Mike Daum, Diamond Stone

South Dakota State's Mike Daum makes a move against Maryland at the NCAA Tournament in March 2016 in Spokane, Wash. Daum is averaging 25 points a game in leading the Jackrabbits into the tournament again this season.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Coach Brandon Valdez was preparing his team for another game in a big basketball tournament in Indianapolis.

The next opponent was out of Mississippi. There were no scouting reports available. No game film to break down. Play a game, and on to the next one that same day.

Valdez did get one piece information prior to the game. He was told that the Mississippi team was ranked among the Top 25 AAU squads in the country. 

"I had no idea," Valdez said. "But I knew we were in trouble when we started the game and Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino were there, because they sure as hell weren't scouting my players."

Valdez did, however, have an ace in his pocket: a 6-foot-9 forward who was a skilled dribbler and passer, and had one of the prettiest shooting strokes.

Mike Daum had about 25 points, Valdez said, including a key four-point play late "that basically won the game" for the Rocky Mountain Fever, an AAU team based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

"So when you put performances like that up with the necessary people watching (and) against that competition, good things were going to happen for him," Valdez said.

Now Valdez is watching Daum do some very good things at the NCAA Division I level. The South Dakota State forward had a breakout freshman season (averages of 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds) in 2015-16. Now his sophomore campaign is grabbing national attention.

Kimball, a town of nearly 2,500 folks tucked in the corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, has to be buzzing watching one of its own prosper.

"Oh, yeah, no doubt," said Bruce Tjosvold, who coached Daum at Kimball High School. "Actually, he's kind of the talk of Nebraska."

Daum was recently named Summit League player of the year after averaging 25.3 points (second in the nation) and 8.2 rebounds. He is shooting 41.6 percent from three-point land.

His stats log is a collection of 30-somethings.

He scored 32 points against Milwaukee on Nov. 27, 33 against Idaho on Dec. 10, 39 against Murray State on Dec. 17, 30 against South Dakota on Dec. 31, 32 against Oral Roberts on Jan. 12, 33 at Nebraska-Omaha on Jan. 28, 38 against Oral Roberts on Feb. 4, and 30 against Denver on Feb. 25.

And then there's Fort Wayne. The Mastodons saw Daum twice this past season.

42 points.

51 points. Yes, 51!

No other Division I player can say they have scored more this season.

"I definitely was in the zone (that game)," Daum said last week. "I was kind of in shock. I didn't even know how to respond to it."

Now the Jackrabbits are back in the Big Dance for a second straight year after running through the Summit League Tournament as a fourth seed. Daum scored 33 in a quarterfinal win against Denver. Then, in front of an ESPN2 audience, he dropped 37 in the championship game, a 79-77 win against Nebraska-Omaha.

He was 14-of-24 from the field and had 12 rebounds. The texts poured in after the game, and Daum eventually had to shut off his phone just to get some sleep.

And, yes, Daum's former coaches were watching the victory from out west.

Afterward, Tjosvold sent Daum a text, one he has sent over and over this year. "Great game."

"I watch about every game of his," Tjosvold said. "He just amazes me all the time."

Daum may prompt some "Where did this guy come from?" water-cooler talk. But his former coaches are not completely surprised.

"It is amazing what he does, but at the same time, the people that are around him, his teammates, former teammates, coaches, former coaches … we laugh sometimes because we've seen him do stuff like this before," Valdez said.

Said Tjosvold, "You knew his offensive ability was off the charts."

Daum was named a third-team Super-Stater as a senior after averaging 25 points and 12.3 rebounds for Class C-2 Kimball. Tjosvold played him at just about every position. At 6-9, Daum played a lot inside, but he could always shoot threes, too.

And those double-teams Daum gets in the Summit League. Yeah, nothing new.

"No matter what you do, he was going to shoot with at least two guys on him," Tjosvold said. "He's been getting (double- and triple-teamed) since he was probably in the seventh grade."

In a small town like Kimball, everybody knows everybody. Tjosvold recalls Daum as a little kid. "He always had a ball in his hands."

Daum would frequently go to the gym with his mother, Michele, to shoot baskets (in fact, word is Daum may not be the best shooter in the family).

"Now his mom gets all the credit for the shooter he is," Valdez said. "Michele can still shoot it right now."

Michele was inducted into the Wyoming Hall of Fame and remains second in career points at the school. Daum's father, Mitch, was a tight end at Wyoming and dabbled in the NFL. Daum's uncle Mark played football at Nebraska in the 1980s.

Daum, who grew 3 or 4 inches during his junior year, would make the 90-minute drives to Fort Collins during his high school days to play for the Rocky Mountain Fever. It was then and there that Daum put an emphasis on footwork, ball-handling and shooting.

Daum's AAU team also featured another eventual Division I player, two Division II players and another kid who played junior college ball.

"So our five starters, they all played at the next level," Valdez said. "So being able to practice against that twice a week. …"

Most of the recruiting interest in Daum came from Mountain West Conference schools and other mid-major schools. After his sophomore year, interest started to heat up, Valdez said, but not much from Power Five programs.

Daum took an unofficial visit to Nebraska, but nothing came out of it.

"But I don't blame Tim (Miles) at that time, honestly," said Valdez, who became good friends with Miles when the Nebraska coach was at Colorado State. "I don't think (Daum) was a Big Ten player back then.

"Now, you've seen what he's done. He's not only one of the best players in the Summit League, he's one of the best players in the country."

That credit goes to South Dakota State and its strength staff. That big piece of Daum's transformation took place during his redshirt season at SDSU, where he focused on his body. He filled out and gained more strength. Valdez said his footwork also has improved.

"He used (the redshirt) to work his butt off to get better," Tjosvold said. "Not everybody does that."

Daum also credits this year's success to first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger, who came over from Iowa State.

"It's definitely the flow (of the offense)," Daum said. "Coach T.J. just has me on the move more, and I think it puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

"The guys just do such a great job screening for me. I have to give all the credit to them because they're the ones that help get the shots. I just have to shoot them."

On Sunday, Daum and his SDSU teammates will watch the NCAA Tournament selection show from Cubby's Sports Bar & Grill in Brookings, South Dakota. The 18-16 Jackrabbits will likely earn a 15 or 16 seed, and maybe create a couple of sleepless nights for that first-round opponent who must figure a way to stop a 6-9 forward who can move fast, work with his back to the basket, put the ball down and shoot from anywhere.

It appears college basketball fans and coaches are not the only ones noticing Daum. During Tuesday's Summit League final, TV commentators were talking about Daum's NBA prospects.

"I think there's no doubt he's an NBA guy," said Tjosvold, who compared Daum to longtime NBA players Mike Miller and Kyle Korver.

Daum said the NBA buzz is the last thing on his mind.

"It's pretty easy to block out," he said. "What I have going on right now is a lot for me.

"Obviously when I was a little kid it's always been a dream. When you're this close (being in college), obviously it's in the back of your mind."

First, Daum and his SDSU teammates have some dancing to do. His former coaches can't wait to see what he does next.

"His game, it just keeps getting better," Valdez said. "Ever since he was 15 years old until now. You wait till next year. He's going to add something to his game."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsCG.

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Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

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