Despite two very different non-conference showings, the South Dakota Coyotes and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits are set to renew their Summit League rivalry Sunday (1 p.m. CT, ESPN3/GoYotes Live) with no less firepower than previous seasons, despite some obvious changes.
The No. 25 Yotes — who this week took a tumble in the AP Poll from No. 22 despite remaining unbeaten in conference play — have been overwhelming their opponents all season. Their five Summit League wins have come by an average of 34 points, and their 81.6 points per game overall come in at tenth in the country; they’re led by a veteran core that includes four preseason All-Summit League picks and the preseason Summit League Player of the Year in Ciara Duffy.
Down two all-time Summit League standouts in Macy Miller (all-time leading scorer) and Madison Guebert (all-time leader in 3-pointers) to graduation, the 2019-20 Jackrabbits pose a stark contrast to last season’s team. They began the season with an 8-6 non-conference showing that was hampered by close losses to a handful of fellow mid-major powers, including Drake and Florida Gulf Coast. However, South Dakota State’s legacy as one of those powers as far as the Summit League is concerned has remained unblemished so far, as it started conference play 6-0. Plus, three Jackrabbits were named to the preseason All-Summit League teams.
Last season, the Mount Rushmore State rivals needed a combined three overtimes to decide winners in their two regular-season games, which they each won at home. It was that toughness displayed against each other that, after the Jacks beat the Yotes rather decisively in the Summit League title game, led the NCAA selection committee to tap South Dakota as the Summit League’s first-ever at-large bid.
This season, on paper, the Yotes and the Jacks still look rather identical. In just about any category, offense or defense, players from both schools are clustered together — a match for every standout player. Defensively, team-wise, both schools allow a conference-best 59.7 points per game. (South Dakota’s major goal this season was to replace Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Allison Arens, who also garnered the most individual wins in program history.)
But coming into Sunday (a day later than planned, thanks to blizzard conditions), it’s South Dakota that retains the advantage. Not just because they’re playing at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center, where the Yotes are 51-4, but because of their season-long consistency.
From a schedule perspective, South Dakota — No. 49 in RPI, the best in the Summit League by far — has had everything go more or less its way. Both of its losses came to current top-25 teams: first to No. 19 Missouri State (then unranked) on November 25, then to No. 1 South Carolina (then No. 6) on December 22. The Yotes defeated Drake and Creighton — notable in that the Jacks lost to both teams — as well as a trio of power conference teams in Ohio State, Utah and Missouri.
Duffy, the Yotes’ star, is a threat everywhere. A 50% shooter from beyond the arc — and just a shade below that overall — and the team leader in scoring (16.9 points per game) and assists (5.4 per game), the senior guard even has WNBA higher-ups talking about her future. Her team thinks of her a consummate leader, and it shows on the court.
She told Dakota News Now at the end of December about how her personal growth has helped her team, as well as about her expectations for the Yotes heading into the toughest stretch of the season.
“I definitely think [the 2019 NCAA Tournament] was a really cool experience,” Duffy said. “It kind of gave us the taste of something that we have the potential to experience once again. But I definitely think we have some other goals that we maybe didn’t get to achieve last year that are sort of going to be at the forefront of our minds going forward.”
Duffy’s 17.4 points per game leads four Yotes double-digit scorers in their five Summit League games. Naturally, the Jacks have four double-digit scorers of their own in their six conference games, led by sophomore forward Paiton Burckhard’s 19.8 points per game.
All this is to say, despite these teams’ contrasting non-conference results, it’s impossible to call this meeting anything but a major event. And it’s impossible to say the winner will walk away with anything less than its biggest triumph of the season — at least, until the series moves to Brookings, South Dakota on February 22. Or perhaps to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in March for the Summit League title.
Either way, this in-state conference rivalry is here to stay. And while it appears to be South Dakota’s series to lose this season, when it comes to the Summit League these days, it’s all about doing anything to keep the pressure on the decision-makers come Selection Monday — with some intrastate bragging rights thrown in, too.