South Dakota comes into Thursday’s game against Ohio State as a 12-seed and automatic qualifier thanks to their Summit League Tournament title. They finished the regular season with a 13-1 mark in league play and a 28-6 record overall.
This marks their third-consecutive trip into the NCAA Tournament, so the stage isn’t new. What is new, however, is the level of talent they are about to face.
“I think first of all any time a team can do what [Ohio State] did, play 15-3 in the Big Ten, is impressive,” said Jackrabbits coach T.J. Otzelberger. “The coach is a tremendous coach. They’re a physical team defensively. They have a really good defensive system and they’re strong and tough and physically imposing.”
They also have a couple of X-factors in their favor.
“They’ve got great mismatch players,” he said. “Keita Bates-Diop obviously being the Big Ten Conference player of the year, scores it inside and outside, and so talented. And with Jae’Sean Tate, 6-4, 230 pounds, really physical.”
Opposing coaches this season have routinely lauded the effectiveness of Tate’s overall game, and lamented the difficulty of having to try and stop Bates-Diop from just about every spot on the floor.
Tate’s ability to defend multiple positions, or run the point, or grab a rebound and start a break gives the Buckeyes tremendous flexibility from possession to possession. Combining him with Bates-Diop’s ability to score, as well as rebound and defend every front court spot at 6-foot-7 concerns Otzelberger to no end.
“Those are players that we don’t see every day in our league,” he said. “They’re just a very fundamentally-sound team. A team you don’t see a lot of weakness there. Very well coached and a group that displays a lot of physicality and toughness.”
Of course, characteristics like “well coached” and “physicality and toughness” would also describe his own team. Otzelberger can add “NCAA experienced” to those descriptors as well, which is something that the Buckeyes can’t yet say.
“Yeah, for our guys being here three years in a row, we have quite a few players on our roster that have logged a lot of minutes and experience in this situation,” he said. “And the more of that you can get on any big stage is beneficial. So I feel our mindset coming into this is we know we have a tremendous challenge with the Buckeyes team that is very physical, very well coached.
“At the same time our guys are playing really confident right now. They’re sharing the basketball, they’re playing for each other. And I think our mindset is such where we’re focused and trying to do everything we can to be on our best tomorrow afternoon to come out with a victory.”