Men’s basketball rebuild centers around competition

Victoria Berndt and Landon Dierks

A disappointing end to the 2018-19 campaign signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another for the South Dakota State men’s basketball program.

After cruising through Summit League play with a 14-2 record, things quickly went awry. The Jackrabbits were upset by 8-seed Western Illinois in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and were quickly bounced by Texas in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. That was the unsavory ending for seniors Skyler Flatten, Tevin King and three-time Summit League Player of the Year and 3,000-point scorer Mike Daum.

But it didn’t end there.

T.J. Otzelberger accepted the head coaching position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and 3-point ace David Jenkins Jr. followed the man who recruited him to Brookings shortly thereafter.

But the mass exodus of talent from Brookings had a unique consequence — it presented Eric Henderson the opportunity to begin his Division I head coaching career with as close to a clean slate as one could get.

“Summer was obviously a long process,” said sophomore Alex Arians, the only returning player with more than seven starts in a Jackrabbit uniform. “We just tried to learn all of the new guys’ tendencies and get the chemistry and comradery down.”

Of the 13 men on the 2019-20 roster, only five were on last year’s team, and only three recorded more than 200 minutes of playing time.

“There is no superstar, but there are multiple guys that can step up on different nights,” head coach Eric Henderson said. “That is really exciting for our fans because they don’t know who it is — take a guess.”

Arians started 24 contests last year and was a key player beside the three seniors and Jenkins, but he sees this team having a deeper bench than the previous year.

“Something that is different from last year is that we will have a lot more guys contributing,” Arians said. “The rotation last year … didn’t go that deep in the bench, so I think this year we will get more contribution from more guys on the team.”

One new face Jackrabbit fans should get to know is that of Douglas Wilson, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who transferred from Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Wilson was named NJCAA Division II National Player of the Year last season and helped Kirkwood win the national title.

“Doug Wilson is very athletic and can do it on both ends, and I think he will step up as well as two of the freshmen, Baylor Scheierman and Noah Freidel,” Arians said. “As the season goes on, we will all see their confidence grow each and every game.”

Alongside Wilson, Henderson was able to land two other transfers to round out his roster, which features only four upperclassmen.

Freshman David Wingett, a Nebraska native who transferred to SDSU from Memphis, and junior Trey Buchanan of Des Moines Area Community College are expected to be a part of the regular rotation.

In the Jacks’ 98-70 exhibition beatdown of Mount Marty Oct. 30, Wilson, Arians and Freidel started alongside senior guard Brandon Key and sophomore forward Matt Dentlinger.

Though it’s difficult to read too much into the preseason contest, Henderson wasn’t afraid to experiment with lineups and go deep into his bench — something that could likely carry over into the regular season based on the coaches’ perceived strength of his young team.

“I think a strength of ours is our unselfishness, our care for each other and our togetherness,” Henderson said. “I think those are really important for a team to win, especially young teams. Our ability to stay together and fight through adversity together is really important.”

With such a young team, the Jacks are looking to take one day at a time and improve every single game.

“Our inexperience is a weakness of ours,” Henderson said. “We need to get these guys reps on the floor, time and opportunities. Time is our biggest need right now to achieve that.”

The Jacks are looking to make a statement with this new and relatively inexperienced team though a nonconference schedule, featuring trips to power-conference schools such as Southern California, Nebraska, Arizona and Indiana will provide significant challenges before Summit League play.

“We’re ready to be challenged. That’s how we want to roll,” Henderson said in a Nov. 4 weekly update with “We want to push ourselves (and) have the ability to make mistakes, but learn from those mistakes.”

Winning is always a goal for the season, but this team has other goals as it moves on from the Otzelberger era.

“Coming into practice each and every day and competing is a goal of mine,” Arians said. “We know that if we compete and push all of those postseason goals to the side and know that if we bring that level of play and competition every day, winning is a product of that.”

Without the familiar faces of Daum, Jenkins, Flatten and company, coaches and media in the Summit League picked the Jacks to finish fifth out of nine teams. SDSU hasn’t finished that low in the Summit standings since 2011.

With regional rivals North Dakota State and South Dakota picked to finish first and second, respectively, it would be easy for the Jacks to aim too high, but the players and coaches aren’t looking at it that way.

“I think that the new players just need to come out and compete every night and just do what we are coached up to do,” Wilson said. “If we follow the game plan, I think that we will be very successful in the Summit League.”

Ultimately, there is one thing the program is focused on this season — competing. Those involved with the team believe everything else will fall into place.

“How hard and together we play will create energy,” Henderson said. “We have some guys that can make some highlight-reel plays, which makes it fun and enjoyable for others, especially when you do it in an unselfish way, and that brings a lot of energy for everyone.”