USD men open season at Quad State Classic South Dakota basketball has never been quite the same since Dave Boots was appointed head coach in 1988. With a fresh mentor to lead the team there was hope and promise for a program that had not had a winning season for 10 years.
It didn't take long for the transformation to take place. Now, after 11 consecutive winning campaigns have come and gone, South Dakota is one of the elite teams of NCAA Division II with a record of 227-94 for a .707 winning percentage.
The Coyotes open the 1999-2000 this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19-20 in Sioux City, IA for the Quad State Classic. USD faces Wayne State Friday at 6 p.m. and Minnesota-Morris Saturday at 8 p.m. at Morningside College. The home opener for the Coyotes is Dec. 2 against Dana College at 7:30 p.m.
The Coyotes were not favored to win the NCC championship last year, but it soon became apparent that was to be the case. The Coyotes went on to claim their third NCC title of the decade with a 14-4 mark while going 23-6 overall. In addition, USD earned a post-season region berth for the fourth time since 1990.
"There's no question that last year was a big surprise," stated Boots, who was named NCC Coach of the Year for the third time. "I felt going in we had a good team, but didn't feel we had a conference champion-type team. What last proved is that if a group of kids have great chemistry, team work and get along on and off the floor then good things will happen on the court.
"We won some close games and really performed well down the stretch," added Boots. "It was a surprise and hopefully it's something we can build on. It kept our program to where it's competitive every year."
This season the Coyotes figure to show more of the same with four starters highlighting a team that returns 68.5 percent of its scoring and 63.6 percent of its rebounding.
The Coyotes, who were ranked No. 8 in the final NABC Division II poll last year, will be led by five key performers in seniors Nathan Blessen, Ben Ries; juniors Jeremy Kudera, Jason Barrow and Nate Tibbetts. Also returning are sophomores Eric Hickenbottom, Jared Weerheim; and redshirt freshmen Adam Burnison and Travis James. "I think this is a good basketball team coming back with the experience that we have," stated Boots. "We have some very proven players. We will have to replace three outstanding seniors, but I certainly like the nucleus we have back."
Even though the Coyotes graduated their fifth, sixth and seventh-leading scorers in Kory Petzenhauser (9.3), Joey James (7.8) and Anestis Tsakalaidis (7.4), the returning cast is impressive.
Headlining the current Coyotes are two first-team all-NCC selections in Blessen and Kudera � the team's top-two leading scorers and starters in all 29 games.
Blessen was the Argus Leader Player of the Year along with earning first-team all-District and second-team all-Region honors. He led the Coyotes in scoring (17.2), blocked shots (21), field goal percentage (.577) and three-point field goal percentage (.519). Kudera shot 48.0 percent from the field while scoring 12.7 points per game and leading the Coyotes in rebounds with 6.6 per outing.
Barrow, honorable mention all-North Central Conference, was the top field goal shooter in the NCC a year ago hitting 58.6 percent from the floor (56.6 overall) along with scoring 11.7 points and grabbing 5.8 rebounds per game.
Ries, who has a chance at becoming USD's career leader in three-point field goals made, came on strong last year and finished with a 10.9 scoring average. Tibbetts, the floor general at the point guard slot, handed out 129 assists or 4.4 per game and he paced the squad in steals with 46. He shot 50.7 percent from the field and scored 4.1 points per game.
Hickenbottom made the most of his playing time appearing in 28 games as a true freshman. He tallied 2.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game while averaging 8.5 minutes of playing time.
South Dakota was an offensive machine last year and most of the key players are back. USD led NCAA Division II in field goal percentage (.512) and three-point percentage (.447)- both USD school records as well.
The Coyotes dominated the North Central Conference in most categories, including top marks in winning percentage (.778), field goal percentage (.520), three-point field goal percentage (.456), scoring margin (8.2), scoring offense (83.9) and three-pointers made per game (8.94). USD was the only team in the NCC to hit 50 percent of its shots and the Coyotes easily outdistanced its closest competitor North Dakota State (.474).
"We have some excellent shooters who really help each other get open and they do a good job taking care of the basketball," noted Boots. "They share the basketball and it starts with the point guard in Tibbetts who is probably one of the best passers to play here.
"Everyone on the team recognizes the kids who are good shooters along with an effective inside-outside game with Barrow. He's a good low-post player.
South Dakota's offensive prowess overshadowed the team's hidden strength � defense. The Coyotes, who ranked first in the NCC in rebounding defense and third in rebounding margin, steadily improved as the season progressed last year. Over the last nine regular-season games the Coyotes' defensive scoring average was 61.3 and five times held teams to 66 points or less during that span.
"I felt as the year went on defense was the reason why we had the success that we did," pointed out Boots. "Our kids really came together after the first half of the conference schedule defensively. They did a good job rebounding and if we can improve those two stats even more it will make our team that much better."
The recruiting process brought seven talented faces into the program, including a pair of transfers in Lamaar Butler-Parker (6-1) and Todd Heithusen (6-0). Parker will be a senior this year after playing three years at California Irvine, while Heithusen was a freshman at Emporia State in Kansas. The incoming freshmen class consists of Eric Holmstadt (6-8), Clint Weddle (6-3), Dusty Decker (6-4), Seth Arendt (6-8) and Jesse Steiner (6-4).