If you don’t know the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, you’re missing out
There’s something beautiful and rewarding when you watch a program slowly build its way up from a state power to a regional power to a near-national power. It takes a long, long time – unless you’re getting five-star recruits – and the temptation to abort the mission resides every time you get knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. At the mid-major and low-major levels of college basketball, this is especially true. On the men’s side, 26-6, 27-6, and 28-5 regular seasons all can result in an NIT bid if your competition isn’t good enough for the committee. The women’s side is just as cutthroat; this season alone, 27-5 Ohio and 25-5 James Madison didn’t make the field.
Aaron Johnston, now entering his 20th full season as the South Dakota State Jackrabbits women’s head coach, knows this all too well. He’s progressed his Jackrabbits from Division II champs in 2003 to 25-6 Division I independents in 2007 to 32-win regional stars in 2009 to, finally, their first-ever Sweet Sixteen in 2019. In between, the Jackrabbits have never lost more than six conference games in a season, and since 2011, they’ve lost more than three conference games just once (four, in 2017). By any standard of the process, they’ve been wildly successful. And yet: because we measure success by such a razor-thin margin for smaller schools, the road to get here was lined with numerous frustrations.
Since their promotion to Division 1 in 2004-05, South Dakota State has made the NCAA Tournament nine times. Across their first eight bids, they went 2-8. In non-NCAA Tournament games, it’s a program that went 246-79 in regular season/conference tournament play from 2008 to 2018. It’s now a mid-America powerhouse that’s won fewer than 22 games in a season once since 2006. And yet: if you don’t really pay attention to the women’s game, you probably didn’t know that they were this good, because those eight bids and those 246 wins resulted in just a pair of second-round appearances. When they finally broke through this year, it was true jubilation:
After so many heartbreaks and close calls, South Dakota State’s 75-64 win over Syracuse in this year’s Tournament to break into the Sweet Sixteen had to feel like liberation. Finally, their fans no longer have to dwell on coming up two points short against Baylor in their first-ever Tournament bid (2009) or one point short against Stanford in 2016. Now, they get to think about plays like this crafted from Johnston’s excellent motion offense:
This was the third straight season for South Dakota State ranking as a 93rd-percentile or higher offense in women’s basketball, with only one offense of theirs this decade falling below the 85th-percentile nationally. It doesn’t matter what situation they’re put in, really; they succeed regardless of the defense and the competition. This year’s offense ranked in the 98th-percentile of efficiency against man defense, 97th against zone, 98th in transition, 94th in BLOBs, 98th in ATOs, and, as the cherry on top, was the single best cut offense in Division I women’s basketball. It didn’t matter what you did; South Dakota State was going to shred you:
I don’t want to focus too much on cuts for the Jackrabbits, as their normal half-court offense was as exciting as any in the women’s game this year. Unlike Notre Dame, eight members of their nine-member rotation hit 10+ threes, and three starters (Macy Miller, Madison Guebert, and Tagyn Larson) hit 42% or greater of their attempts. When you space the floor, continuously set off-ball screens to get shooters open, and move the ball well, you get a lot of good looks:
It’s hard enough to stop an offense when they’re one of the most efficient teams at the rim in D-1 (finished #7 in FG% at the basket, per Synergy); it’s even harder when they have a few quality shooting options on the perimeter. Macy Miller was the team’s leading scorer at 18.2 PPG as the team’s nominal point guard, but she was freakishly good at rebounding (6.1 per game) and led the team in steals, assists, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, and, just for fun, defensive rebounds. It has to be nice having a player that good, right?
Even South Dakota State’s taller players got in on the perimeter action, though this could be expected. The Jackrabbits didn’t start a true post player, and all five starters were 6’2″ or shorter. (Men’s basketball coaches: this converts to around 6’8″ or a little under for your players.) All five starters attempted at least 45 threes. A system like this that allows for frequent player movement and a wide-open shot selection gives players like Myah Selland, the team’s leading cut scorer and nominal post player, to drift out for threes when they feel like it:
We’re here to talk about cuts, so let’s discuss them. If you’re looking to implement better ones in your offense, South Dakota State has plenty of quality ideas. They were unafraid to run actions in the mid-range for players like Paiton Burckhard, who possessed the ability to knock shots like these down:
In that pivotal second round game, Syracuse ran a zone on nearly 70% of half-court possessions. It’s a shifting 2-3 zone that can turn into a man defense if the ball goes inside. (Stop me if you’ve heard this sentence before with a certain other Syracuse basketball team.) South Dakota State needed to work the ball around the floor to stretch the defense thin, and given their interior size, working it inside was necessary. Check out how Tagyn Larson draws the attention to herself in the post, allowing Selland to leak free for a basket cut and an easy two-pointer:
Later in the game, Syracuse does the same thing, folding into a man defense look after a pass into the paint from Selland to Paiton Burckhard. Selland uses her speed to create a backdoor cut for herself, completing the reverse layup:
Having players this diversely skilled helps immensely. Because opponents have to pay attention to all five starters no matter where they’re at on the floor, it creates greater spacing and greater opportunities for opening up the paint. Even Madison Guebert, largely a spot-up shooter and transition demon, could get to the rim and score when needed (10% of half-court points at the basket). The non-Guebert players could do a little bit of everything, with the four other starters all getting at least 35 post-up possessions this season.
When I’ve talked to other coaches throughout this series, they’ve stressed their need for having to recruit players that can do a little bit of everything. At lower levels, the desire to find players that can score at the rim and shoot threes and operate in the post if needed and rebound is especially important. If you’re a seven-foot post player, you’re almost certainly going D-1; even those 6’10” and above don’t make many appearances below the high-major levels. For the women’s game, it’s the same thing. South Dakota State essentially had a starting lineup of two guards + three small/power forwards; there was no true center to be found. They didn’t need one, because the five on the floor rebounded very well.
Watching this offense operate with the personnel it has is pretty darn fun, especially when Aaron Johnston was able to draw up plays like this screen cut:
And this other screen cut:
And still had shooters all over the floor to space things out:
That’s how you get a post-heavy offense that ranked in the top 20 of D-1 in 3PT% and in rim efficiency. Rare is the offense like this even at the highest levels of basketball; even rarer is it seen in the Summit League. Appreciating Aaron Johnston’s craft while it’s still at a place as relatively unknown as South Dakota State seems like a good strategy.