Women’s basketball aims to build on historic campaign

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

And so it begins — another Summit League title defense for the South Dakota State women’s basketball program.

Coach Aaron Johnston’s squad reached new heights in the 2018-19 campaign, but the players remaining from the first Sweet 16 appearance in program history aren’t satisfied.

“We obviously have some new faces, new roles and a new team from last year, but we still have the same kind of expectations and standards that this program has always set,” said junior Myah Selland. “We really buy into what this program means and why we all want to be here, so the expectations are still there.”

If the 2019-20 roster hopes to replicate or improve upon last season’s unprecedented success, it’ll have to do so without perhaps the most decorated set of seniors to graduate from SDSU.

Macy Miller and Madison Guebert, who have their names etched all over the SDSU and Summit League record books, along with Sydney Palmer, were key pieces on NCAA Tournament teams in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

This year, the leadership and captain roles fall to Selland and senior Tagyn Larson. Both were named to the All-Summit League preseason first team, with junior Tylee Irwin being named to the second team.

Despite the individual preseason accolades and winning the Summit League nine times in 11 years as a Division I institution, the Jackrabbits are not the popular choice to bring the conference title back to Brookings.

Rival South Dakota topped the preseason poll while SDSU settled for second, though both teams received votes in the initial AP Top 25 poll. While the players claim they don’t look into the preseason ranking too much — after all, no one has played a game yet — Larson believes it adds a little something extra to play for.

“You can’t just look at it and not get a little motivated by being second, especially with USD up top,” Larson said.

When it comes to making up for the considerable production Miller and Guebert added during their time in yellow and blue, Johnston’s crew has kept it in perspective. Multiple players will have to work in unison to fill the void.

“Obviously Macy and Madi were huge players and very successful here,” Larson said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of replacing them, because that’s very hard to do, but adjusting and trying to figure out what’s going to work for our team this year is huge for us.”

Now entering his 20th season leading the Jacks, there’s little doubt Johnston’s team will compete — after all, he’s never had a team finish with a losing record. However, after being backcourt oriented with Miller and Guebert, the frontcourt will see an increased role this season.

“I think we’ll score differently and need to score differently,” Johnston said. “I think we will, hopefully, still score at the same efficiency and pace, but it won’t be so many quick 3s or point guard penetrations like we got from Macy.”

With depth in the frontcourt, the Jacks will likely have a size advantage over many of the teams they face this season, especially in conference play.

In the exhibition drumming of St. Cloud State, the Jacks started four players 6-foot or taller — the lone exception being 5-foot-10 senior guard Rylie Cascio Jensen.

Taking advantage of that size is something Johnston and his staff will look to do when the opportunity presents itself.

“Our length I’ve noticed in practice,” Johnston said. “We deflect a lot more passes and block a lot more shots right now. We rebound probably a little better than we did last year. We’re just really long and physical, so we have to find ways to use that.”

Just as it has done the past several seasons, SDSU will face a challenging slate of nonconference games.

The Jacks will take on fellow traditional mid-major powers in Florida Gulf Coast, Central Michigan and Green Bay, as well as teams in the AP Top 25 such as No. 1 Oregon, No. 16 Notre Dame and teams receiving votes like Drake, South Florida and Marquette.

Last season, tackling a similar collection of nonconference opponents resulted in the deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history — that’s hardly a coincidence.

“The more you play against those elite teams in the country, the more it feels normal,” Johnston said. “Sometimes when you play that level of competition, you have to get over the psychological or mental part of playing those kinds of teams. So, every time we do that it’s not just for show, we get a lot of experience in what we need to improve on.”

That top-flight experience will be critical in getting the younger players up to speed, especially freshmen Kallie Theisen and Tori Nelson — two new faces Johnston says are ready to come in and contribute right away.

In the interim, the Jacks will rely on five returning playmakers, the same quintet that started the lone exhibition contest — Larson, Selland, Cascio Jensen, Irwin and sophomore Paiton Burckhard.

Now, the team is ready to put all the talk of preseason polls, tough schedules and moving on from losing two of the best players in program history to rest and prove what this roster can do.

“I’m excited,” Selland said. “It’s been a good preseason and I’m looking forward to putting it all together and starting to play some games.”