What is the carryover effect of reaching the Sweet 16?
Well, it can be looked at both ways.
At least according to South Dakota State head women’s basketball coach Aaron Johnston, whose squad reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Division I era last season.
“It creates a good deal of confidence and excitement, but on the other hand, it creates a good deal of confidence and excitement,” he said after speaking Wednesday at Yankton Quarterback Club.
“You have to turn the page.”
Put another way, the Jackrabbits have turned the page from their historic 2018-19 campaign.
They won 28 games. They won the Summit League tournament. They reached the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time. They won two games on that stage for the first time. They reached the Sweet 16.
“Those historic years — and we’ve had enough of them — can be transformational in terms of moving your program forward, but what you don’t want is a plateau effect,” Johnston said.
In other words, the Jackrabbits can’t settle.
“You want to make sure you can build on it,” Johnston added.
South Dakota State had come so close to the third round of the ‘Big Dance’ on a few occasions. Last season’s seniors were on the 2016 squad that lost to Stanford by a point — just shy of the Sweet 16.
“We had a lot of players on that team who were a basket or two from beating Stanford, but they came out on the wrong side of it,” Johnston said.
“They had that sense of what it’s going to take on that stage.”
Still, it wasn’t as though the Jackrabbits or their coaches made it a specific goal to reach that round of the NCAA Tournament, according to Johnston.
“We’ve never sat down and come up with a goal of getting there to justify what we do,” he said.
Yet, there was still a realization that reaching the Sweet 16 would be another step forward for the program.
“We’ve always had a constant sense of, how can we expand on what we’re doing as a program?” Johnston added. “That was certainly part of what that team wanted to do.”
That’s the important thing to remember, Johnston said Wednesday. That was a completely different team — for starters, it was guided by a pair of senior guards in Macy Miller and Macy Guebert, who will go down as two of the program’s all-time greats.
The expectations are understandably going to be high this season for the Jackrabbits, but it’s not entirely fair to compare it to last season, according to Johnston.
“This is its own team and will have its own chapter,” he said. “We need to get everyone on that same message, and so far I’ve really felt it.”
Picked to finish second in the Summit League (behind South Dakota, which also reached the NCAA Tournament last season) this season, SDSU will feature a different attack.
The Jackrabbits will be led by a pair of all-league first team forwards in senior Tagyn Larson (10.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and junior Myah Selland (12.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg), as well as second team junior guard Tylee Irwin (7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
Selland is primed for a possible breakout season, as Johnston told Wednesday’s Quarterback Club crowd, and Irwin was a “difference maker” in the NCAA Tournament.
“This year’s team is very long and very versatile,” Johnston said. “Last year was guard oriented, and for good reason, but this year’s team is more attack the basket. Defensively, hopefully we can use our length to rebound and defend on the perimeter.”
The Jackrabbits have embraced the idea that this is a new season, he added.
“We have a lot of players who have worked really hard to help move our program forward,” Johnston said.
St. Thomas Joining Summit?
During the question and answer portion of his Wednesday speech, Johnston was asked about last week’s news that the Summit League had unanimously voted to invite the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota) to join the league — pending an NCAA waiver.
St. Thomas, Johnston said, would be a “great addition, they really are.”
“That’s a strong institution,” he added. “They’re going to be financially well-positioned.
“They’re in the middle of probably one of the most highly-recruited areas in the Midwest, especially for girls’ and women’s basketball.”
St. Thomas has sought permission from the NCAA to make the jump from Division III athletics to Division I, which is currently not allowed — schools can only climb one rung at a time. But if that waiver is granted, St. Thomas would join the Summit League for the 2021-22 year.
“In terms of just quality, as long as their waiver goes through … they’re going to be a really strong addition, for sure.”
The addition of St. Thomas would also bring the conference’s footprint a little closer to the upper Midwest, which would allow fans and families to travel to games and events, Johnston added.
“I don’t see any downside to that at all, I think they would be highly competitive,” he said.
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