OMAHA, Neb. — Mike Daum lives in a dream world.
It’s not one he invented nor is it an illusion. His is a reality purposefully, carefully and meticulously constructed to maximize Mike Daum.
It’s a world with a fundamental truth from which everything emanates.
Mike Daum is the best basketball player South Dakota State or the Summit League has ever seen, and as long as that has been readily apparent so too has another truth.
He’d have the opportunity to leave both for his senior season.
So from practice plans to roster construction to how film is watched to the program’s very culture, everything has been assembled to keep Mike Daum happy, productive and contented.
“We pretty much have tried to adapt how we play, how I coach our team, how we relate to our guys,” South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger told NBC Sports, “a lot of it has been based on Mike.”
So even with the brighter lights, bigger stage and chartered flights of potentially any Power 5 program at Daum’s disposal last spring, what could possibly compete with a life tailored to your strengths?
“At the end of the day, when you transfer, there’s nothing set in stone,” Daum said to NBC Sports. “I could transfer, there’s a possibility I wouldn’t play as much, there’s a possibility I wouldn’t start. There’s just a possibility that I wouldn’t do as well as I originally expected when you transfer like that.
“Where here, I knew my role, I knew my position.”
Both, of course, were designed with exactly Daum in mind.
It was clear early on Scott Nagy had hit it big with the unrecruited kid from Kimball, Neb.
Or it was once Daum sat out a season.
The 6-foot-9 forward redshirted his first year in Brookings after Nagy and his staff plucked him from obscurity when they watched him make 12 3s in a back gym at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. The promise was there, but Daum needed refining.
That redshirt year produced a freshman season in which Daum averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as he shot 55.3 percent from the floor and 44.6 percent from 3 while collecting awards such as the Summit League’s top freshman, sixth man and conference tournament MVP.
After three NCAA tournament appearances in five years and a 21-season tenure, Nagy left for Wright State after Daum’s freshman year. In came the longtime Iowa State assistant Otzelberger, who knew he was inheriting the conference’s best player but also one, because of that redshirt year, that would likely have the opportunity to chase college basketball’s upper echelon as a graduate transfer after his junior year.
“We didn’t get off to a great start basketball wise. Part of that was as a first-time head coach, I was putting so much pressure on myself on all the basketball parts – how we coach and teach and what we do,” Otzelberger said. “I was probably missing a little more on the people aspect of connecting with our guys and spending time with them and hanging out with them and getting to know them, and I think with Mike as I coached initially it was probably not the best fit or him. Then I tried to be adaptive to what would be the best coaching style to work with him as I got to know him better. I always felt like once we had that connection or that relationship and we built it, I just thought Mike was a guy that the relationship piece was really important to him. I think his friends here are really important to him. I think he realizes how Brookings has embraced him as a community, how he’s embraced Brookings.”
Whatever adjustments were made to fit Daum – they worked. As a sophomore he averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds as the Summit League’s player of the year while the Jackrabbits made another NCAA tournament appearance. He repeated as the league MVP as a junior while averaging 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds with the season ending in a third-straight conference tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance.
That’s when two years of whispers finally culminated into a chorus.
What’s Daum going to do?
“I can’t lie,” Daum said of his oft-discussed senior-year status. “It was in the back of my mind, thinking about it, too, because maybe if I went bigger I’d get better exposure.”
After declaring for the NBA draft without an agent but failing to get a combine invite, Daum, though, said he didn’t even take a look at the landscape to survey his options.
In a year where Reid Travis left Stanford for Kentucky, it’s not hard to picture Daum leaving the eastern edge of South Dakota for a program where nationally televised games, NBA scouts and luxury travel are the norm. Where an otherwise wildly successful season won’t end with a bad night at the conference tournament in Sioux Falls.
