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NCAA Tournament Provides Homecoming for Nebraska Natives

by Mar 20, 2024College Basketball, Preps Boys Basketball

NCAA Tournament
Photo Credit: Mike Sautter

NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday is a time of celebration for coaches, players and fans across the country, but this year’s show provided an extra bit of excitement for some.

Drake and South Dakota State were among the teams placed at the Omaha site for the first round, setting up a homecoming of sorts for a few Jackrabbits and Bulldogs with deep Nebraska ties.

South Dakota State drew a 15 seed, which means a tough first-round matchup against a 2 seed in Iowa State. However, it also meant a trip home for the three Nebraska natives on the South Dakota State roster in senior Charlie Easley, sophomore William Kyle III and redshirt freshman Jack Hastreiter.

Kyle, a Bellevue West product, is on his second business trip back home with the Jackrabbits this season, but playing at CHI Health Center Omaha in the NCAA Tournament is a little different than playing a conference game against Omaha at Baxter Arena.

“I was so excited,” Kyle said of his reaction to the draw. “I feel like it was meant to be, just coming back here and playing in Omaha. This is the biggest stage I’ve ever played on so I feel like it’s definitely a blessing to be so close to home.”

Kyle was a late bloomer in high school who has progressed rapidly during his two seasons in Brookings. He averaged 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds while making 25 starts as a freshman, then bumped those numbers up to 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore, earning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Summit League honors.

“The amount of growth that you’ve seen from William Kyle the last two years is just really special,” South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson said. “It’s really rewarding as a coach when you are able to see a young man put in the work that he does and then to be able to reap the benefits of it. He spends a ton of time in the gym. He’s a tremendous listener. He’s not afraid to be critiqued, and he wants to get better.”

This season hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for Kyle. He opened the season as a starter but moved to the bench after four games, where he remained for 10 games before returning to the starting lineup in early January. Since that point, the Jackrabbits have gone 19-4 and Kyle earned Summit League Tournament MVP after dropping a 15-point, 11-rebound double-double in the championship game.

“Midway through the year we were able to tweak a few things with how we were guarding certain things, and I think it put William in a lot more comfortable position,” Henderson said. “Honestly, ever since then the amount of impact that he’s been able to have on the defensive end has been tremendous. He’s done a terrific job of protecting the paint. Also, just even his skill development on the offensive end, he’s so comfortable with the ball with his back to the basket. He can play on the perimeter and doesn’t get uncomfortable. It’s just going to continue to get better and better.”

Kyle is a big reason the Jackrabbits made it to Omaha, and he’s grateful that he’s played a role in his team’s success.

“It feels great,” Kyle said. “Obviously winning is great and to be a part of that means so much to me, because I know how hard I worked and I know how hard we worked as a team to get to this point. I know we’re going to keep on working.”

Thursday will be Easley’s second career game at CHI Health Center Omaha. He scored his first collegiate points on that court back in 2019 when the Lincoln Pius X grad was a freshman walk-on at Nebraska. Now he’s a fifth-year scholarship player, double-digit scorer and team leader for the Jackrabbits.

“It’s just kind of crazy that’s how it happens,” Easley said. “And being back here for one of the biggest moments in my basketball career, it just kind of makes me appreciate the journey that it’s been for me basketball-wise and with all my teammates. It’s kind of surreal, and I’m going to appreciate every moment of it.”

Easley spent one season as a walk-on at Nebraska before entering the transfer portal. Henderson saw Easley play plenty in high school as he was summer teammates with former Jackrabbit and current Creighton Bluejay Baylor Scheierman at Omaha Sports Academy. The Jackrabbits didn’t end up offering Easley at scholarship, which Henderson said was probably a mistake, but they weren’t going to miss out on him a second time.

“I just knew when he went in, he would be somebody that would be a tremendous fit at South Dakota State,” Henderson said. “He stands for all the right things. His toughness, his ability to just bring the feistiness and just that mantra to your team is incredible. He has the ability to impact the game in so many ways. He’s just had a tremendous career. He has been hurt a little bit here and there, but what he fights through to be on the court, man, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached.”

Easley was a role player for the Jackrabbits during his first three seasons in Brookings and he battled through injury issues that limited him to 18 games in 2022-23, but he chose to return for a fifth season this year and has made the most of it, putting up 12.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game on terrific shooting efficiency while also earning Summit All-Defense honors.

