember for the rest of their lives.”
UCLA, of course, has won the most basketball championships (11) of any team in college basketball history.
“This past year we played at Gonzaga, the national runner-up, and even though we got smacked around pretty good it felt like that game really made us better,” Smith said. “To be able to go through those kind of experiences as a team, you’re going to get better.”
The Coyotes will go through eight weeks of workouts in June and July, then have three weeks to head home before returning to campus to begin preparations for what should be a promising 2017-18 campaign.