Zimmer: SDSU women dominating, but are they as good as past Summit League champions?

The Jackrabbits are likely headed to the NCAA tournament. Can they make a run?

South Dakota State's Paiton Burckhard (33) attempts to drive past UCLA's IImar'I Thomas during the first half of a Women's National Invitational Tournament semifinal contest on Thursday, March 31, 2022, at Frost Arena, in Brookings.
Landon Dierks / Mitchell Republic

BROOKINGS — If it feels like South Dakota State's dominant season is getting a bit less attention than usual, there may be a reason for that.

They're making it look really easy.

The Jackrabbit women have clinched the Summit League regular season title with four games still to play, and are a full six games ahead of second place North Dakota and North Dakota State.

That SDSU is cruising through the Summit League is not unusual — they have won 45 of 46 league games going back the last three seasons. The difference is they don't have rival USD hot on their trail this season, as the Coyotes are amid a rebuild under first-year coach Kayla Karius. USD had gone 72-5 in league play over the previous five seasons, but are 7-7 this year.

Which begs the question — how good are the Jacks this year, really? They've barely been tested by any of their Summit League foes, and it's hard to see anyone challenging them in Sioux Falls at the conference tournament. Barring injury, an NCAA tournament bid seems like a formality.


But how high of a seed might they earn? And if something weird does happen in Sioux Falls, have they done enough for an at-large bid? It's hard to use the past to answer those questions because in the past there was always another very strong team at the top along with them. This year, there's not.

And the standard has been raised. SDSU went to the Sweet 16 in 2019, and USD made it last year, falling just short of the Elite Eight.

Can this year's team, which is 14-0 in the Summit League and 21-5 overall, reach that level? Coach Aaron Johnston thinks it can.

"I think the potential for this team is really high," Johnston said. "It really is. To finish this month on a high note and potentially play well into March, this team has a really high ceiling. Defensively, we've played really well. We're shooting the ball really well to the point that you expect it to go in. We've got great senior leadership, great depth, great balance — all the things you need to be a good end of February and into March kind of team."

Johnston's assessments are hard to argue - SDSU leads the league in scoring defense, rebounding, assists and shooting percentage and is second in points.

But a closer look at the resume reveals a team that could well be as good as some of the Summit League's best.

Their losses are to Creighton, UCLA, South Carolina, Washington State and Montana State. Those last two are the ones that hurt, but WSU is a 16-8 PAC-12 team, while Montana State is 18-8 and leading the Big Sky.

South Carolina is, of course, the No. 1 team in the nation, and SDSU was fairly competitive against them, while UCLA is ranked 16th and Creighton was in the Top 25 at the time of their meeting (they've since fallen out). The Jacks also have two wins against teams that were in the Top 25 but have since dropped out. They beat a No. 24 Kansas State team, and Louisville was No. 10 when SDSU beat them. They also have wins over Mississippi State, Rutgers and Northern Iowa.


Bottom line: If SDSU runs the table from here they'd be 28-5 at the conclusion of the Summit League tournament with a handful of quality wins, with each loss coming against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

When SDSU won the WNIT last year, Johnston made a point to predict it would benefit this year's team as much as it served as a reward for last year's, and he points to this year's accomplishments as proof.

"No question about it it has," he said. "Really from start to finish, I don't think the impact of being a championship team in the WNIT last year has just started to materialize here at the end. I thought it helped us in November and December. All year that's given us a sense of purpose. It's given us that excitement and hunger to try to do something special again. It's made us try to chase the next moment or next opportunity to do something that will leave a mark on our program."

There's also the fact that this is the last hurrah for Myah Selland, one of the greatest players in program history, with Paiton Burckhard and Tori Nelson wrapping up outstanding careers of their own. With the contributions of youngsters Haleigh Timmer and Paige Meyer, as well as transfer guard Dru Gylten and workhose forward Kallie Theisen, this team is built to make a run.

At the moment, ESPN women's bracketologist Charlie Creme has the Jacks as a 12-seed. On the one hand, that feels low. SDSU was a 6-seed when they reached the Sweet 16 in 2019. On the other, USD was a 10-seed last year. What that means for SDSU's at-large chances is anyone's guess. But ultimately that's what Creme's prediction is, too. A guess.

What doesn't require guesswork is this: If SDSU takes care of business over their next four games and in Sioux Falls, they'll be a team nobody in the NCAA tournament wants to play.

Matt Zimmer is a Sioux Falls native and longtime sports writer. He graduated from Washington High School where he played football, legion baseball and developed his lifelong love of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. After graduating from St. Cloud State University, he returned to Sioux Falls, began a long career in amateur baseball and started working as a sports freelancer. Zimmer was hired as a sport reporter at the Argus Leader in 2004, where he covered Sioux Falls high schools and colleges before moving to the South Dakota State University beat in 2014.
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