Jackrabbits hop on national stage
Coach's 14-year dream a reality: reaching NCAA tournament
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The South Dakota State bookstore got a call Wednesday morning from a man in Pennsylvania looking to buy blue-and-gold Jackrabbits gear.
The caller had zero ties to the university, but he had watched the Jackrabbits capture the Summit League championship with a 52-50 overtime win over Western Illinois on Tuesday night. He was looking to jump on the bandwagon as the team gets ready for its first appearance in the NCAA tournament after putting together a 27-7 season.
"Our logo's going to get out there this next week, and it's going to be fun to see," coach Scott Nagy said.
South Dakota State's inaugural trip to the NCAA tournament comes in its fourth year of eligibility since becoming a full Division I member. It made the five-year transition from Division II alongside North Dakota State, which earned its sole Division I tournament bid in 2009 in its first year of eligibility.
NDSU coach Saul Phillips said the Fargo, N.D., school immediately drew national and even worldwide interest. He recalls hearing from a friend working at the U.S. Embassy in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, who saw a short Bison item in a local paper.
"There's not a whole lot you can do to allow you to have that kind of outreach," Phillips said.
The Bison lost the team's opening-round game to Kansas, but the appearance has had lasting effects on recruiting.
"Now you're not just selling a dream. You're selling something that's possible and has really happened," Phillips said. "You're not talking hypotheticals. You're pointing at the trophy saying, 'Yeah, we can do this here,' and that resonates with kids."
Any effect on recruiting at South Dakota State will have to wait. The Jackrabbits won't find out until Sunday who their opponent will be.
Nagy accomplished a 14-year dream by reaching the NCAA tournament, but he's now faced with focusing his excited squad on its next task of pulling off a first-round upset. He said Virginia Commonwealth's run to the Final Four last year shows that any good college basketball team has a shot.
"Obviously it's a big celebration, but we've got to be able to get our players kind of pulled back in and say, `OK, now that we're in this thing, let's prepare to win the next game,"' he said. "We know that if we play well, we can beat anybody."
That's not always easy, Phillips said, as a lot of people will be tearing at the time constraints of Nagy and his star players. He said it's important to stay focused, but you also have to enjoy the ride.
"I can't even tell you how much fun it is, but when you're done with it, there is a big emotional, 'Wow, that was a sprint,' " he said.
The South Dakota State women's team is making its fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament after topping UMKC 78-77 in overtime Tuesday night. Coach Aaron Johnston said this year's bid is just as exciting as the first run.
"It's different every year because you have different players, different circumstances, different things that you go through, so it feels like a very new experience," he said.
And although the South Dakota State women already put the Jackrabbits on the national map, the attention from the men's tournament bid will take the school's logo to new audiences.
In Brookings, the SDSU bookstore was busy Wednesday printing hundreds of Summit League championship T-shirts to get ready. The Tuesday night game, broadcast on ESPN2, tripled the visits to the bookstore's website, marketing coordinator Steve Brua said.
"I'm sure that will keep going up." Brua said.