Finally eligible, Jackrabbits turn eye toward NCAA tournament

Most people who live in places other than South Dakota know the state best for Mount Rushmore and the beautifully desolate Black Hills region in which the landmark resides.

But every state has special places hiding off the beaten path -- or as beaten as the path gets in a state more densely populated than only North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau Web site, Rhode Island, with roughly 75,000 fewer square miles than South Dakota, had nearly 400,000 more residents as of 2006).

A native of Willow Lake, a town of a few hundred people between Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, South Dakota State senior forward Jennifer Warkenthien seems like as good a bet as anyone to provide the inside scoop.

"You can go to Sioux Falls and go to the mall, I guess," Warkenthien offered before making a short-lived rally to pitch her school's campus in Brookings as a hidden gem. "You can come to SDSU. Yeah, there aren't any other landmarks I can think of."

The truth, as Warkenthien explained it, is that the state's best selling point has less to do with an abundance of tangible sites to see and things to do than an intangible sense of community that brings people separated by hundreds of miles together as neighbors.

"I don't know how else to describe it," Warkenthien said. "I like it; it's nice. You know everybody."

But as far removed from most things as South Dakota is, the state is no longer easily separated from basketball relevancy at the college game's highest level. Five seasons into its transition to Division I, South Dakota State is finally eligible to participate in both the Summit League conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. And after opening the season with four wins in four tries against big-conference foes Missouri, Wisconsin, Oregon and Utah, the Jackrabbits appear eager to make up for lost time.

"It is different; being eligible for the NCAA tournament is definitely just great to be a part of as a senior," Stacie Oistad said. "But I think the coaching staff has done a great job just of preparing us just like any other season, with kind of the end in mind -- but also, too, we've got to play every game; you can't overlook it. But we're very excited about the possibility of being in the NCAA tournament at the end of the year."

The team received some national attention for its start when it showed up with four votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll (and one in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll). But that trickle could turn into a veritable South Dakota blizzard's worth of votes with a strong showing at this week's Caribbean Challenge in Cancun, Mexico, where the Jackrabbits play Maryland (No. 10 AP, No. 14 ESPN/USA Today), Illinois and Montana.

Not that this program has emerged out of nowhere this November. Although relegated to the WNIT by NCAA rules on reclassification, South Dakota State is 92-29 since moving to Division I, competing first as an independent and later as a provisional member of the Summit League. The wins this season against Oregon and Missouri duplicated wins last season against those schools. Two years ago, South Dakota State beat USC, ranked No. 19 at the time, as well as Virginia and Middle Tennessee. All told, since moving to the sport's top division, the Jackrabbits have won on the road at Alabama, Kansas, Middle Tennessee, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Wisconsin. That's both impressive scheduling and results for any program, all the more so for a team that five years ago this week played Texas A&M International, Incarnate Word and Texas A&M-Kingsville in the Turkey Day Shootout in Kingsville, Texas.

And a lot of the experience gained during the transition seasons remains on the court in Brookings. This season's team has four seniors and three juniors, including seniors Warkenthien, Oistad and Ashlea Muckenhirn, who all have played substantial minutes from the moment they arrived on campus. Only one regular departed from last season's team that went 23-7 overall and 16-2 in the Summit, leaving a roster well-equipped to carry out a simple formula for success that proves difficult to implement for countless teams.

"Offensively and defensively, we're a very structured team," Oistad said. "And I think defense is definitely something we hit on hard, because as far as offense goes, you can have an on night or you can have an off night. So defense, really, is our mainstay that we really focus on."

Warkenthien might be the closest thing the Jackrabbits have to a go-to player. A 6-foot forward, she led the team with 13.9 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game last season (missing seven games with injuries) and currently leads the team in assists (13), steals (10) and blocks (five). But few teams are as balanced on offense. South Dakota State's top six scorers last season averaged between 7.9 and 13.9 points, and four of the six hit at least 20 3-pointers for a team that shot 37 percent overall from behind the arc. With redshirt freshman Jill Young stepping in for Andrea Verdegan (8.6 ppg in 2007-08), this season's top six are averaging between 6.3 and 11.7 points, and four of them have at least three 3-pointers.

The architect of all this is Aaron Johnston, a Minnesota native who coached the team to the Division II national championship in 2002-03, just his third full season as a head coach at the college level. And yet South Dakota State is not, technically speaking, the only school at which Johnston has been head coach. On April 25, 2007, Johnston was introduced as the new coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay. A day later, he apologized to the UW-Green Bay administration but said the emotional ties to South Dakota State that surfaced after his initial decision forced him to reconsider and resign from the new post.

Oistad said it is an honor to play for Johnston, whom she called a "great man," but perhaps even in an awkward moment that deviated from storybook to messy reality, there was a lesson to be learned about what can and cannot be controlled.

"That was a tough transition, a tough process to deal with, but we moved on," Oistad said. "It's something that's in the past; we don't look at it too much. We're just excited that we have everyone a part of our team that is a part of the team right now, and [we're] just looking to the future."

For now, the future comes with a definite improvement in weather, courtesy of the trip to Cancun (where Wednesday's forecasted high of 78 degrees is 38 degrees warmer than that for Brookings). But with games against both Maryland's Kristi Toliver and Montana's Mandy Morales, it's unfortunate for the Jackrabbits that starting guard Macie Michelson won't be available in Mexico after injuring her hand against Utah. It's the unfortunate reality for programs like South Dakota State that one bad loss can erase much of the work of weeks, months and years spent slowly and painstakingly constructing a reputation.

"We have three games coming up against teams that we haven't played yet," Warkenthien said. "And the opportunity is right there in front of us, just to go out there and get three wins down south. It should be a big challenge for us, big games, but I think we can do it."

But when they return to South Dakota next week, at least two things will remain true. First, win or lose against the likes of the Terrapins, the Jackrabbits will have a veteran roster of shooters and defenders that should make them a strong favorite to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time. And second, it will be cold in Brookings.

It is, after all, winter in South Dakota, where as Warkenthien explained matter-of-factly, "A lot of the time it's below zero, and it snows and it's icy."

But if you've already seen Mount Rushmore and you've already explored the Black Hills, consider stopping in Brookings for a basketball game. In the vernacular of the roadside attractions that dot America's interior highways, maybe it's not the "world's largest," but the self-made Division I program that inhabits Frost Arena seems like one of a kind.

"I truly do think that I've been blessed to be a part of the transition," said Oistad, who recalled listening on the radio as a high school senior just across the border in Minnesota when the Jackrabbits played their first Division I game. "And knowing kind of where our team has come from, and to be a part of it my senior year, where the future of women's basketball at South Dakota State is going to go. It's been awesome."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.