South Dakota State men's basketball roster looking good heading into summer
Jackrabbits have added a 7-footer while their top returners resisted the urge to test the transfer portal.
BROOKINGS — South Dakota State men's basketball had a pretty solid season last year, going 19-13 and 13-5 in Summit League action, a distant second to league champion Oral Roberts, who went undefeated in conference play.
Since then, the Golden Eagles have seen coach Paul Mills bolt for Wichita State, star guard Max Abmas transfer to Texas and big man Connor Vanover depart (to either a new school or the NBA).
The Jacks, meanwhile, added some pieces that should send them into the summer feeling good about their chances when they come back in the fall. Especially since they'll also return a big chunk of the lineup from last season.
Luke Appel, the 2022 Summit League 6th man of the year, will be back healthy next year. Guard Zeke Mayo, who went from freshman supporting player to sophomore star last year, will return, too. While neither player never gave any indication they were looking around, both did the kind of things on the floor when healthy that made Jacks fans nervous the transfer portal might be in their future, and that bigger schools might be lurking with NIL offers.
Coach Eric Henderson admitted to being aware of that.
"I can say this — there was plenty of contact," Henderson said of his best players getting interest. "But I think each of those guys understood and valued what it means to be a Jackrabbit."
But while the Jacks ended up not getting hurt by the portal, they did take advantage of it, adding one of the most intriguing transfers in their history.
Nate Barnhart, a legit 7-footer, gives the Jacks more size than they've ever had. Coming to SDSU from Wyoming, where he played 20 games as a redshirt freshman (averaging 2.6 points), Barnhart will give SDSU a true five in the middle. The Lenexa, Kan., native should be a shot-blocking threat with what the Jacks hope will be a diverse offensive game. Barnhart shot 57 percent for the Cowboys last year, using his size to convert in the paint, but he can stretch the floor, too, hitting 5-of-14 3s.
"He moves very well for how big he is," Henderson said. "He can score with his back to the basket, play on the perimeter, make 3s, put it on the floor a little bit — we're excited about him."
Barnhart was listed at just 190 pounds at Wyoming, so the Jacks will likely be working him hard in the weight room, but that doesn't mean he's a project.
"When you bring in a transfer the hope and expectation is that they can make an impact," Henderson said. "What impact Nate is going to make is up to him, but our expectation is he can help us win right away."
The Jacks added more size with a late addition to their freshman class, bringing in 6-10 post Damon Wilkinson from De Smet. He averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds last year and was high school teammates with Jackrabbit sophomore Kalen Garry. He's got good genes, too, as his dad played football for SDSU and his mother is in the Augustana University Hall of Fame for basketball.
He joins 6-8 forward Conner Kraft, whom the Jacks stole out of Fargo; 6-3 guard Joe Sayler of White River; 6-5 Houston guard Bubz Alvarez; and 6-8 Milwaukee big man William Whorton as incoming freshmen.
But if there's another big reason to like SDSU's team going into next year, it's the potential for improvement among their younger returners.
Matthew Mors, the 6-7 transfer from Wisconsin, never fully found himself as a redshirt freshman last year, but was visibly improving by year's end. The former 4-star recruit averaged 6.5 points alternating between the bench and starting lineup, but SDSU is optimistic he'll be a more confident, comfortable and productive player as a sophomore. Same for big man William Kyle, who flashed tremendous athleticism, shot-blocking and dunking ability (he averaged 8.9 points and 1.2 blocks per game) but looked overmatched in the conference tournament.
The Jacks lost senior wing Alex Arians and reliable big man Matt Dentlinger, but if Mors and Kyle make significant strides, Appel is back healthy and senior guards Matt Mims and Charlie Easley team with Mayo to fill it up from outside, the Jacks may be the favorite in the Summit League. Baylor Scheierman probably won't be the last Jackrabbit to use SDSU as a stepping stone to a more prominent opportunity, but Henderson feels good about how his team is holding things together in the era of NIL.
"It's important for me and our staff to continue to develop our relationships with our players and talk to them about how they fit our program, where we see their game going and what opportunities we believe they could have within our program," Henderson said. "But at the end of the day, we want and have to have guys that want to be Jackrabbits, that understand our culture and what we're going to be about."