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

1 Comment
source:
Cody Larson (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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.

————————- RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Summit League Preview ————————-

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.”

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

Getty Images
1 Comment

The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

Getty Images
5 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar
4 Comments

Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.