One could forgive Mike Daum for letting some things go to his head. After a breakout redshirt-freshman campaign for South Dakota State, Daum has spent the offseason being praised by every media outlet imaginable.
Going back to the 2015-16 preseason awards, the 6-foot-9 big man has been:
• named Sixth Man and Freshman of the Year for the Summit League
• chosen as the Most Valuable Player for the Summit League tournament
• listed as one of the most important players for his team by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan
• picked as the fourth-most well-rounded college basketball player by Bleacher Report’s Brian Pedersen
• unanimously tabbed as the Summit League’s Preseason Player of the Year
In the span of one year, Daum went from a relative unknown in the college basketball world to one of the most notable returning players, especially among one-bid conference schools.
All this for a player who started just two games last year. It would make sense, and nobody would really blame him, if he developed some kind of an ego. But that’s not Mike Daum.
“Honestly, I try to overlook most of that stuff,” Daum told Today’s U.
“I know this season is pretty important for me and I’m just going to go into it with the same kind of mindset I did last year. And that’s one thing that’s helped with coach T.J. (Otzelberger) and my family and my teammates, helping me keep a cool, calm head through everything. Really, I don’t have to worry about that stuff. I feel like I’m strong mentally, so I’m just going to go out and play with no worries.”
With his unique offensive skill set — an ability to beat a team from the perimeter (44.6% three-point shooter) or inside the paint — Daum fits the mold for the modern big man, which serves as one of the biggest reason’s he’s become such a hot commodity in college basketball.
During his introductory press conference back in April, South Dakota State’s new coach T.J. Otzelberger compared Daum’s game to that of Georges Niang, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant. Now that he’s had a chance to see the Kimball, Nebraska product up close, Otzelberger’s finding more quality to his top returning player.
“Probably what’s really stood out to me in practice is he does a really good job getting to the foul line and what a great free throw shooter he is,” Otzelberger said.
“I think he has so many characteristics of those guys (Niang, Durant and Nowitzki). What he’s become and what I didn’t know he could be is what a great passer he can be. When there’s post double teams, guys digging off, he can be an unbelievable passer to make plays for people.”
Otzelberger comes to the Jackrabbits after spending the past few years as Iowa State’s top assistant where he worked closely with Niang. Now with the Indiana Pacers, Niang spent the last three years of his college career carving out a legacy as one of the most productive and winningest players in Cyclone history. Daum says Otzelberger mentions his similarities to Niang once in a while, mostly as a way to remind him how much of a matchup problem he is for most opponents.
There was a time, however, when it wasn’t a certainty Daum would return to Brookings. Some outside of the program, most notably fans and local media, figured he’d be destined to transfer to transfer to a bigger program. When head coach Scott Nagy left for Wright State back in late March, Daum did consider the possibility of moving on as well, but it didn’t last very long.
“Right after the season I didn’t think too much about it,” Daum said.
“When Coach Nagy left, I think it was hindering in the back of my mind. One of the first thoughts that came to mind was maybe I should go back home to Nebraska and look there because it was the Big Ten, it was bigger. The thing is, when I started looking at that I just thought it wasn’t right. When T.J. came in for an interview to meet the players, I knew that if we got him then this was the place to be. I’m glad I stayed. I have zero regrets not transferring. This is the place to be.”
Coincidentally, Iowa State was a name that surfaced in Daum transfer talks, mostly because of how the Cyclones use their big men within the type of offense they run. With Otzelberger in, the offense many felt Daum would flourish in was coming to South Dakota State. Transferring no longer felt necessary.
Part of Otzelberger’s job now is to not only lead a group of new faces for himself, but to utilize his sophomore big man’s talents and keep him focused. The new Jackrabbit head coach hasn’t had a problem with that so far.
“The great thing about Mike is his foundation and his character,” Otzelberger said.
“Nobody holds him to a higher standard than Mike himself and he takes a lot of pride in playing for the name on the front of his jersey and not on the name on the back and he’s a tremendous leader. All those things for him come pretty naturally. He wants to lead, step up more and be better and it’s my job to continue to find ways to play to put him in the best positions to be successful. I feel like we’re going to do that and he’s embraced it.”
Daum and junior wing Reed Tellinghuisen were chosen as team captains for the upcoming season. Those two, along with Ian Theisen, who started ahead of Daum last season, all came in the same recruiting 2014 recruiting class. Tellinghuisen has been a starter since day one and Theisen was named a starter last year after spending his freshman year as a backup.
The trio are quite close and live together in an off-campus apartment. Now the star name of the three, Daum was the lone redshirt during the 2014-’15 season. He quickly realized that he wasn’t ready for the college game.
“It was a big transition from my high school,” said Daum.
“I came in overweight, I wasn’t really ready for the physicality of the game of college basketball and I realized that the first week of summer workouts when I came up here my freshman year. When I redshirted, I knew it was a good thing, I knew it was going to be tough with me being the only redshirt that year, so I knew I had to mentally strong going through it. Once I just cracked down, I knew it was all going to be worth it in the end, and that’s what happened. It just paid off.”
Since he first joined the Jacks, Daum has shed the baby fat and turned it into muscle, allowing him to utilize his 7-foot-3 wingspan in the post. He’s also gone away from the three-point shot as his main source of scoring, shooting far fewer threes than he did out of high school.
Tellinghuisen said that Daum hasn’t changed despite the added attention on him.
“He’s handled it all great,” he said. “He’s one of the best teammates we have. He’s in there practicing hard every single day and he’s doing whatever he can to help this team succeed.”
Daum enters the 2016-’17 season as the most notable name in the conference, but the reigning Summit League champs aren’t considered the favorites this time around.
Fort Wayne, which tied with the Jackrabbits for the regular season title last year, was pegged as the preseason pick to reach the NCAA Tournament. Like the Jackrabbits, though, the Mastodons lose a lot of talent from last year’s team, including POY Max Landis, and are hoping that transfers will fit in with the pieces they return.
Being in the conference for the first time, Otzelberger doesn’t have a reference point to how the league could play out. Instead, he and his coaching staff are cautioning the players that the past is the past and last year’s success doesn’t dictate what will happen this year.
“It’s going to be a telling season,” Daum said of the conference.
“We don’t like to see that (Fort Wayne) is up top, but it really is a motivation factor because we know we’re going to have a target on our back the entire season. I think our conference is one of the most overlooked conferences with some of the best low key players in the nation and some of the people don’t understand yet. Our conference is on the rise.”
The Jackrabbits will also have to be wary of their rival up north, the Bison of North Dakota State. David Richman’s team returns most of his roster from last year and is deep at guard, an unknown position for SDSU. If everything comes together, though, Tellinghuisen feels the potential of this year’s squad is similar to last year’s.
“I think we can make it to the NCAA Tournament and win some games,” he said. “The potential is very high for this team. We have all the right pieces offensively, it’s whether our defense shows up each and every night. We’re going to be able to score the ball this year. Our offense is going to be really good this year, it’s going to be whether our defense can come together. We’ve made huge steps so far this preseason.”