Entering the season with high expectations, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits have struggled early in the season.
Even with National Player of the Year candidate Nate Wolters continuing to produce quality numbers, the team as a whole have yet to be able to regain the same consistent level of play that led them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history this past March. Although the Jacks sport a respectable 6-3 record, that could easily be 8-1, if not 9-0. However, a few unfortunate breaks have led to those three losses in the early season, as well as a few lucky breaks have led to two victories SDSU may not have deserved to pull out.
SDSU's season thus far has been determined by the three-point shot at the end of the game. In their season opener against Alabama, SDSU held a 16-point lead in the first half before the Crimson Tide's suffocating full-court pressure defense caused the Jacks to allow 'Bama back in the game. After coming back from a deficit, SDSU tied that game with under 30 seconds to play. As the buzzer sounded in regulation, Alabama's Trevor Lacey nailed a contested three from the right wing to seal a 70-67 victory for the Tide, a crushing loss for the upset minded Jacks.
After a solid victory against Tennessee State and NBA draft prospect Robert Covington, SDSU set out for their sub-regional of the 2K Sports pre-season tournament. In the first game, SDSU, once again, lost to a last second three-pointer to Hofstra, who has vastly improved from last season before losing a number of players to a burglary scandal.
In the second game against Marshall, probably one of the best overall teams SDSU has played this season, Chad White nailed a three from the left wing to seal the comeback victory for the Jacks before handling a Division-II University of District of Columbia the next day.
Back home in Brookings, SDSU snuck past a fiesty D-II Southwest Minnesota State by nine and needed another buzzer beating three from White to knock of North Dakota, who was playing the game without their top player Troy Huff. In their next game, they defeated Nebraska-Omaha, the newest addition to the Summit League, by 15, but held a 28-point halftime lead.
In what has been the biggest game on the schedule so far for the Jacks, they traveled to Minnesota to play the 14th ranked team in the nation. Unfortunately, the night before the game, Wolters tweaked his ankle and was forced to sit out the game, as was Taevaunn Prince, who sat out with a nagging toe injury. Minnesota used that momentum, and some poor team shooting and crucial turnovers by SDSU, to drop a 24-point win.
While the record may not reflect it, SDSU has a lot of work to do throughout the rest of the season. This is especially true when you look at the Jackrabbits remaining December schedule and see crucial games against Montana (who is expected to have Will Cherry back by the time this game is played), Belmont and New Mexico before opening up the bulk of their conference schedule.
Two key components for the Jackrabbits to improve upon are defensive pressure and consistent shooting. Even though White has had those two game-winning threes, his overall consistency from beyond the arc is irratic at best. As is the case with SDSU's resident sharpshooter, Brayden Carlson. Carlson has been the stingy defender for the Jacks this season, but his shooting hasn't been where he and the team need it to be at this point in the season. When White and Carlson aren't hitting from three, it makes Wolters' job more difficult as he needs to become the entire offense as well as distribute.
Jordan Dykstra has had some nice games this season, highlighted by 16 point contribution against Alabama. However, while he has been the most reliable second option for the Jacks, there have been a number of games he has seemingly disappeared, two of which have been the close home contests against SMSU and North Dakota at home.
Obviously, Wolters is the focal point to the Jackrabbit attack, but he can't do it alone. While his three-point shooting has dramatically increased from last season, standing along the perimeter and launching threes is not how Wolters needs to operate in order for the Jacks to be successful. The SDSU offense thrives on ability to drive the lane and dish out to teammates, something that has been nearly abandoned this season.
With three critical non-conference games coming for SDSU in December, as well as the beginning of conference play, the Jackrabbits need to improve upon their shooting consistency and defense to stake their claim as one of the best mid-majors in the country. The talent is there, but now is the time for Wolters and co. to prove their pre-season hype is merited. Now is the time for the small team from South Dakota to take down the big boys of college basketball.