Behind Enemy Lines: South Dakota State

The Terps take on South Dakota State March 19 in Spokane, Wash., and before Maryland's first NCAA tournament matchup we spoke to SDSU beat reporter Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader to gain more insight into the Jackrabbits.

Terrapin Times: What was the initial reaction, for players and coaches and fans alike, to drawing Maryland in the first round after both teams got to play in the Cancun Challenge this year, and at least got to see some of their games? What kinds of things did they have to say last night on Selection Sunday about the Terps?

Matt Zimmer: I’d say the reaction was mostly that of excitement, but with an acknowledgement that it’s a tough matchup. They were happy to get a 12-seed, since they were a 14 and 13 in their first two trips to the NCAA tournament. But I think they view Maryland as an unusually strong 5-seed. They did indeed see them at the Cancun Challenge and are aware that the Terps have a huge size advantage. I also think they’d feel better if Maryland hadn’t seen them. Better chance of maybe surprising them.

TT: It sounds like SDSU has a lot of good shooters -- and stretch shooters -- so talk a bit about the offensive system they run. And if the jumper isn't falling (like sometimes Maryland's problem this year), how much balance do they have to fall back on at that end of the floor? 

MZ: The Jacks run a very free-flowing offense. Coach Scott Nagy devotes almost all of his efforts to working on defense and rebounding and kind of lets the guys go on offense. But as the season wore on and freshman center Mike Daum developed into the best post player in the Summit League, there was more of an emphasis on throwing the ball inside to him. The Jacks are, overall, a strong outside shooting team, but they were dreadful in that regard in the conference tournament. Daum bailed them out. If SDSU’s shooters don’t warm up by Friday they’ve got no chance to beat the Terps.

TT: What are the greatest concerns for SDSU heading into this matchup? Do they have any glaring holes/weaknesses?

MZ: The biggest concern is Maryland’s size. They go 6-11, 6-9 and 6-9 in the frontcourt. For SDSU, Daum is 6-9, but the rest of their starters are really guards. Jake Bittle is the default '3,' and he’s 6-4. Reed Tellinghuisen is technically the '4,' but he’s a thin 6-6, although he is a good rebounder.

Beyond that, like I said, the biggest concern is making shots. Bittle and George Marshall (a Wisconsin transfer and two-time All-Summit pick) both shot below 20 percent from the floor in the conference tournament.

TT: SDSU has been to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five years, and your coach has been there for 21 years. So what has gotten this program over the hump of late, per se, and what would you say best characterized this year's team/season from others of recent vintage? 

MZ: The Jacks were a very good Division II program, but the transition to Division I (which began in 2003-04) was harder on the men’s basketball team than any other SDSU sport. Though nothing was ever said publicly, Coach Nagy was likely close to being let go. But they finally started to turn a corner when they became postseason eligible, and the arrival of Nate Wolters finally got them over the hump.

The Jacks went to the NCAA tournament in each of Wolters’ last two seasons, and Nagy was successfully able to capitalize on that momentum and keep things running from there. They narrowly missed out on an NCAA berth last year, and beat the No. 1 seed in the NIT (Colorado State).

TT: Talk a bit about the fan base there. How rowdy do they get? Is it the one game in town everyone rallies around, etc., and how many fans does SDS expect to travel to Spokane?

MZ: South Dakota State is a somewhat rural campus in Brookings, a town of about 20,000, but it’s 45 minutes away from Sioux Falls, a city of 175,000. The Jacks average about 2,500 fans a game in the regular season but draw well over 8,000 to the Summit League tournament games in Sioux Falls. Their main rivalries are with North Dakota State and South Dakota. Those games were historically heated back in the Division II days, with fans often throwing dead rabbits and coyotes (the South Dakota mascot) onto the floor during games. Seriously.

Those things don’t happen anymore, but the rivalries remain pretty intense. Had SDSU been sent to Des Moines or St. Louis I think you could safely have expected a few hundred fans to make the trip. In Spokane I’d guess you’ll see around 100, but I could be wrong.

TT: Lastly, for Maryland fans back home with their own beloved animal/mammal mascot, how did South Dakota State get theirs, the Jackrabbit? Any cool/fun backstory there?

MZ: There are two 'legends' of how the name came to be. Neither of them is particularly interesting. One says a sportswriter from an opposing team wrote that the South Dakota State players were ‘quick as Jackrabbits’, and the name stuck. Another says students changed the name of the school yearbook to the Jackrabbit and the athletic teams followed suit. But, to be clear, there are a lot of Jackrabbits in the area.

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