South Dakota native Craig Doty leads Emporia State into Division II NCAA tournament
Former Alcester-Hudson standout's team will face Northern State in Central Region tournament in Missouri
EMPORIA, Kan. — Craig Doty is winning again.
The Sioux Falls native and former Alcester-Hudson standout became one of the hottest up-and-coming coaches in college basketball over the last decade by winning three national championships — two at the junior college level at Rock Valley (Iowa) and an NAIA title at Graceland (also in Iowa) which landed him a new challenge at Division II Emporia State in Kansas.
And after a slow build, Doty has the Lions on the way up. They just qualified for their first NCAA tournament since 2007, and in an interesting twist, Doty will make his Division II tourney debut against his home state, as 7th-seeded Emporia takes on 18th-ranked and second-seeded Northern State in Saturday's first round in Maryville, Mo.
It's been a steady climb. Emporia went 14-16 in Doty's first season; 10-18 in his second, with just a 4-15 mark against MIAA competition. But last year, led by former South Dakota State guard Tray Buchanan's 25.6 points per game, the Hornets won 20 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year, they're 22-8 and playing in the most loaded and difficult regional in the nation.
"I feel like we're on schedule," said Doty, who played at Morningside and Dakota State and was an assistant at Morningside and USF. "We were able to work faster in JuCo and NAIA but D-II is different. You're not just gonna walk into the MIAA and make it happen immediately. It's gonna take a little time."
In that second season, the Lions lost 13 of their last 14 games. That was humbling for a coach who'd had unusual success early in his career, but Doty says it also taught him how to handle adversity better. He's built a roster with uncommon athleticism and size for a Division II team with a combination of transfers and prep recruits, most of whom are from the Midwest. One of his assistant coaches, Justin Tucek, is a former Madison Bulldog. And Doty said the Emporia community (a city of 25,000) has responded. They averaged more than 1,400 fans per this season and hundreds turned out for a watch party for the Division II selection show.
Maryville is the home of Northwest Missouri State, the top seed and winner of four of the last five Division II national championships. But it's less than a three hour drive from Emporia, so Doty is hopeful those fans will have a presence at the tournament.
"We're excited," Doty said. "We talk about South Dakota every day in the office, so it's definitely fun that we're playing Northern and in a region with the NSIC. It's going to be a big challenge but we're embracing that. Northern shoots the skin off the ball and their assist to turnover ratio is among the best in Division II so we've got our hands full. If they're hitting 3s it'll be a long night for us, but our size and athleticism could be a problem for them."
Wolves coach Saul Phillips agrees. His team is 24-6 and went 19-3 in NSIC play, led by conference MVP and do-everything point guard Sam Masten, who averages 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. He's got lots of help, though - Jacksen Moni, Jordan Belka, Augustin Reede and Josh Dilling all score in double figures and have all made at least 40 3-pointers on the year - and they'll need it to get past the Hornets.
"We really pass the ball well," Phillips said. "We can be so ridiculously efficient when we move the ball and shoot it. We jack a ton of 3s but we're good at shooting it. They're a joy to coach. They just really don't care how it gets done, they just want to figure out a way to win the game."
The game tips off Saturday at 2:15. The winner faces the winner of Minnesota-Duluth and Central Oklahoma. If anyone in the region is able to somehow get past the defending champion Bearcats they'll have a shot to make noise at the Elite Eight, but for now the Wolves and Hornets are focused on each other.
"It's been a rewarding year," Doty said. "This is the first time we've won 20 games in back to back seasons since 1990. It's just the third time we've made it to a regional. So we're starting to check off some boxes but at the same time trying to stay hungry. There's a lot more work to be done. We're happy with the progress but we're not satisfied."