South Dakota is still the mecca of women's college basketball

South Dakota has become the mecca of women's college basketball
South Dakota has become the mecca of women's college basketball / Rich Barnes/Getty Images

South Dakota — or, as it’s better known, the basketball capital of the United States — has finally entered a part of the country’s consciousness that cannot be ignored.

On Sunday, the South Dakota Coyotes and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits will meet in the 2030 women’s basketball national championship game. All eyes will be on the two South Dakota teams because of their powerhouse play, but also because the women’s college basketball schedule was permanently separated from the men’s and moved to the fall three years ago. It’s a clash whose magnitude remains unprecedented, even though the teams still meet two times a year — usually three, counting the conference tournament title game — in Summit League play.

“I mean, what?” a fan eagerly asked both everyone around them and no one in particular after South Dakota State notched its place in the title game with a win over Baylor, just a few hours after South Dakota had done the same against Arizona. “What is happening here?!”

It’ll be the first time two current non-Power Five schools have met in the title game since UConn and Louisville, then both in the Big East, faced off in 2009 and 2013.

But it’s a rare feat otherwise — the inaugural NCAA women’s basketball championship in 1982 saw independent Louisiana Tech defeat Division II Cheyney State; then USC, at the time part of the Western Collegiate Athletic Association., defeated Louisiana Tech in the 1983 title game.

But how did we get here?

Both programs are relatively new to the Division I scene. South Dakota State entered the fold in 2004, while South Dakota joined in 2008. Their first Summit League tournament championship game meeting came in 2013, which ended up being the Jackrabbits’ fifth straight title. The very next year, the Coyotes, against Denver, took the title right back.

In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the two South Dakota schools met in the tournament final, with 2019 marking the first time two Summit League schools made the NCAA Tournament after South Dakota State defeated nationally-ranked South Dakota. The Coyotes took back the title in 2020, and the schools have alternated ever since, both dancing each season. In this year’s Summit League final — the first time they’ve met as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams not just in the conference, but in the country — South Dakota defeated South Dakota State 130-127 in a quintuple-overtime thriller.

Despite all this success, never before have the schools met in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve generally been placed in different parts of the bracket as a safeguard, to ensure that two same-conference teams don’t meet too early, but each time an Elite Eight or Final Four matchup has seemed inevitable over the past decade, a surprise loss ends one team’s run. But, accordingly, neither has made a national championship game in this time, either, as if waiting for the other to join them.

The twin successes of the rivals has caused a stir among top recruits not just in the basketball capital of the United States, but across the country. As the 2020s roared on, high school players that were thought to be locks at national powers UConn, South Carolina, Stanford and more suddenly shifted course, placing the South Dakota schools in their top-fives; then, in their top-twos. In 2028, for the first time in what has become a yearly tradition, ESPN devoted an hour-long special to revealing which part of South Dakota each of these players would choose to spend their next four years.

South Dakota State head coach Macy Miller, a 2019 alumna of the program and former graduate assistant, a home-state legend who has long been a proponent of homegrown South Dakota basketball, has also worked to ensure that for every top-10 prospect signed, one more in-state prospect gets a shot, too. That same informal rule also exists on the other side, as 14-year head coach Dawn Plitzuweit’s attention to local talent has driven the Coyotes’ success.

What’s most remarkable about this dynasty, though, besides its longevity, is that it’s made the entire Summit League better, too. The chance to play against the South Dakota schools, it seems, is almost as enticing a prospect as playing for them. Kansas City, which returned to the Summit League for the 2020-21 season after a brief absence, immediately notched a solid third-place finish and earned a surprise third NCAA Tournament bid. Fittingly, this came one season after possibly losing its chance to compete on the big stage for the first time due to the national tournament’s cancellation.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the Summit League’s balance of prestige and leadership, making everyone around the top teams better, is when St. Thomas joined the conference from Division III in 2021. After its transitionary period, during which it was ineligible for postseason play, the Tommies were part of the first four-bid Summit League representation at the NCAA Tournament in 2026.

Now, a four-bid, or even five-bid, Summit League offering in the NCAA Tournament is a given.

“It’s incredible,” that same fan said, as they lifted their South Dakota hoodie to reveal a South Dakota State shirt underneath, then lowered it, the decision clearly agonizing. “I’m from Rapid City, you know, the other side of the state. I didn’t have any allegiance. I still don’t. I didn’t even like basketball until a few years ago. I’m just happy we’re all here together, the little guys.”

Though the polar opposite is true in either town’s City Hall, with rumblings of a bet between the mayors of Brookings (home to South Dakota State) and Vermillion (home to South Dakota) involving wearing the other school’s shirt for an entire day persist — a prospect for which both mayors have expressed a deep, almost mortal disdain — the focus is fully on the court. No matter what, for everyone in attendance, Sunday’s game will be nothing short of miraculous.

“History is happening in South Dakota, and we just happen to be in the greatest state in the world,” a South Dakota-fied version of the song from the musical Hamilton went at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the site of the 2030 Final Four. “The greatest state in the world!”

What is FanSided 2030?