Left out of the NCAA Tournament field, the Texas Longhorns will receive a postseason opportunity on Tuesday at the Erwin Center at 8p.m. Central on ESPN as a No. 2 seed in the NIT against No. 7 seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
Coached by former Iowa State assistant TJ Otzelberger, South Dakota State won the Summit League regular season championship with a 14-2 record, but fell by three points to Western Illinois in the conference quarterfinals. For a team coming off three straight conference tournament titles to earn automatic NCAA bids, that was a disappointment for South Dakota State.
With a 24-8 overall record and No. 98 ranking from KenPom.com, the Jackrabbits had one common opponent with the Longhorns this season, opening the season with a 79-74 win over Grand Canyon. Texas beat head coach Dan Majerle’s team, 98-60, thanks to an impressive shooting performance.
KenPom.com forecasts a 79-69 win for Texas, with the projected win percentage for South Dakota State standing at only 16 percent.
Make no mistake, however — South Dakota State is a good mid-major program coming off of three NCAA Tournament appearances, largely aided by the presence of senior forward Nick Daum, the three-time reigning Summit League Player of the Year. At 6’9, Daum has range beyond three-point arc, shooting 37.6 percent on the season, and enough versatility that he can score off the bounce. Overall, Daum is averaging 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds this season.
He carries a major offensive burden for the Jackrabbits, as he ranks in the top 15 nationally in percentage of his team’s shots and in the top 25 nationally in possessions used. Just as importantly, Daum draws 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes, so he takes 7.3 free throws per game and consistently gets opponents in foul trouble. With Jaxson Hayes not available, Texas will have one fewer body to throw at Daum.
“He’s really, really good,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said of Daum. “I think the biggest challenge that he presents for us is actually the fact that he’s a phenomenal player and really knows how to make the right play. And he also has a lot of dangerous weapons around him — the biggest key of those is just their outside shooting.”
Daum in particular has a high release reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki, so challenging his shots from beyond the arc isn’t easy. It’s all about closing down his space and making sure that he doesn’t get comfortable early. And that’s not an easy task, in part because Texas probably hasn’t faced a big this season that it has to pay that level of attention to so far from the basket. For the Horns, Smart probably won’t ask Daum’s defender to face guard him all the time, but that player must be highly aware in transition and probably won’t help much.
Offensively, Otzelberger’s attack looks like a lot of modern offenses — South Dakota State spreads the floor with shooters and credible ball handlers, while leaning heavily on the starting lineup since it doesn’t have the depth of most major-conference teams.
The most remarkable aspects of the Jackrabbits is the team’s overall offensive efficiency, as the team ranks No. 3 in three-point percentage (41.5 percent), No. 10 in two-percent percentage (56.5 percent), and No. 11 in free-throw percentage (77.1 percent). In the KenPom.com rankings, the offense sits at No. 40 in adjusted efficiency, though it certainly qualifies as elite when looking at the raw numbers. Credit the competition level for that heavy downward adjustment.
As Smart noted, Texas can’t just double team Daum or heavily load the defense towards his side of the floor — South Dakota State has enough weapons to make that a poor calculation.
“He’s really good at finding his teammates and his teammates are really good at finding him,” Smart said. “They shoot a ton of threes, they shoot a high percentage, they do a really good job from the foul line. They’re one of the rare teams I’ve seen that shoots really well from three, inside the three, and from the foul line.”
Since South Dakota State hasn’t played since March 9, Otzelberger has had time to prepare his team to play in an NIT road game.
“They’ve been practicing to play in the NIT at a place like Texas for over a week,” Smart said on Sunday. “So they’re going to be ready to play. They’re going to come here with great aggressiveness. So Matt [Coleman] and our other guys are going to have to really do a great job.”
As Otzelberger scouts the Longhorns, he’ll likely notice the issues Texas had in recent games when sped up, particularly against TCU. Playing fast fits with his strategy, too — South Dakota State ranks No. 36 nationally in adjusted tempo.
On the defensive end, the profile looks like a mid-major team that is skilled offensively, but lacking in overall athleticism. That’s the major knock on Daum, for instance, as he doesn’t block many shots, just like the entire South Dakota State group. The Jackrabbits also struggle creating turnovers, ranking near the bottom of Division I in forcing turnovers.
Look for Texas head coach Shaka Smart to attack Daum with the spread pick-and-roll offense to force him to cover Jericho Sims rolling to the basket or post him up against Dylan Osetkowski, who is stronger than Daum.
There are several areas where Otzelberger’s team is elite defensively, however — South Dakota State doesn’t give up offensive rebounds (No. 7 nationally) and doesn’t put opponents on the free-throw line (No. 3 nationally).
So while the Jackrabbits aren’t exactly a tenacious, athletic team defensively like Shaka Smart’s old VCU team, the advanced stats indicate that South Dakota State is well coached, fundamentally sound, and risk averse.
Given the offensive aptitude of the Jackrabbits, Smart’s preliminary scouting reported indicated that the Longhorns will have to defend better than the team has in recent weeks. Getting back in transition and finding shooters will be especially important — Texas can’t afford to give up easy baskets from distance, near the basket, or at the free-throw line.
The worst-case scenario is that the Horns struggle from the field, allowing the Jackrabbits to get out in transition or otherwise get hot from three-point range. If this game turns into a shootout with Texas forced to trade baskets with South Dakota State, a massively disappointing season will almost certainly end on Tuesday.
After all, according to the adjusted metrics at KenPom.com, this team is better than Radford.