Program Reviews: Eric Henderson’s terrific, fun first year at South Dakota State

Summit League basketball, circa 1995-2008, was almost completely controlled by the states of Indiana and Oklahoma. From 1995 to 2002, Valparaiso won seven of the then-Mid-Continent Conference conference championships, followed by a 2003 IUPUI win and another 2004 Valpo title. From 2006-2008, after allowing Michigan’s Oakland to take home a title, Oral Roberts of Tulsa, OK won three straight titles. For a long, long period of time, the Dakotas had little-to-no influence on the national stage.

Of course, things change, and now the Dakotas have a total stranglehold on the Summit League. The last nine Summit League conference championships reside at the schools of North Dakota State (4) and South Dakota State (5), with budding basketball and football dynasties taking place at both schools. You likely know a lot about NDSU simply because of their football team, but they won a game in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and have been a March mainstay for a while now. The same goes for South Dakota State, who brought you Mike Daum and several March close calls. However, this year’s team may have been their most fun one yet.

Under first-year head coach Eric Henderson, a guy who was coaching high school basketball in Wisconsin six years ago, South Dakota State won 22 games and a share of the Summit League regular season title despite having the 11th-youngest lineup in America. Their rotation contained zero seniors and just one junior, and even said junior was injured late in the season. It would’ve been a pretty notable coaching job had Henderson kept South Dakota State afloat after a coaching change and personnel overhaul; it was a near-miracle that he took the team to 13-3 in conference play.

There’s no better person to talk to about the Dakotas Dominance than Henderson, who coached as an assistant at both schools and has spent a lot of time in the Upper Midwest. When I talked to him a couple of weeks back, I anticipated getting to talk a lot about the super-fun Jackrabbit offense and the fascinating rivalry between these two schools. However, we talked just as much about Henderson’s rapid rise from being a principal, athletic director, and high school basketball coach at the same time, and how it influences what he does today.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Eric Henderson: “As far as the program philosophy, I’d say it’s to develop young men that show a great deal of respect, honesty, selflessness, a high level of communication, and a high level of compete. We want them to develop in those areas in all aspects of their life, not just basketball.”

WW: I want to talk about your background a bit. Just six years ago, you were a high school basketball coach in Wisconsin. What’s the transition from high school basketball to college basketball as a coach like?

EH: “I think it’s the amount of time that you can spend on the basketball side of it as a college coach, especially at our level. It’s special and unique, and that’s what makes what I do fun. As a teacher, principal, and high school coach, I had so many responsibilities. I wasn’t able to spend as much time with the game as I would’ve liked, so that’s why I got back into college coaching. As far as my approach to it, it’s not much different. I’m an education major and I still look at myself as an educator, but now I get to do it through hoops.”

WW: Just to clarify, you taught, were a principal, and you were the athletic director?

EH: “I had to teach like two P.E. classes, it was easy. (laughs) The kids came in with a plan to me and I monitored their plan of action. You can say I taught, but I didn’t do much teaching. I was at Burlington Central five years, and my first three years, I was athletic director, assistant principal, and boys’ basketball coach. After the third year, our principal retired, and the board asked if I had any interest in taking over as the principal. I asked ‘can I still coach basketball?’ If I couldn’t coach basketball, I had no interest. So yeah, I was principal, boys’ basketball coach, and athletic director my last two years. It was a lot!”

WW: You’ve coached at both North Dakota State and South Dakota State as an assistant. Why is this such a fertile rivalry?

EH: “Both schools have a very similar philosophy. They’re very student-athlete centered, and from the administration down, they want to make the student-athlete experience as good as possible. They both have intense, active fanbases that makes it enjoyable! When people care about something, it gives it more value and meaning. I can say the same for both schools, to be honest. Both badly want to be successful, and they put a big priority on it. Going to Division I at the same time and competing for similar goals makes it a big-time rivalry. Finally, the most important thing is that there’s a tradition of winning at both schools across multiple sports.”

WW: Counting 2020, the last nine Summit League conference championships were won by NDSU or SDSU. Why do these two schools have a stranglehold on the Summit?

