BROOKINGS — South Dakota State currently sits atop the Summit League standings, but their grip on the top spot comes with a slew of worthy contenders.
Seven teams are within two games of the Jackrabbits, who are tied with North Dakota for first place with a 6-3 conference record. While SDSU will see one of those teams when they host Oral Roberts at Frost Arena on Saturday afternoon, head coach Eric Henderson believes the key to separating from the pack will come from their improvement.
“We’ve got to win at the end of the day, but we just need to keep getting better,” Henderson told reporters during his weekly media session on Tuesday. “...I like our chances, but at the end of the day, we just want to continue to improve and making sure we’re approaching things the right way.”
One of the key areas that the Jacks have focused on is their defense. SDSU ranks fifth in the Summit League with 72.6 points per game but opened the conference schedule with a stretch of three straight opponents scoring over 80 points in an 81-80 win over St. Thomas on Jan. 11, a 99-80 loss to Denver on Jan. 13 and a 90-87 win over Omaha on Jan. 18.
The Jacks have done a better job of limiting opponents, holding teams to 73.5 points per game over their last four games including a 70-67 win over South Dakota on Feb. 4.
“We sat on this deal about a month ago and we talked about our defense and how poor it was but I think we’ve made great strides in that,” Henderson said. “We’ve made a couple of tweaks as a coaching staff to put our guys in a little bit better position.”
While Henderson has been pleased with his team’s defensive effort, the attention has now shifted to the offense. SDSU continues to rank second in the Summit League with 76.5 points per game but ranks third in the conference with 11.8 turnovers per game.
With the Jacks ranking seventh in turnover margin, Henderson believes one of the biggest challenges is finding a way to be more efficient on offense while taking care of the basketball.
“Our focus right now is our offense and how we can be more efficient,” Henderson said. “How can we create good shots for our team on a consistent basis and the value of each possession and how important it is to make a good pass and how important it is to not get complacent whether you’re up 10 [points] or down 10 [points]. We’ve got to make sure we’re taking quality shots every single time and taking care of the basketball in crucial times, which is really important for this group.”
The Jacks saw both ends of the spectrum last week when they took a 16-6 lead early in their Feb. 1 matchup with North Dakota State only to have the Bison out-score SDSU 24-4 a stretch that lasted just under nine minutes. The run allowed the Bison to remain in the game and ultimately pick up a 74-73 victory in overtime.
SDSU also raced out to a seven-point lead on three separate occasions against South Dakota on Sunday afternoon and led 69-64 with 11 seconds to play before the Coyotes had the chance for a game-winning 3-pointer that fell short in a 70-67 victory.
“I think if we can make strides on that offensive end we can start putting it together a little bit better,” Henderson said. “I like our chances but at the end of the day, we just want to continue to improve and making sure we’re approaching things the right way.”
Those improvements will be tested on Saturday when the Jacks face an Oral Roberts team that shot the lights out during an 87-82 loss on Jan. 27. The Golden Eagles are first in the Summit League by shooting 38.7% on their 3-point attempts and shot 14-of-33 (42.7%) in the previous meeting with the Jacks including eight 3-pointers and 32 points from guard DeShang Weaver.
“His ability to stretch the floor is incredible,” Henderson said of Weaver. “He’s got great size and really has a quick release with his jump shots. He sets a lot of ball screens and moves well with the ball, so it’s harder for an interior player where he’s not used to that to get out and guard on the perimeter, so it’s a challenge.”
While Henderson said his team will make adjustments to contain Weaver, the Golden Eagles’ ability to protect the basketball will also be key. Oral Roberts is tied with St. Thomas with 9.4 turnovers per game and its 2.05 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second behind the Tommies for the conference lead.
With the Golden Eagles not giving away many opportunities, Henderson said it will be on players like William Kyle III, who is averaging just over three blocks over his last six games, to protect the paint while also taking away chances for Weaver, Kareem Thompson (12.9 ppg) and Issac McBride (20.8 ppg) on the perimeter.“They do a great job of taking care of the basketball,” Henderson said. “We’ll maybe do a few things but we’ve just got to make sure they take the shots we want them to take and not the ones that they want to take. If we can do a good job in protecting the paint…we also have to be able to find a way to guard on the perimeter and make sure we’re taking away DeShang’s, Kareem’s and Issac’s 3-pointers as well.”
Overall it’s a week for the Jacks to look at themselves as they attempt to separate from the pack. Henderson believes that the absence of a game on Thursday will allow the Jacks to get some rest heading into the final stretch and if they can continue to improve, they’ll be able to build momentum heading into next month’s conference tournament.
“We hope we’re certainly not a finished product,” Henderson said. “We want to be playing our best when we go to Sioux Falls.”