One year removed from its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits head into the 2012-13 campaign as the heavy favorites to repeat as Summit League champions.
Last season saw the Jacks run the table in the conference tournament en route to their game against the 3-seed Baylor Bears in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While many expected the Bears to dominate the entire game, SDSU gave fans a treat by holding the high-powered Baylor offensive attack to 68 points in their 68-60 loss in the second round of the tournament.
Not only did SDSU jump out to an early lead on Baylor, they had the opportunity to cut it to a one-point game with under a minute remaining in regulation. That Brayden Carlson missed three-point shot led to the Bears hitting clutch free throws to close out the game.
Now, the Jacks are heavily favored to return to the big dance and, quite possibly, make some noise against the higher seeds. The Summit League essentially ranks SDSU and then everybody else.
This can be highly attributed to the star point guard for the Jacks, Nate Wolters. Wolters tallied team leads in points (21), rebounds (five) and assists (nearly six) per game. His point total was also good enough to earn ninth-place on the national leading scorers list for the 2011-12 season. Wolters will be looking to compliment his incredible season with an encore performance.
Not only is Wolters a potential All-American candidate, he is also projected to be selected in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft. He alone gives the Jackrabbit fans something to cheer for, but he is not alone when it comes to production on the offensive end.
Carlson, Chad White and Jordan Dykstra return as three of the four Jacks to average over 40 percent from three-point range last season, bolstering the offensive attack from the perimeter. All three players also possess tremendous inside-out scoring ability, opening up the floor for Wolters to create on the offensive end.
Forwards Tony Fiegen, Marcus Heemstra and Dykstra will all share time in the post, however, head coach Scott Nagy will be looking to run the ball up-court this season, meaning that the post may not be as effective as it was last season.
Taevaunn Prince will provide a pair of fresh legs off the bench. Prince has the ability to creat his own shot, as well as spot up and shoot the jumper. Prince, along with Heemstra and freshman Matt Donlan should see the majority of the playing time off of the bench for SDSU this season. Heemstra has the length to distribute the ball to teammates cutting to the basket, while Donlan has shown potential to be a great three-point threat when the opportunity comes knocking.
Coach Nagy will need to keep his players focused on the ultimate goal throughout the season, as this is the first time that South Dakota State has been the favorite to win the conference since their inception into the Division-I ranks in 2007. Part of making his players focused will come with their grueling schedule, especially in non-conference play.
SDSU opens up their season on the road against Alabama on Nov. 9 before they open up at home against Tennessee State on Nov. 13. From there, it doesn't get any easier for the up-start Jackrabbits as their season includes road games against Minnesota (Dec. 4), Montana (Dec. 15), Belmont (Dec. 19) and New Mexico (Dec. 22). In all, the non-conference schedule consists of six or seven different teams that either made the NCAA tournament last season or are expected to reach the big dance this season.
With all things considered, road tests against big name programs don't scare the Jacks easily. Two years ago, SDSU went on the road to defeat Iowa and ended Washingtons 34-game non-conference home winning streak last season in blowout fashion.
In conference, the Summit League looks to be SDSU's for the taking. While North Dakota State, Oakland and Western Illinois all present challenges during league play, the Jacks experience and talent should lead them to be a formiddable foe for all that cross their path this season.
With Wolters at the helm and his ever improving perimeter jumper beginning to take shape, South Dakota State could be in for one heck of a 2012-13 season. They will be one team to keep an eye on in the mid-major ranks.