Jackrabbits, Trojans set for matchup of contrasting styles in first round

(Matt Zimmer/ Sioux Falls Live) SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston looks on as his team practices at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Friday afternoon.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – South Dakota State is back in the NCAA Tournament and this year the No. 9 seeded Jackrabbits will be taking on No. 8 seeded USC on Friday night at 7 p.m. Central time.

SDSU comes into the game having won 21-straight games, which is the third longest win streak in the country, and has a record of 28-5 on the season. The 21-straight wins were all against Summit League teams and sixth-year senior forward Myah Selland said her team is excited to play an opponent that they’ve never seen before.

“Any time we can meet up with another opponent, it's fun. We have spent the last 21 games playing very familiar faces, so I think we are excited to play somebody new. Our coaches have done a great job of getting us prepared for that but yeah, we’re really excited for this opportunity,” Selland said.

USC is making its first tournament appearance in nine years and the Trojans have a record of 21-10 this season. They went 11-7 in the Pac-12 and finished sixth in the conference. The Trojans are known for their defense as they are Top-25 in the country in opponent field goal percentage, 3-point field percentage, scoring defense and blocks per game.

The Trojans’ defense is led by sophomore Rayah Marshall who is the second leading shot blocker in the country, averaging 3.37 blocked shots per game. USC has two graduate transfers in Destiny Littleton, who came from defending champion South Carolina, and Kadi Sissoko, who came from Minnesota. Sissoko and Littleton are the top two scorers for USC, averaging 15.6 and 13.8 points per game, respectively.

Littleton said what makes the Trojans so good on defense is that they pride themselves on getting stops on that side of the floor

“We trust each other. I think that's the number one thing that you kind of have to have for really good defensive team. You have to have trust. You have to have trust that our two [post players] here are going to block their shot when you get beat. Just trusting each other, being able to talk on switches or not switches. It's really about connecting on the defensive end more so than anything, and I think we pride ourselves in defense. You have to have some sort of pride in order to continue to stop other people's offenses,” Littleton said.

On the flip side, SDSU has one of the best offenses in the country. The Jacks are 11th in the NCAA in scoring, averaging 79.4 points per game. They are fifth in field goal percentage, shooting just under 48% from the field, and are 32nd in 3-point shooting as they shoot 35.4% from beyond the arc.

USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said the Trojans will have to rely on their defense if they want to win the game.

The Jacks are led by Selland who won the Summit League Player of the Year for the second straight season. She averages 15.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, while shooting 51.7% from the field and 39% from three.

USC head coach Lindsay Gotllieb said Selland is a complete player and that makes her and the Jacks tough to prepare for.

“She’s very skilled and very tough, as are many of their players. She has the ability to post you up, she has a little step-back, she can take you off the dribble. I think before you scout South Dakota State, I think you think of emotion and they just shoot three’s, but really they drive the ball really well, they’re physical and multiple of the players can post up. I think she’s the prototypical player [for them] and is incredibly complete and can do anything,” Gottlieb said.

The two teams play complete opposite styles as the Jacks like to win with their offense and the Trojans like to win with their defense. SDSU averaging almost 80 points per game and USC averaging just under 65 points per game, and the Jacks average 71.7 possessions per game, while the Trojans average 67.4.

Johnston said the contrasting styles could work in his team’s favor if they can get the game in their type of tempo and control the style.

“I think the contrasting styles are going to benefit whoever executes better,” Johnston said. “If USC can get us maybe sped up and uncomfortable in our half court offense and turn us over, they have the ability to block a lot of shots, challenge us at the rim. If their style is winning out, it's going to be hard for us.

On the flipside, if we can get them moving more or get them chasing on the perimeter, that's going to play in our hands. When you play a team that is different, I just think whatever style starts to win out usually dictates who is going to win that game.”

SDSU did not play in the NCAA Tournament last season, but the Jacks did win the WNIT. With the Jacks returning almost every player from that team that won six games to win the championship in that tournament, Selland said the postseason experience should help her team come Friday night

“Absolutely, [our experience should help]. We got six more games and six games that mattered and were postseason games. We have a lot of experience coming back off of that run. We kind of take that and can learn on those situations even though it was last year. Postseason basketball is just a little different,” Selland said.

This is the 11th time that the Jackrabbits have made it to the NCAA Tournament and SDSU has made it past the first round three times in program history, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2019. Johnston said his team’s goal is always to play in the postseason, but they never set a goal for how far they want to get.

“I know back in 2019, I know that group talked a lot about trying to get to the Sweet 16, having been close. But as a team I guess we never really talk about those things. We certainly talk about playing in the postseason, and that's a goal. We talk about advancing in the postseason, and that's a goal. But I think this group understands that we want to go out and play our best basketball every night and see how far that can take us, and I really value that,” Johnston said.

SDSU and USC will play the winner of No. 1 seeded Virginia Tech and No. 16 seeded Chattanooga. The Hokies earned the No. 1 seed after going 27-4 overall and it is the first time in program history that they have a No. 1 seed.

You can watch Friday night’s game on ESPN News or on the ESPN app. You can listen to the game on AM 570 WNAX or on gojacks.com.