USC Trojans won't overlook South Dakota State at women's NCAA tournament
Southern Cal well aware of the history of success Jackrabbit women's team takes into first-round matchup in Blacksburg
BLACKSBURG, Va. — If South Dakota State defeats Southern Cal in Friday's women's NCAA tournament first round, it won't be because the Trojans didn't respect the Jackrabbits.
While the USC Trojans are an athletic giant compared to little ol' SDSU, it couldn't be clearer the Pac-12 power is well aware of the Jacks and the mid-major dominance that has characterized their women's basketball program in the last decade-plus. This is SDSU's 11th NCAA tournament appearance in 15 years of being eligible for Division I postseason. The Trojans, by contrast, are here for the first time since 2014.
For USC, it's a triumphant return to the tournament under a new coach — Lindsay Gottlieb — who has a history of success. She was a regular tournament qualifier at Cal and came to L.A. after a stint as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The expectation is that the Women of Troy are just getting started under Gottlieb. But that doesn't mean they're looking past the Jacks and ahead to a potential challenge with top-seeded Virginia Tech.
"South Dakota State is a really, really good team," said Trojans guard Destiny Littleton, who won a national championship with South Carolina last year. "We're just super excited not only to be here, but to be able to play against a really good team."
That respect is two-fold. The Jacks have established themselves as a tournament regular to a degree that anyone who pays even a little attention to women's college hoops knows about SDSU. But the Trojans are not only aware of the tradition as a program. They're also impressed with what the 2023 team has done and is capable of doing.
"I've seen a couple of people pick them," Gottlieb said. "I think they're a team that's synonymous with postseason play, and they have some veteran players.
"They haven't lost a game in a couple of months," the Trojan coach added. "They run great stuff. They score so well. It's a quick prep. Like, we have to learn about them right away. You do the best you can to learn their tendencies and learn what they want to do, but really at this time of year you're relying on who you are and what we do well. You do your best to put in the game plan that's intended to slow them down a little bit."
For the Jacks, that level of respect from a Pac-12 (soon to be Big Ten) program is nice to hear. But it also means the days of coming in as the little-known underdog and shocking an unsuspecting opponent are over.
"I think it says a lot about just how much work we've put in as a program to get where we are to earn that respect from the media, other teams and to be able to receive that No. 9 seed," said SDSU senior forward Paiton Burckhard. "So yeah, it kind of is fun being the underdog, playing that role sometimes. But also, especially being in the program for as long as Myah and I have, just earning that respect and seeing where it started and where it is to today is a pretty awesome feeling."
Specifically, the Trojans are impressed with SDSU's offense. Both teams are the best in their respective conference on defense, but while USC averages a mere 64 points per game, the Jacks score almost 80. The Trojans will have a size advantage (as most power conference schools do over SDSU), but they know the Jacks can give them problems on the perimeter.
"Their size is a lot different from ours," said Trojan sophomore Rayah Marshall, a 6-foot-4 wing who was named to the All-Pac 12 defensive team. "They're a very strong shooting team. We're a strong defensive team, and I believe they average about 80 points. We're looking to hopefully keep them under that, and that's what we're focusing in on."
The Jacks, meanwhile, are also not looking ahead to a potential showdown with the top-seeded Hokies. They've won first round games with a lower seed than a nine before, but they know a big, physical Pac-12 squad can be a nightmare for them if they don't succeed in playing their style of basketball.
"They have really kind of elevated their program in the last couple of years and that's been fun to watch," said Jacks coach Aaron Johnston. "USC has a really storied tradition of women's basketball and what they mean to the national landscape in women's basketball, and now you can see them trending back in that direction with the current team and the young people they will have joining their team in the future.
"I think the contrasting styles are going to benefit whoever executes better," Johnston added. "If USC can get us maybe sped up and uncomfortable in our halfcourt offense and turn us over, they have the ability to block a lot of shots, challenge us at the rim. If their style is winning out, it's going to be hard for us. On the flipside, if we can get them moving more or get them chasing on the perimeter, that's going to play into our hands."
Women's NCAA tournament
No. 8 Southern California (21-9) vs. No. 9 South Dakota State (28-5)
Where: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.
Time: 7 p.m.