“I felt like as a coach when you’re in the position,” Otzelberger said, “as crazy as it sounds, if what we could offer Mike and what we were doing on a daily basis, if he got to a point at some time he felt like he wanted the bright lights of a bigger school or conference or more games on ESPN, that I wouldn’t be doing my job all the way if I didn’t present options, tell him those will be out there and support him in doing that.
“More than anything, we just tried to, on a daily basis, try to make it the best for him and hope he felt it fit him, that it was something he wanted to continue to be a part of and that he wasn’t looking for something else.”
That plan that played out over two years, with Daum as the basketball centerpiece and his personality the center of how South Dakota State structured the program’s culture.
“It was a pretty straightforward decision for me to come back to school,” Daum said. “I felt so loyal to SDSU. My parents, how I was raised – you start something, you’ve got to finish it there. And the community of Brookings has always been so welcoming, help develop me with basketball and outside of basketball to become a better person.
“SDSU was just the place to be. I can’t get enough of coach Otz. I can’t get enough of my teammates. Those dudes are literally the best dudes I’ve ever been around.”
Anyone basketball player – or person, really – dreams of having the day-to-day built around them. That’s the life Daum lives at South Dakota State.
Rarely without a smile on his face or a laugh coming from his mouth, Daum just likes being happy. He loves to laugh. That’s why South Dakota State runs its operation with a more leisurely-bent than something militaristic.
“His way to lead is being upbeat and jovial and joking around with guys and playing pranks,” Otzelberger said. “For some programs or some coaches, maybe they think that’s not taking things seriously, but what Mike does is he makes it fun to be there very day. His leadership creates an enjoyable atmosphere on a daily basis.
“Our guys spend a lot of time with each other off the court. They enjoy being around each other as a group. It’s not four guys over here and three guys over here. That’s a big credit to Mike because he makes it fun and he loves being around the guys.”
Even film sessions are created with Daum – and his sense of humor – in mind.
“Mike is a big ‘Borat’ fan,” Otzelberger said of the 2006 Sacha Baron Cohen comedy. “We put together a video edit of some winning plays and (graduate assistant) Reid Tellinghuisen put Borat’s voice behind a lot of things and Borat scenes, and Mike literally was on the ground, rolling laughing like it was the greatest thing ever. Telling stories, reciting lines in front of the whole team. Then he’s doing all those impersonations.
“It was one of those Mike Daum moments where the little kid in him comes out.”
While the smile doesn’t leave once Daum hits the floor, any idea of him being a kid does. It’s a grown man averaging 25.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game this season. Daum is among the country’s leaders in usage rate, defensive rebounding percentage and fouls drawn.
When he’s on the court, Daum is the center of the universe. Everything that happens seems to be a ripple effect from Daum’s play. He’s the focus of his teammates, the officials, opposing players and hostile fans.
South Dakota State’s offense is structured around him, hecklers are fixated on him, defenses are constructed to stop him and how physical teams are allowed to be with him is pivotal.
Preparing to play him is a singular headache of coaches of the Summit League.
“It sucks,” Omaha coach Derrin Hansen said. “He scores it from three, he pump fakes, he scores from the mid-post, he scores it from the post. They run him all over the place.
“Yeah, it blows.”
Daum’s abilities, as Hansen so aptly outlined, are unique as a 3-point shooting forward who largely plays below the rim with a plethora of devastating offensive moves. So, too, is that goofy demeanor. South Dakota State has been able to get the most out of both, largely by embracing both. While it’s natural to wonder what Daum’s final collegiate season could have looked like in the Big Ten or Big East, it’s not hard to imagine a bumpy transition for a program trying to acclimate a fifth-year senior accustomed to dominating play, the ball and the room.
“Ninety-five to 99 percent of the schools at the Power 5 conference level would have certainly loved to have a guy like Mike on their team. Who wouldn’t? He would have had those options,” Otzelberger said. “He could be successful anywhere, but at the same time we’ve kind of built everything around his abilities all the way around. There would have been different challenges because when you go into a different program and they have seniors and they have older guys that have been there for four years.
