Zeke Mayo takes the point, and the leadership role, for SDSU
Jackrabbit guard is averaging 18.1 points per game following a 41-point outburst last weekend.
BROOKINGS — When the season began, South Dakota State knew they needed to find more offense.
They'd graduated electric forward Doug Wilson, who averaged 16.4 points per game, while point guard Baylor Scheierman, who averaged 16.2, transferred to Creighton. The Jackrabbits had a handful of capable returners, but none who had scored in double figures in 2021-22.
Someone, the Jacks knew, needed to step up as the team's go-to offensive weapon. The guy who can put the team on his back and carry them for stretches when the offense gets stagnant. The guy who everyone agrees should take the shot to win the game.
They needed an alpha.
Zeke Mayo is him.
He's third in the league with 18.1 points per game, riding a recent streak that has seen the Jacks surge after a slow start, while Mayo has put up some offensive performances reminiscent of past Jackrabbit greats like Mike Daum and Nate Wolters.
It's been a gradual process.
One of the Summit League's top freshmen last year, when he averaged 9.6 points per game, many figured Mayo was the obvious candidate to fill the role of offensive leader this season. But that's not something that happens just by saying it, or even, necessarily, by trying to do it.
Mayo didn't want to force it. And coach Eric Henderson didn't want him to force it. Four games into the season, Mayo was averaging 9.3 points.
But in game five, Mayo went for 24 points against Stephen F. Austin, and he only needed 13 shots to do it. Maybe that was a turning point. Yes, the Jacks wanted the ball in Mayo's hands as often as possible, but he could still be a pass-first point guard, and if he attacked correctly and found the right shots, he could score 20-plus points without needing to jack up 20 shots.
He went for 30 points on just 16 field goal attempts in leading a miraculous comeback against Eastern Washington, and two weeks later scored 33 in a win over Western Illinois.
Lately, he's really been pouring it on.
Starting with a 19-point performance against USD — the team the Jacks will host Saturday at Frost Arena — Mayo has averaged 25.5 points over his last eight games, topped off a career-high 41 points in a thrilling win over North Dakota State. Mayo was 14-of-25 from the floor in that game, including 6-of-9 from outside the arc.
"He's put in a ton of work," Henderson said of his 6-foot-3 sophomore. "We never lost confidence in him. At the start of the year — it was a new role. There was a lot on his plate. Not that he wasn't ready for it, but he wasn't sure how it was gonna feel. Now he's learned from that and those times of adversity and gotten better and is enjoying the moment. He never wavered in his confidence."
Nearly half of Mayo's field goal attempts have been from 3-point land, and he's proven himself dangerous from out there, shooting at a 38 percent clip. That's below last year's .415 percentage from outside, but it's a tougher shot this year. With Scheierman spacing the floor and Wilson commanding attention inside last year, the Jacks had open shooters on every corner of the court, which resulted in them shooting an astounding .445 from 3-point land as a team.
This year, with more attention focused on him, Mayo has often had to create his own shot. His 67 3-pointers made are the third-most in the league, but he's also become more dangerous as a slasher and mid-range shooter. Whereas last year, Mayo took 53 percent of his shots from outside the arc, this year, he's at an almost 50/50 split, and he's shooting 51 percent on 2-point field goals. He also gets to the free-throw line more than anyone on the team, and connects at a 90.5 percent rate.
With Luke Appel out for the season and fellow guard Charlie Easley missing most of the last month with an injury, Mayo's emergence has been even more important, and in some ways, those injuries might have been a blessing in disguise, in that they accelerated Mayo's willingness and ability to take over.
"It all starts with my coaches and teammates," Mayo said. "In practice, they try to instill in my head that they want the ball in my hands. So I work on stuff like this, but at the end of the day, it's all trust in my coaches and teammates."
Still, his rise hasn't surprised anyone outside of the program.
"He's just got the ball in his hands more," NDSU coach Dave Richman said. "He's a very poised young man for only being a sophomore. He's got a terrific skill set and he's got a mentality to him. He's just very, very talented."
Expanding that skill set has been another positive development. Mayo averaged 2.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists last year. This season, he ranks eighth in the league with 6.2 rebounds per game and sixth in assists with 3.4. He's also shown a willingness to take on difficult assignments on defense, an area in which he's still improving. It hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Against us, he was 6-for-19 but he had six assists and eight rebounds," said USD coach Eric Peterson. "He can do everything. I always tell our team, if they take away your best quality, how are you going to impact the team? He had eight and six.
"The best players in our league have some swag and they believe in themselves," Peterson added. "He's got swagger and he plays confident. He can create shots for himself and he can create shots for others. That's what elite players do."
Mayo will hope to put on another show on Saturday in the latest chapter of the in-state rivalry with the Coyotes, and while Oral Roberts is running away with the league title at 12-0, the 9-4 Jackrabbits are positioning themselves, if not for the regular season title, then for a strong enough finish to give them confidence they can challenge the Golden Eagles in the Summit League tournament.
That will be in Sioux Falls, of course, where Mayo's new role as the team's primary weapon will be as important as ever.
"Stepping into that role when Baylor and Doug left, was he ready or was he not ready — that was the question," Henderson said. "We knew he had it in him. He's been learning on the job, and with the selflessness he's done that with, I'm just really happy for him as a person and the growth and maturity he's shown."