Part of what’s made the South Dakota State women’s basketball program unprecedentedly successful in its transition to the NCAA Division I level is its willingness to schedule - and ability to occasionally beat - top-shelf teams. The tone was set in Game 4 of Season 1 at the major-college level: A road trip to Rutgers.
The Jackrabbits since have faced Baylor, Oklahoma, Maryland, Purdue, Xavier and Stanford - to name a few - at times when those programs were Final Four caliber.
But tonight’s meeting with Notre Dame seems on the surface to be a different challenge. The Irish are undefeated and ranked No. 2 in both polls, the highest standing of any SDSU opponent ever. They’ve won 33 regular-season games in a row at home, where they average more than 8,500 fans. They’ve been to the Final Four or deeper three years in a row and won the national title in 2001.
Notre Dame is almost inarguably among the top 5 programs - not teams, but sustained programs - in the women’s game at the moment. The list probably goes something like this: UConn, Tennessee, Stanford, Notre Dame and Baylor. Maybe Duke.
The point is that the Irish are elite at the moment and over the past several years. They’re not just big in name, they’re considerable in game. SDSU has not faced a situation like this – a true road game against a legit powerhouse in the regular season. (This feels akin to a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.) And new experiences have gotten harder to come by given the time at the D-I level (10 years) and success (seven consecutive postseasons) for the Jacks.
However, it’s unclear what the contest will or won’t mean for the team and the program. The SDSU program will benefit from this game in that it’s part of a home-and-home contract; getting Notre Dame to visit Brookings in one of the next two seasons is a major coup. On the other hand, the SDSU team has struggled mightily on the road this season - perhaps a decent showing will be a confidence booster?
It seemed like the Jacks had moved past the point of moral victories. There’s an answer forthcoming.
I’ll have complete live coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. CT.
Terry Vandrovec also posts regular updates on his Twitter page.