“Regardless of how good you are, they come in and they’re kind of skeptical and make you earn it over time. It’s not just a smooth transition where everybody says, ‘Here we go, let’s make it work for Mike.’ They’re saying you’ve got to fit in our puzzle rather than the other way around.”
The pieces continue to come together around Daum at South Dakota State.
While Daum’s 3-point shooting has dipped this season, he’s been as productive as ever to move his career into historic territory. He just passed Oscar Robinson on the all-time scoring list and the 3,000-point plateau, something just nine others have ever done. Doug McDermott’s 3,150 career points is within reach.
He hasn’t generated the legend or cult following of a McDermott or Stephen Curry or Jimmer Fredette despite the sweet stroke and piles of points. He could finish as a top-five career scoring in the sport’s history with four NCAA tournament appearances.
He could have also chased something foreign, something tantalizing and something unknown. He could have grasped for a spotlight that could have made him a household name rather than a torment to Summit League coaches.
There wouldn’t have been that trip to an escape room, though.
“We split it up two teams and it was the same escape room but one team was on this side and one team was on this side,” Daum recalled, giddiness dripping from every word. ”The thing I could remember is none of us could figure out the clues so we were just yelling back and forth at each other through this escape room.”
Or the video game sessions that lead to you-had-to-be-there moments.
“We got Fortnite thrown up on the TV or there’s this one game we’ve got called Quiplash. It’s through the Playstation and it asks a question – have you ever played apples to apples? So it’s kind of like that, but you create your own answers,” Daum said between laughs of excitement. ”We’ll get on the screens and it’ll say if you were falling off a volcano, who would you grab to fall with you? We all just start roasting each other during these types of games. We’ll say some stupid, belligerent stuff and all of us are just crying laughing.”
While the basketball world has been built for Mike Daum at South Dakota State, it’s his teammates off the court that have created the life that continues to bring him so much joy.
“This group of guys, I can’t get over. This is the closest group of dudes I’ve been around on and off the court,” he said. “We all laugh at the same things. We all have this great sense of humor. We’re not offended easily. We all have thick skin and we can all kind of get on each other and laugh at each other. This time of my life, I know I’m going to miss when I look back at it. I’m going to miss those memories but I also know I’m going to be able to look back and laugh at the things I’ve been through.”
That’s why Mike Daum is riding a bus around the Summit League, playing in games that exist buried somewhere deep inside your DirecTV guide or streaming app rather than chartering around the country playing made-for-TV spectacles with a blue blood’s jersey on his back.
“A lot of times people are in search of the bigger, better deal. I think patience isn’t a strength of most. A lot of times people feel like the grass is greener. There’s something they’re not getting or don’t have,” Otzelberger said. “For him, what’s probably more important is relationships with coaches, players, friends, people in the community and the experience he has. He’s seen that be an equation that’s worked really well for him, so I don’t think at any time he was feeling like, ‘Well, this is hurting my future by doing this,’ and I feel how we utilize him and value him and the opportunities we create for him, hopefully that’s true, that he feels like, ‘Yeah, I might have gotten a few more games on ESPN or had a few more scouts at a game, but at the end of the day I maybe wouldn’t have been used in the same way or developed the same way or had that same connection or relationship.’
“Hopefully he feels like that piece that it was the right choice.”
For Daum, there is no doubt.
“It feels like I’ve been training this my entire life to just continue to succeed each day and get the most out of each day. I feel like I’m making the most out of it,” he said. “Our guys have done such a great job creating such strong relationships and camaraderie on and off the court that allows us to play so together on the court. Our guys are hanging out 24/7. When we’re at practice, we’re always laughing and joking together. When we’re off the court, we’re getting together for lunch, we’re getting together at night doing random things.
“This is definitely the best situation.”
It’s the dream, and eventually it’ll end.
Why, then, would anyone leave before they absolutely had to?