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Easley suffered an ankle injury late in the Summit League Tournament final against Denver last week but was back out on the practice floor with his team Thursday.

“I’ve learned so much,” Kyle said of playing with Easley. “He’s one of the most resilient players I’ve ever played with. He’s been through so much these past two years with injury. He’s just tough as rocks. He’s one of the toughest players if not the toughest player I’ve ever met. He’s playing through injuries, he’s making hustle plays, diving on the floor. I feel like that’s the one thing I’m going to take away from playing with Charlie and I’m glad that we got to play together this last year and I got to play two years with him as well.”

Like Easley, Hastreiter hails from Lincoln Pius X. The 6-foot-7 wing is still working to earn his way into the rotation after redshirting last year. He’s played in nine games this season, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds.

Between Omaha’s proximity to Brookings and local friends and family, the Nebraska Jackrabbits are expecting plenty of fan support on Thursday. Easley said playing at home is something he’ll never forget, and Kyle feels the same way.

“I just saw a family friend drive by when we were getting on the bus,” Kyle said. “It’s crazy, definitely a lot of love and support, so I know they’re going to be proud of me regardless what happens tomorrow. I’m just super blessed to be in this situation and I’m just super excited to play in this environment.”

The nightcap at CHI Health Center should feature a terrific environment as well as Darian DeVries, who spent 20 years as an assistant coach at Creighton, brings his Drake Bulldogs to Omaha. Drake is 28-6 and won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the third time in DeVries’ six seasons as the head coach in Des Moines. The Bulldogs are the 10 seed in the Midwest and will face No. 7 Washington State.

“I know my son and I, we’ve spent a lot of time on this gym floor as he was growing up,” DeVries said. “It’s a special feeling to be back, get a chance to play here, play in front of so many people that we have friendships with over the last 20 years.”

His son is Tucker DeVries, a 6-foot-7 wing who grew up in Omaha and spent his freshman year of high school at Elkhorn South before moving to Iowa when Darian took over at Drake. Having grown up around the Creighton program — “running around the place, probably being annoying” — and seeing the likes of Doug McDermott and other great players make a name for themselves on the CHI Health Center floor, he’s grateful for the opportunity to do the same himself.

“It felt pretty good, a lot of memories,” Tucker said of walking into CHI Thursday. “I was able to come back this year for Doug’s jersey retirement. So being back here and kind of soaking it all in and hopefully being able to create my own memories here as a player would be pretty special.”

Tucker received an offer from Creighton among other high-majors coming out of Waukee High School, but he decided to follow in McDermott’s footsteps and play for his dad instead. Now the two-time MVC Player of the Year is preparing for his second NCAA Tournament and is among the nation’s leading scorers, averaging 21.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists for the Bulldogs.

This is a business trip for Coach DeVries, but Darian the Dad is looking forward to seeing his son lead his team out onto the court he grew up on.

“Having spent 20 years here and spending so much time on the floor with him, there was a lot of days I didn’t see that in his future, to be honest with you,” Darian said. “As he has gotten older and had a nice little growth spurt, those things changed a little bit. I’m happy for him to be able to get to play here, a place he grew up, and has so many friends in the area that are going to be in attendance tomorrow night. I know it’s certainly something he has dreamed about as he was growing up, so it should be a special game for him.”

Drake is 80-25 over the past three years since Tucker set foot on campus, and Darian said the DeVries family is “having a blast.”

“Our time together, we certainly appreciate,” Darian said. “In this profession as he was growing up, you miss a lot of those weekend tournaments because you are playing and recruiting. Now to be able to spend so much time together and experience it side-by-side is a pretty unique and special deal for a father/son.”

Between fans traveling from Des Moines, friends and family still in Omaha and Creighton fans who didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh, Tucker is hoping to see a large contingent supporting the Bulldogs on Thursday night.

“I expect it to be a great crowd,” Tucker said. “Hopefully a pro-Drake crowd too. I think it’s nice that our fans are able to make the short trip down here and come to the game. There’s going to be a lot of Iowa State fans here that hopefully support us for the first game. And then obviously just the Omaha, Creighton people that were able to get tickets and hopefully they’re pro-Drake as well, which we’ll take all the fans we can get.”

South Dakota State-Iowa State is scheduled to tip off at 6:35 p.m., and Drake-Washington State will follow 30 minutes after the first game’s completion.

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