All of the names and faces have changed, but South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger has a history with his team’s first-round NCAA Tournament opponent.
It has been five years since Aaron Craft buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to help No. 2 seed Ohio State fend off the upset challenge from No. 10 seed Iowa State and advance to the Sweet 16. And on the opposing bench was Otzelberger, then in his third year as an associate coach under Fred Hoiberg.
“That was probably as tough a game as I’ve ever been in as a coach,” Otzelberger said. “When you play really well and you’re in position to win and you switch a ball screen late and Aaron Craft hits a pull-up three, that was a shot we were pretty much giving them all game long and he never took it until the game’s on the line and he took it and made it. Probably as difficult of a loss as I can remember being a part of.”
It’s not the kind of loss that will have any bearing on Thursday’s game, Otzelberger said. Now in his second season as the head coach of the Jackrabbits, the focus is solely on earning the first NCAA Tournament win in school history and not on avenging a loss from the past.
South Dakota State has reached the tournament for its third straight season and for the fifth time in seven years. The goal is to prolong this trip as long as possible.
“The culture has been set with really good kids, guys who want to win and guys who come here are coming here because they’re hopeful to be part of something that’s successful,” Otzelberger said. “I think the young men we bring into the program are coming in with the mindset of ‘We’re picking South Dakota State because we want to go somewhere that has a winning tradition and has a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.’ ”
Leading that pack is junior forward Mike Daum. One of five finalists for the Karl Malone Award, given annually to the nation’s top power forward, Daum is a legitimate NBA draft prospect and a three-time all-Summit League selection. On his weekly radio show Monday night, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said he spoke with another coach who told him Daum is “the closest thing to Larry Bird since Larry Bird.” Once the matchup was announced on Sunday night, Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate professed no knowledge of the Jackrabbits but Holtmann immediately cited Daum.
He averages 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this year and is a career 42.1-percent three-point shooter from the center position.
“Mike is an elite offensive talent,” Otzelberger said. “He scores the ball from all over the court. He’s got high release on his jump shot and his range is well beyond the three-point line, and he’s got a scorer’s mentality. He’s trying to score the ball every time it hits his hands.”
The hope, Otzelberger said, is that early-season losses to Kansas and Wichita State as well as a win against Iowa will help prepare the Jackrabbits for a team he described as possessing defensive physicality not seen in the Summit League. South Dakota State went 4-3 against top-100 teams in the KenPom.com national rankings, with its biggest wins coming twice against No. 68 South Dakota.
“They’re just a really good, physical team, but I think our guys are confident too,” Otzelberger said. “We’re at a spot with our group where we’re having a lot of fun playing.”
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