Before the season started, the USD men’s basketball team was ranked seventh out of nine teams in the Summit League Preseason Poll.
Now, after facing the doubt and a season full of injuries, the Coyotes find themselves on top.
The Coyotes claimed the Summit League title on Saturday for the first time in program history. The women’s team accomplished the same feat in 2014.
This also places the Coyotes as No. 1 seed in the Summit League Tournament from March 4 to 7.
“It is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Craig Smith, head coach. “It speaks to the talent and character we have in our program. Every student-athlete has the opportunity to win a conference championship, but most don’t accomplish that and it’s a special bond that will tie these guys together until the day they die.”
Sophomore forward Trey Burch-Manning said he thought the regular season’s end signified all of the work the team put in throughout the year.
“We have all worked really hard,” Burch-Manning said. “At the beginning of the season we talked about how we would take our bumps and bruises, but we want to be our best and get to our best by this time at the end of the season.”
Having such a young team was thought to have been a big reason why the Coyotes were ranked so low in the preseason polls. However, that exact thing turned out to be a factor in why the Coyotes were ranked so high at the end of the season.
With a total of 10 freshmen and sophomores on the team, the underclassmen overcame the doubt and lead the team to a 21-10 (12-4 Summit) record on the season.
Entering the season, the Coyotes added 10 newly-eligible players, seven of which were brand new to the program, Smith said.
“We had a good feeling with what we had for talent, but if you look back at the improvements we have made both as a team, and for some individually, it really shows our focus,” Smith said. “It has always been about the process and getting better. Our ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and it is right there in front of us, we just have to go earn it.”
A big factor in winning the Summit League Title was the play at home this season. The Coyotes finished the season with a 13-1 record inside the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.
“It was definitely a home-court advantage for us. We said at the beginning of the year that we wanted to defend home and it was big time for us,” Burch-Manning said. “Shout-out to the fans and all of the support that we have had all year.”
Another big factor in winning the title was the team mentality.
Smith spoke many times throughout the season about the team having a “next-man-up” mentality after suffering numerous injuries along the way.
Perhaps the biggest example of this for the Coyotes was sophomore forward Tyler Hagedorn stepping up after senior leader Tyler Flack went down for seven games with an injury.
This could’ve made for a halt in progress for the Coyotes, but instead brought forth the growth of a young player who’s made the best of his opportunity.
Freshman Tyler Peterson said he agreed with Smith about the “next-man-up” mentality being a key to success, and added that the team chemistry has been a huge factor as well.
“This is by far the tightest team I have ever been on,” Peterson said. “Everyone is friends and cares about each other, and we are all hanging out together all the time. Everyone is always happy for each other.”
Smith said winning the title for the fans was also exciting.
“When you’re in a community like Vermillion, everybody is a part of it,” he said. “It is exciting that we were able to win this for our guys, the staff and the school. But to see the passion that our fans have, and to be able to reward them is truly exciting. It takes everybody to make it happen.”