EH: “A lot of it has to do with stability. North Dakota State has had a bunch of success, and their last two hires have been within. That helps, and it makes their foundation solid. For the most part, other than bringing TJ [Otzelberger, now UNLV coach] in, it’s been the same at South Dakota State. Coach [Scott] Nagy, now at Wright State, was here for 20+ years. The support for both programs and passion for both is really something that helps them be successful.”

WW: Your offense this year was one of the most enjoyable to watch in all of college basketball, and you posted a record for 2PT%. Why were you this successful in getting consistent scoring inside the perimeter?

EH: “It starts with keeping things really, really simple. We had some turnover with personnel and we graduated over 6,000 points and 3,000 rebounds. I was a brand new coach coming in, and it was really important for me to keep things simple for our guys. We wanted to work on skill development and then let our guys play free and confident. As far as our 2PT% and why I feel it was really high, our group was really selfless. We passed the ball extremely well, and it started our post players. Doug [Wilson] was our conference MVP, and Matt Dentlinger was great too. Not many teams have the capability to throw it in to two different guys on the block. The only way you can continuously get post touches is if everyone plays selfless. If someone gets double-teamed, find the open guy.”

WW: You got to 22 wins this year with one of the youngest rosters in all of college basketball. How were you able to find success this quickly in what easily could’ve been a rebuilding year for the Jackrabbits?

EH: “A little bit goes back to the selflessness. We had some returners that played, but their roles were minimal. Of our top seven guys at the end of the year, we were playing four freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior. After Doug Wilson got hurt, we didn’t play a junior or a senior! Doug’s ability to impact the game in so many different ways early was really unique and special for our team. I always knew he’d be a great defender and could guard multiple guys, but offensively, he was way more effective than I thought he would be. We were able to play really efficiently when he was on the court. When your best player and the conference MVP is one of your hardest workers, your team can have great chemistry.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this past season: the double-overtime win at Cal State Bakersfield back in November. KenPom rated this as the single-most tense game of the entire season. What was most memorable about this game?

EH: “The most memorable was that we were down and out a couple of times in end-of-game situations and we didn’t panic. We were able to make a couple of huge plays. The thing that stands out is that we had four freshmen in the game in the overtimes due to players fouling out. They stepped up and made big plays. It was a big moment for our season. That was our third game of the year, one of our first road games, and it gave us huge confidence for the rest of the year. Baylor Scheierman, a freshman, made some absolutely massive plays in that game. I know it’s got to be high on KenPom’s numbers in the sense of tension because it was within a couple possessions the entire game.”

WW: I pulled up the boxscore to double-check, and yeah, neither team had a lead of more than six points.

EH: “That’s incredible! Like you said, it was very intense. I genuinely didn’t realize those stats when you told me, to be honest. It’s pretty cool!”

WW: Your first season as a Division I head coach was pretty ideal: 22 wins, a share of the Summit League regular season title, and every player but one returns for your 2020-21 team. What’s the next big step for the Jackrabbits as a program?

EH: “This is how we approach things. At the beginning of the year, as our team comes together and we talk about what we want to accomplish, we have never one time put a goal in front of us of making the NCAA Tournament. That’s never been something we talk about. We talk more in the sense of how we can get better today. Let’s not dwell on what we’ve already accomplished. We can be proud of it and celebrate it, but we can’t count on those moments to make us successful going forward. Let’s approach every single day as an opportunity to improve ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to win our conference tournament, our goal becomes how high of a seed we can get. Truthfully, there’s maybe six leagues in the country that will be safe multiple-bid leagues. Everyone else is in the same boat. We’ve gotta be able to go play teams like Buffalo, and a game like that can be the difference between a 13 seed and a 12, or a 14 seed and a 13. If we have a really special year like Steve Forbes and ETSU, we could get a 10 or 11. But we don’t really talk about it with our guys.”

WW: Final question: what’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

EH: “Uno for life, baby! When the two littles go to bed, my wife and I have some epic Uno games.”

Earlier in the year, I made this video of some of South Dakota State’s best offensive plays. It’s a bit shorter than what I usually do, but it sums up a lot of what they do well.

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