January 3rd Game of the Day: Western Illinois Leathernecks at South Dakota Coyotes

Gilbeck, Brandon (4)
Junior forward Brandon Gilbeck (52) is averaging 3.1 blocks per game this season, which is tied for the 11th-best mark in the country. (Header: South Dakota Athletics)

VERMILLION, SD — Wednesday’s Game of the Day features a pair of teams who don’t care for your preseason predictions in the Summit League.

Last season, the South Dakota Coyotes were picked to finish seventh in the Summit League standings. Instead, they went 12-4 in conference play to take home the regular season crown. It was their first regular season conference title in school history. With that, they also made their first-ever appearance in the National Invitational Tournament.

Fast forward to this season, and seemingly everyone wrote off the Western Illinois Leathernecks before the season started, picking them to finish eighth in the eight team league. All the Leathernecks did during non-conference play is put together an 8-4 record, matching their win total from all of last season.

Now, the Leathernecks have their sights set on climbing in the Summit League standings and proving everyone wrong, much like the Coyotes did last season. While they may not win the conference title, they have a young nucleus that will only get better with each passing year.

On Wednesday, Western Illinois opens up their conference slate with a road game against the Coyotes. South Dakota is 1-0 in Summit League play, having picked up an 82-71 win over the Denver Pioneers to close out 2017.

Here’s everything you need to know in advance of Wednesday’s match-up between the Leathernecks and Coyotes.

Scouting Report

The 2017-18 season has been a strong one for Western Illinois so far, and they are showing no signs of slowing down. At 8-4 overall, they have matched last year’s win total, and they have already scored 90 points or more on five occasions through 12 games. Last season, they scored 90 or more points five times, but did so in 28 games.

Western Illinois also commits the fewest fouls of any team in the nation. They have been whistled for a total of 164 fouls through 12 games. Their ability to stay out of foul trouble has allowed them to stay in close games, and has given them plenty of chances to come away victorious.

Leading the way for the Leathernecks this season has been senior guard Dalan Ancrum, who is having himself a career year as the lead option on offense. Ancrum is averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, while shooting 51.1% from the field. He has improved in all major statistical categories from last season, and has at least doubled his production from 2016-17 in all but rebounds. Ancrum’s three point shooting and free throw shooting percentages have dropped, but he is still shooting 43.1% from beyond the arc and 79.2% from the free throw line. I’ll take those numbers any day.

When you add in junior big man Brandon Gilbeck (who is the only player in the country to average 12.5 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks while shooting 70% from the field) and freshman guard Kobe Webster (who leads the Summit League with 4.9 assists per game) to the mix, it’s clear to see that the Leathernecks have a talented roster that will surely turn some heads during conference play.


Coming into Wednesday night, South Dakota sits at 13-4 on the season. Their record could easily be better, as three of their four losses have come by five points or less. They have a five-point road loss against the TCU Horned Frogs on their resume, plus a one-point loss to the Northern Colorado Bears and a three-point loss to the UCLA Bruins. Any of those games could have gone the other way, and the Coyotes could just as easily been 16-1 coming into Wednesday.

They have won two straight games, including a Summit League opening win over Denver in their final game of 2017. The Coyotes have won six of their last seven contests overall, and are hitting their stride at just the right time. South Dakota has the best record of any team in the Summit League, sitting a full game ahead of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (12-5, 0-0).

Junior guard Matt Mooney has been a dynamic scorer for the Coyotes this season. In 16 games, he leads the Coyotes in scoring, averaging 17.6 points per game to go along with 3.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.1 steals per contest. He put up a career-high 31 points against TCU in the third game of the season for South Dakota, and has since posted four games with 20+ points. Mooney is one of the best players in the Summit League, let alone the country, and has proven his abilities time and time again. He’s a handful.

But, South Dakota’s offense goes beyond the junior guard. Forward Tyler Hagedorn, who will likely draw Gilbeck on Wednesday, has shown flashes of stardom during the 2017-18 season. Hagedorn posted back-to-back 20+ point, six rebound performances during the Coyotes’ west coast road trip. He went for 27 points and six rebounds in a win over the San Jose State Spartans on December 17th. Hagedorn is averaging 14.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, and will look to find a way around Gilbeck in the paint to take pressure off the guards on the back end.

Add in the likes of Trey Burch-Manning and Triston Simpson to the mix, and the Coyotes have arguably the top roster in the Summit League this season. They will look to move to 2-0 with a win over the Leathernecks, and take another step towards defending their conference crown.


Players to Watch

Western Illinois – Brandon Gilbeck

Back in the off-season, Brandon Gilbeck was one of 14 players selected to the College Court Report Mid-Major Dream Team for the 2017-18 season, and for good reason. At 6’11”, Gilbeck is one of the nation’s premier shot blockers, averaging 3.1 rejections per game to rank 11th in the nation. Known for his defense, Gilbeck has shown improved offensive abilities this season, averaging a career-high 12.9 points per game while shooting 70.9% from the floor, which is also a career-best mark. He has five double-doubles on the year, and all have come in wins for the Leathernecks. Coincidence? Possibly. But, if Gilbeck can put together a double-double against a South Dakota team that doesn’t have the size inside to match up with Gilbeck, then the Leathernecks will be in a good position to come away with a win.


South Dakota – Triston Simpson

In year two, guard Triston Simpson has continued to develop into an all-round guard for South Dakota. Some would call him a Glue Guy for the Coyotes, and they would be right. Simpson is averaging 8.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, while shooting 44.9% from the floor. He has improved his shooting percentage by over 50 percentage points in comparison to last year (39.7%). The native of Lincoln, NE is coming off a 17-point performance against the Pioneers last time out, giving him four double-digit scoring performances on the season. As the calendar flips to 2018, Simpson will look to continue his development on both ends of the floor. Western Illinois will be a good test for the sophomore guard, as the Leathernecks have a talented back court rotation that will challenge Simpson, Mooney, and the rest of the Coyotes.


Prediction

The all-time series between the Leathernecks and Coyotes has been a close one, as South Dakota holds a 9-7 record against Western Illinois. The last time that the Leathernecks opened up Summit League play on the road in Vermillion, they left with a 73-71 victory.

Western Illinois will look to score another win on the road against the Coyotes to kick off conference play. If they want to be successful, they need to limit their turnovers. They have committed 17 or more turnovers in seven of their last nine games, which isn’t a recipe for success.

As for the Coyotes, they will lean on Matt Mooney and Tyler Hagedorn to carry them towards another victory on Wednesday. Mooney ranks third in the Summit League in terms of scoring (17.6 ppg) and steals (2.1 spg), and is always a threat to go off on any given night. Given the offensive abilities of the Coyotes, and how turnover-prone the Leathernecks are, South Dakota will hold down home court and move to 2-0 in conference play.

South Dakota – 81
Western Illinois – 72

– T. Bennett