South Dakota State’s Cody Larson thrives despite return home amidst unmet expectations

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Cody Larson (AP Photo)

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This story is about Cody Larson, the South Dakota State Jackrabbit, but in order to understand what it means for Larson to be finishing out his college career in The Mount Rushmore State, you first have to understand what high school basketball means there.

“It’s like a mini-Indiana,” said UNLV assistant coach Ryan Miller, and he would know. He played his high school ball at Mitchell High four years before current Cleveland Cavalier, two-time NBA champion and, for Ryan, little brother Mike Miller did. The state may not be churning out a ton of high major talent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a few thousand fans into a gym on a frigid February night.

And while South Dakota may be large in terms of square mileage, it’s quite small when it comes to the basketball community. Everyone knows everyone, which means that when a soon-to-be 6-foot-9 athletic marvel from Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city, is coming up through the middle and high school ranks, word spreads quickly.

The Black Hills are not immune to the power of the hype machine.

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Cody Larson was supposed to be the “Next Big Thing” to come out of South Dakota.

He was supposed to be the heir apparent to the state’s most famous athlete, and that speculation was only fueled when he followed in Miller’s footsteps, committing to play basketball at Florida. He enrolled at the school in the summer of 2010, but his time associated with the Gators only generated headlines for his off-court issues. He had plenty.

As a senior in high school, Larson was kicked off of the Roosevelt High team, in February of 2010, and barred from having any contact with them during their run through the state tournament. According to Larson, the suspension and resulting charge was a result of sharing hydrocodone leftover from his knee surgery a year prior with a teammate battling shin splints. He pleaded guilty that May to inhabiting a room where drugs are knowingly kept and used and was given a 120-day suspended sentence and two years’ probation.

He violated that probation a year later in a bizarre incident that took place in St. Augustine, Florida. Larson, who was redshirting that season, went out drinking with teammate Erik Murphy and a team manager. They ended up arrested and charged with felony burglary for allegedly breaking into a car, their mug shots and a recording of the players from the backseat of a police cruiser going viral. Larson avoided jailtime for the probation violation, getting his suspended sentence reinstated and an additional two years of probation tacked on.

Larson was reinstated to the team in October of 2011, seeing action in 25 games during the 2011-12 season, but after the season was over, Larson had his scholarship pulled by head coach Billy Donovan. He was allowed to remain on the roster as a walk-on, but he would have to prove that he was worthy of remaining on scholarship.

That didn’t last, as Larson made the decision to leave the program just a couple of weeks prior to the start of the season. “I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to play basketball anymore,” Larson told NBCSports.com in an interview earlier this month. He stayed in school in Florida, taking classes while he tried to figure out what the next step in his life would be.

“At the time, it was putting to much pressure on me,” he said. “I wasn’t making the best decisions.”

It didn’t take Larson long to realize that he missed basketball, and it took less time for him to decide that South Dakota State — located in Brookings, a 45 minute drive from his Sioux Falls home — was the place for him. He had played with or against a number of the kids on the roster, and he already had a relationship with the coaching staff, as SDSU targeted Larson’s AAU program, the Dakota Schoolers. His sister plays on the school’s volleyball team.

He visited the campus when he was home from Christmas break and committed to the Jackrabbits in May of 2013, receiving a waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to avoid having to sit out a year.

Larson would be playing college basketball during the 2013-14 season.

He would also be returning home as the homegrown prodigy that couldn’t cut it at one of the best programs in the country; the “Next Big Thing” who had spent more time on probation than on a college basketball roster.

That’s enough to hurt anyone’s pride.

“I’m not going to lie and say that there wasn’t times of disappointment,” Larson said. “But I’ve grown up a bunch, and I’ve learned to kind of channel my anxieties and my worries in healthier ways.”

There would be plenty of those anxieties and worries as Larson headed home to a community that was well aware of his history. The South Dakota State administration trusted head coach Scott Nagy’s decision when it came to bringing Larson into the program, but it wasn’t the administration’s opinion that Nagy was concerned about. It was the fanbase, the alumni and the boosters of the program. A “large contingent” of SDSU alums live down in Sioux Falls, and Larson’s name is well-known in that city.

“I think people had some preconceived notions based on what they were reading,” Nagy said. “It would have been easy for him to avoid coming back to South Dakota, just because of what everybody thought and because he may have been perceived as a failure and all these things. I think what he’s done is take on the challenge.”

To date, SDSU has had no problems with Larson. He’s been a straight-A student since he’s gotten to campus, and as one of two seniors on the roster this season, he’s grown into being a leader for this, a guy Nagy credits for being a great teammate that has helped developed camaraderie on a team that lost quite a bit to graduation last season.

That’s not necessarily something that people in Larson’s past would have seen coming, and it’s a testament to the work he’s put in on developing himself.

“I kind of realized that [basketball] was a big part of who I was,” Larson said. “There’s just so much that you can learn about life through the game of basketball that I took for granted when I was down in Florida. I realized that and I regretted that.”

He realized that he was lucky enough to get a second — and a third — chance. He also realized that, in addition to returning to a place where his failures would be scrutinized, he’d be coming back to a home where he had people that cared enough about him and his future to make sure his didn’t blow this final chance.

“The community has [been a lot more receptive] than I thought they would be,” Larson said. “I have a lot of friends and family up in this area. And the team, they just welcomed me with open arms.”

“The biggest thing is being responsible with my time. I’ve gotten so much better about that. I got into trouble down in Florida and up here when I’m not being responsible. It’s just maturing and channelling my anxieties and my worries in a healthy way. The staff up here has been great with that. If I have a problem, I can go straight to them. If they can’t help me, they find somebody who can.”

And while Larson, who averaged 13.1 points and 7.0 boards last season, is focused on finding a way to get this group through the Summit League and into the NCAA tournament, he’s also trying to figure out what he’s going to do with himself after the season. Play professionally? Go to med school? Become a psychiatrist?

He hasn’t decided yet, but he’s glad he’s got options.

“I’m just trying to get through practice and make sure my homework’s done on time.”