De Smet set for run at 3-peat in Class B tourney
DE SMET — The De Smet Bulldogs have the opportunity to become just the second team to record a Class B championship 3-peat. The final push to accomplish that task will begin Thursday, when the 2023 Class B State Boys’ Basketball Tournament begins at the Barnett Center in Aberdeen.
“We have high expectations and feel that we are capable of getting to the championship game and coming out on top again,” said Jeff Gruenhagen, who has guided the Bulldogs to back-to-back state titles the past two seasons. “The players have good experience of the tourney and know it is a wide open field and are prepared to just be 1-0 Thursday and then go on from there. Our focus is on game 1.”
De Smet put together a 20-3 record this season and will enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed. The Bulldogs will play sixth-seeded Viborg-Hurley, which is also 20-3, in the opening round at 7:45 p.m.
“We know we had one too many losses in the regular season, but the seeding is very close and you can never put too much weight on where you are seeded. We are in the tourney and that gives us a chance to win it,” Gruenhagen said. “For example, the 8 seed lost to the one seed on the last basket of their game during the season so everybody has a shot.
“The seeding puts us on the more physical side of the bracket as it turns out, but that is hard to predict as we played our very tough schedule again this year and we hope that has prepared us to finish strong,” he said.
De Smet is undefeated against Class B teams this season, with its three losses coming against Class A opponents, including a pair that are in the Class A State Tournament.
The Bulldogs own wins this season against two of the teams in this year’s Class B tourney. De Smet defeated top-seeded Lower Brule 61-53 on Jan. 21 and got past No. 8-seeded Castlewood 56-36 two night later.
De Smet’s Kadyn Fast pulls up for a jumper during a SoDak 16 game against Crazy Horse on March 7 at Huron Arena.
While a third consecutive state title is definitely within reach for the Bulldogs, Gruenhagen knows where his team’s focus will be to start the tournament.
“I think it gives us an edge mentally that we have been able to do it and although we have many new players that did not log a lot of minutes last year they are focused on the task,” he said. “They have seen first hand what it takes to win this 3-day tourney and they know it starts with game 1.”
Viborg-Hurley will be making its sixth state tournament appearnce since 2011. The Cougars finished as the Class B runner-up on three of those occasions.
“VH is a young team but very athletic. They screen well and have really shot good from beyond the arc,” Gruenhagen said. “They have a really good inside game and we will have to rebound well and box out to keep them from getting going.”
Much of De Smet’s success this season can be contributed to 6-foot-10 senior Damon Wilkinson and a strong supporting cast. Gruenhagen believes his team will have some strengths to capitalize on against the Cougars.
"We will look to take advantage of our size inside and use Damon as we have all season,” he said. “We like to get up and pressure on defense and we hope to take advantage of our experience and force some turnovers and push the ball in transition.”
De Smet’s Kasen Janssen drives against a Crazy Horse defender during a Class B SoDak 16 game against Crazy Horse on March 7 at Huron Arena.
Wilkinson has led the Bulldogs this season an average of 21.3 points per game. He also has grabbed an average of 12.6 rebounds per game.
“Damon has been playing very well all season although he has been defended very hard,” Gruenhagen said. “He has done a great job keeping his cool and encouraging his teammates on both ends of the floor.”
Joining Wilkinson in the starting lineup for De Smet this season have been seniors Kasen Janssen and Gannon Gruenhagen, along with juniors Kadyn Fast and George Jensen.
Janssen has provided an outside threat for the Bulldogs, converting on 32 of 94 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He has averaged 9.4 points per game.
“Kasen has really had a great season,” Gruenhagen said. “He is one of our most consistent shooters and has used his length to create offensive rebounds and keep many posessions alive or score with a tip in.”
Gannon Gruenhagen serves the floor general from his point guard position for De Smet. He has dished out 53 assists, while recording 26 steals.
“Gannon is our point guard and plays great D,” the coach said. “He is a good inside passer and gets us fired up as part of his role this year.”
Offensively, Fast has provided an added spark this season for the Bulldogs. He has averaged 9.8 points per game, while handing out a team-high 66 assists.
“Kadyn is our other returning starter and has had some very big games on offense for us this year,” Gruenhagen said. “We rely on his defense to slow the other teams down and he has really done that for us. He has become a better scorer this year and that opens up Damon a lot on the inside.”
Jensen is the second-leading scoring on the team for De Smet with an average of 10.5 points per game. He has 53 assists and 35 blocked shots this season.
“He jumps very well and gets up fast changing shots and collecting rebounds,” Gruenhagen said of Jensen. “He can score in the paint as another post and has a sweet jumper from the perimeter. He is really becoming a great all-around player.”
George Jensen of De Smet puts up a shot against Hyden Martin of Crazy Horse during their Class B SoDak 16 game on March 7 at Huron Arena.
In the other opening round games on Thursday, top-seeded Lower Brule (20-3) will face No. 8 Castlewood (18-6) at noon; fourth-seeded Faith (22-1) will play No. 5 White River (19-4) at 1:45 p.m.; and second-seeded Aberdeen Christian (21-2) will play No. 7 Ethan 20-3) at 6 p.m.
The consolation semifinals are slated for noon and 1:45 p.m. Friday, with the semifinals to follow at 6 and 7:45 p.m.
The final day of the tourney on Saturday will begin with the seventh-place game at noon. The consolation champoinship will be decided at 1:45 p.m., with the third-place game scheduled for 6 p.m., and the championship game at 7:45 p.m.