Runaway Jackrabbits

-Jim Root

If any doubt existed that I’m a nutjob lunatic basketball psychopath, I dunked all over those rumors yesterday, driving nearly eight hours roundtrip to catch the Summit League opener for Western Illinois and South Dakota State. Under normal circumstances, this would be a bit much even for me, but given schedule constraints with having a real job, this was likely my last chance to see Weave favorite and SDSU legend Mike Daum in person, something I felt was a necessity for one of the true mid-major legends of the past four years.

His unorthodox game has earned him a spot on our precious site collage for three years running, and his strange similarities to a guy I played with in high school only strengthened the allure for me. Plus, I have a secret lifelong goal of seeing a game in all 353 arenas, so why not check off the Leathernecks?

Stylistically, I was looking forward to an aesthetically pleasing game: neither team fouls very often or forces any turnovers defensively (347th and 342nd in defensive TO rate, respectively), instead opting to play a disciplined, shell-style man-to-man. That should lead to a game with few stoppages, which is the best kind of basketball (sorry, refs).

Of course, the one area where fouls were a concern was in the paint with the team’s two contrasting big men: the aforementioned Daum, and Brandon Gilbeck, Western Illinois’s 7’0 behemoth center and the defending Summit Defensive Player of the Year. If matched against each other, their respective strengths and weaknesses would give each other fits, with Daum’s ability to stretch the floor and attack off the bounce leaving Gilbeck in a cloud of dust, and Gilbeck’s sheer size forcing contact in the paint on the other end.

To combat this, SDSU coach TJ Otzelberger awarded Alou Dillon, a redshirt freshman from Wauwatosa, WI, his first career start. Dillon himself is only listed at 6’8, 230 pounds, but the Jacks can’t risk Daum riding the pine early. Plus, Dillon had a couple fans in attendance, including his dad, who had made the drive down from Wisconsin, all the more reason to unleash him in a physical tussle with Gilbeck.

Lo and behold, the game started exactly as I had hoped, with zero fouls called before the first media timeout. Western Illinois was switching everything 1 through 4 against the Jackrabbits’ 4-out offense, which involves a ton of man and ball movement on the perimeter with the goal of getting downhill drives for its dynamic perimeter players (frequently leading to open threes on kickouts). David Jenkins and Tevin King kicked off the scoring for SDSU, each hitting a three early, nudging a snowdrift that eventually grew into an avalanche as the game wore on.

At the 15:04 mark, Otzelberger went small, trading out redshirt freshmen (Alex Arians in for Dillon) and consequently giving us our first Daum vs. Gilbeck possessions. Daum’s eyes lit up, immediately scoring off an inbounds play and a fadeaway jumper (plus drawing a shooting foul), while Gilbeck answered back by earning an and-1 against Daum.

That chess match would have been more fun had the game stayed close; instead, Jenkins went 5/7 from deep en route to 23 first half points, and the Jackrabbits collectively shot a blistering 68% from the field (compared to just 32% for WIU). Jenkins impressed me immensely – not only is he a superb shooter, but his stout frame gives him an edge while driving against most guards. Plus, he guarded Kobe Webster nearly the entire game (WIU’s best scorer and an extremely active offensive player), and he’s extremely coachable despite his star status, constantly consulting with Otzelberger. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit of the Summit POY crown stays in Brookings even after Daum’s departure.

45 points per game in one picture…

WIU’s primary bright spot was freshman Zion Young, an ESPN 3-star recruit from Chicago’s Simeon Academy (the highest-ranked recruit in the program’s history, per WIU’s game notes). He struggled to make an impact early in the year, but he has now scored in double figures in three straight games, and he earned his highest minutes total of the season (30) last night. A further breakout would be a boon to WIU’s season, and alongside sophomores Kobe Webster and Isaac Johnson (the team’s leading scorers) and freshman starter Ben Pyle, the Leathernecks do appear to have a solid nucleus going forward. But Friday night was all Jackrabbits.

The freshman class showed its promise for SDSU, as well, as Dillon battled Gilbeck to a relative stalemate, and guards Owen King and Alex Arians both impressed. King in particular looked like a future stud at point guard, a creative passer who used the baseline to his advantage multiple times, probing the defense before finding a deft kickout for a three or a crafty reverse layup. He also had the pass of the day on a sequence that essentially broke the Leathernecks’ back, as SDSU’s tempo and unselfishness finally netted Daum an open corner three with 12 minutes to go (score after that bucket: 71-37). He’s the only true freshman earning minutes (Dillon, Arians, and Matt Dentlinger all redshirted last year), showing how much Otzelberger must believe in him.  

South Dakota State ultimately won by 42 (100-58), cracking the century mark on a triple by former walk-on Beau Brown with 19 seconds left (naturally, the Jacks’ bench erupted). I left Macomb thoroughly impressed: in a dead spot between holidays, in front of a crowd of maaaaybe 400 people (don’t believe the listed attendance), SDSU was locked in on both ends and took care of business from the opening tip. Jenkins is constantly in inferno mode (he’s 47/92 from 3 this year, 51%), setting the offensive tone while Daum slowly picks his spots, wearing down the defense like a grinding NFL running attack. The Jackrabbits have the punch to win a game or two come March (hell, they nearly won AT Nevada), especially if Dillon (and/or Dentlinger) continues to emerge as a presence in the frontcourt, allowing Daum to focus even more on setting scoreboards ablaze.