Sunday, March 01, 2020

I Can Relate

Back in 1973, unlike today, there weren't 150 NCAA Division 1 basketball games on TV every day. Games were played in gyms, not luxury-box arenas. I couldn't find anyone interested in watching the championship game that year, so I had to find a TV and watch it by myself. That was Bill Walton's signature moment, hanging 44 on Memphis as UCLA won its seventh straight title. With Walton as a senior the following season, that streak was broken by David Thompson and NC State.

Although Walton had his moments in the NBA, his pro career was cut short by injury. His selection for the basketball Hall of Fame was due in large part, perhaps primarily, to his college career. That would not be possible today. Back when Alcindor and Walton were playing, freshmen weren't even allowed to play varsity. Now if a college star doesn't go pro after his freshman year, the inevitable conclusion is he's not very good. As a result, nationally, the top players in men's college basketball change every year. Last year everyone knew about Zion, but who are the top college players this year? I have no idea. The NBA doesn't attract my interest either. The sense of entitlement exuded by NBA players is off-putting, IMO.

So I've been following the local college teams more than national or NBA teams. Players like Mike Daum of South Dakota State and Tyler Hagedorn of South Dakota develop over 4-5 years and their names carry over from year to year. But the local men's teams also attract itinerants such as SDSU's David Jenkins, Jr., who followed coach T.J. Otzelberger to Las Vegas, and USD's Matt Mooney, who grad transferred to Texas Tech and ended up on a national finals team. I think Jenkins was originally from Washington (the state), and I have no idea where Mooney was from. (Wikipedia says Illinois.) I don't begrudge them the opportunity to go elsewhere, but it's hard to attract my loyalty with guys from somewhere else who can't wait to go somewhere else.

So the basketball I watch is ... wait for it ... Summit League women. Specifically, South Dakota and South Dakota State. South Dakota is 27-2 and ranked in the following polls: #20 in the AP, #12 in the USA Today Coaches, and #1 in College Insider Mid-Major. I think the Coyotes' signature win this year is a 15-point beatdown of Ohio State, a projected tournament team.

South Dakota State won on Syracuse's home floor in the NCAA tournament last year to make the Sweet 16, the best-ever finish by a local team. But the Jackrabbits are having a "down" year at 21-9 and are ranked only #18 in the Mid-Major poll after living at the top of that poll in recent years. Their signature win this season was 65-59 over Notre Dame in front of 259 spectators at a tournament in Cancun.

The prominent players on both rosters are from South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. No one is leaving early for the pros. There are a few transfers in, but those players (SDSU's Tagyn Larsen, USD's Hannah Sjerven) came back to their home area. For the most part, we get to know these players over the course of four years. And sometimes we see families over a longer period of time, such as the three Arens sisters at USD. They come from Crofton, NE, just over the border from Vermillion. Current all-around player Monica was preceded by scorer Allison and defensive stalwart Bridget.

There's also Ciara Duffy, whose older sister Caitlin Duffy starred on USD's WNIT championship team in 2016. Ciara, now a senior, has mostly avoided the injury bug that afflicted Caitlin. Ciara's list of honors is getting quite long. Just to name a few: Two-time Academic All-American, pre-season Summit League Player of the Year, and nominee for two Mid-Major Player of the Year awards. And we went to the same grade school!

Humans are tribal. This young woman and her team have my loyalty (in part) because we played basketball for the same Catholic grade school in Rapid City, South Dakota, albeit 42 years apart. This year has been USD's year, but next year it could be SDSU again with the players they have coming back, including Myah Selland from injury. I don't think South Dakota is big enough for its residents to choose up sides against each other, although many do. Because I graduated from and worked at both SDSU (1978 BS Journalism, South Dakota Public Radio) and USD (1985 MBA, business school grad assistant, adjunct instructor of business), I want both to do well. For reasons of loyalty and because they've been really good recently, the local women's teams are more interesting to me than the mercenaries at Duke and Kentucky.

Unfortunately, life as a successful mid-major has its drawbacks. After the aforementioned WNIT title four years ago, Nebraska plucked Amy Williams from USD, and she was replaced by Dawn Plitzuweit. Dawn's salary now is $250,000, which sounds good but is much less than half of what Williams is making at Nebraska even though the Coyotes are better than the Cornhuskers. Someday, perhaps just a few weeks from now, a Big Ten team is going to make Coach P. an offer she can't refuse. It doesn't matter that the USD women are ranked higher in the coaches poll than every Big 10 team except Maryland. The Big 10 has money to throw around, and USD is maxed out. That's just the way it is. Fortunately, SDSU coach Aaron Johnston seems content to stay in Brookings, and (to be honest) a male coach is probably discriminated against when a power conference women's job comes open. Minnesota admitted as much a few years ago. Once again, that's just the way it is.

But for the remainder of the tournament season, it's all rainbows and unicorns. If the seedings hold, see the Coyote and the Jackrabbit women play on ESPNU at 1 p.m. CDT March 10 for the Summit League championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Update: A reporter for the Las Vegas Review Journal threw Plitzuweit's name into the ring for the now-open UNLV job. He probably figured UNLV poached some podunk school in Dakota for their men's coach, why not do the same for the women? The big difference is UNLV doubled Otzelberger's salary from SDSU. The reporter cites the former women's coach's salary as $190,000, and as mentioned, Plitzuweit currently makes $250,000. Yes, very likely, UNLV is going to attract one of the 10 finalists for National Coach of the Year by offering her less money. It's like an NBA fan calling into sports radio and saying, "Hey, let's trade Jeremy Lin for Zion...straight up."

The other difference is Otzelberger had a reputation as a national recruiter before he got to SDSU, a perfect fit for UNLV, a former national power trying to recapture lost glory. Plitzuweit's reputation is not centered around national recruiting. She seems to be more of an X&O coach, and the recruiting is done close to home. I would guess she would much rather have a Big 10 job at 2-3 times her current salary and continue recruiting the upper Great Plains rather than get demoted to the unfamiliar wasteland of Vegas. Some Gopher fans were whining recently that the Lindsay Whalen experiment seems to have gone wrong (local legend as a player at Minnesota and in the WNBA, but no prior coaching experience), and their women's team was incapable of beating teams like Ohio State. USD didn't have a problem with Ohio State this year. It shouldn't escape the notice of Gopher administrators that there are four Minnesotans on the USD roster this year and five on the SDSU roster. Maybe they need someone who will keep the local talent at home? Minnesota probably won't make a change now since Whalen just got an extension, but maybe there's some other Big 10 team looking for a coach.

I would rather see Plitzuweit stay in Vermillion indefinitely so she can watch her son play for the USD men's team for the next three years, and of course continue poaching Minnesota players away from the Gophers. However, I realize it would be crazy to turn down the Big 10. She is a native of Wisconsin. The Badgers just got bounced from the Big 10 tournament after a 3-15 league season, just saying.

But Vegas? Not a chance.

Two months later: Duffy is now a three-time Academic All-American, 2020 Summit League Player of the Year, winner of the Becky Hammon and ESPNw Mid-Major Player of the Year awards, and AP All-American Honorable Mention. Her team won the conference tournament and finished 30-2, ranked 11th by the coaches, but of course saw their season end without the NCAA tournament. With the world on lockdown during the virus, there has been no news of coaching moves. Assuming there is a 2020-21 season, USD and SDSU will be odds-on favorites to meet once again in the conference championship game.

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