ROCHESTER, Minn. — Had T.J. Otzelberger stayed at South Dakota State, there’s a good chance that Caledonia brothers Owen and Noah King would both be wearing Jackrabbit basketball uniforms this coming season.
But Otzelberger didn’t stay. He left South Dakota State a year ago to become head coach at UNLV.
One year without Otzelberger at SDSU was enough for Owen King, a sophomore last year who’d come off a freshman season in which he’d averaged 17 minutes and four points per game. New Jackrabbits coach Eric Henderson wasn’t as sold on King and limited him to 7 minutes per game.
It was the first time in Owen’s life that the game didn’t give him joy. There was too much sitting for that.
“To go from what I got to do my freshman year to not playing much in games this year, and sometimes not at all, made me realize how much I want to be on the court again,” Owen said. “And I don’t want to just play, I want to play free. The way you play is important.”
Owen chose to do something about his discontent.
At season’s end, he put his name into the NCAA transfer portal. And Noah, two years younger than Owen, having taken note of Owen’s decreased role at SDSU, in January decommitted from a pledge he’d made to the Jackrabbits in the fall.
The King brothers were both set to go through the recruiting process all over again.
Owen’s hope was that it would go much the same as the first time. Otzelberger tagged him as a “must-have” player starting just after Owen’s sophomore year at Caledonia, leaving no doubt about his interest. Fellow Division I mid-majors Northern Iowa and North Dakota State also were in the recruiting mix for Owen. But SDSU felt best.
“(Otzelberger) talked about how much he wanted me,” said Owen, who’d been offered by the Jackrabbits in July heading into his junior year and accepted two months later. “He made it seem like I was a need for his program, and that’s what I wanted to hear.”
Plenty of high Division I programs were also trying to land Owen. But that was in his other sport, football. A standout quarterback beginning his sophomore year at Caledonia, the oldest of three King brothers had a pack of Big Ten teams after him, including Minnesota and Iowa. Florida State was also begging King to come to one of its camps. But Owen made it public midway through his sophomore year that basketball would be his college game.
Caledonia football coach Carl Fruechte fielded all of Owen’s football-recruiting calls, repeating to coaches that Owen couldn’t be swayed from basketball, even as he kept lighting things up on the football field.
“I just felt it was best to be honest and upfront with those college coaches,” Fruechte said. “I didn't want them to waste their time, and I also didn’t want to burn any bridges. It’s all about just being honest.”
Owen’s second time around in the recruiting game didn’t last long. The very day that Owen’s name was entered into the transfer portal, he got a call from Winona State as well as a scholarship offer from the Warriors.
Going from Division I to Division II would be a step down, but the 6-feet-4 shooting guard liked WSU’s sales pitch. He also liked the location of the college — just 38 miles from Caledonia, meaning friends and family would have easy access to his games.
Division I programs New Hampshire and South Carolina State were also showing interest in him. But Winona State’s wishes for the athletic star were on another level.
“This second time around, I was really looking for a coaching staff that believed in me, the way (Otzelberger) did,” Owen said. “I wanted them to want me as much as I wanted them.”
Winona State head coach Todd Eisner and assistant Zach Malvik never hedged about Owen, all while doing all of their recruiting with him over the phone. Owen knew what he’d be getting into at WSU. He’d grown familiar with its program growing up and had played in its gymnasium often.
“It was obvious that coach Eisner and coach Malvik really wanted me to be a part of their program,” Owen said.
King said yes to WSU on April 1, about 2½ weeks after the Warriors had offered him. Also joining him at Winona State will be another transfer from South Dakota State, close friend Alou Dillon, a 6-8 forward from Milwaukee.
“He’s going to help us a lot,” Owen said, “and he is one of my best friends.”
Noah changes gears
Noah King became a relatively easy “get” for South Dakota State. He’d been around the program forever, first becoming familiar with the Jackrabbits as Owen was being recruited by them as a sophomore.
Otzelberger didn’t wait around to offer Noah, a 6-3 guard who graduated from Caledonia this spring as its all-time leading scorer. SDSU offered Noah his sophomore year. This past fall, he said yes, with new coach Henderson having kept that offer on the table.
“I think it was a little bit easier for my situation,” Noah said. “They started recruiting me my freshman year, and back then I already had a brother who’d committed to them. I had a lot of insight into the program.”
That insight was for naught once Henderson took over. The program under him differed from Otzelberger’s and obviously didn’t suit Owen. Once Owen became disgruntled, Noah’s appetite to go there went away.
He decommitted in January.
That marked the beginning of a long, difficult search for a new program, the COVID-19 pandemic preventing any in-person visits beginning in March.
Noah’s goal remained to land with another Division I team. Navy showed lots of interest, but he didn’t want to go the military route. Wofford College in South Carolina also went after him, but that didn’t appeal to Noah, either.
In the end, he chose a place that had familiarity to it. It wasn’t the school that Noah knew — Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — but one of its coaches. That was assistant Ryan Kirsch, a South Dakota State graduate assistant during Owen’s senior year at Caledonia.
“Owen stayed in touch with Kirsch the last two years that he’s been at Kirkwood, and he respected him a lot,” Noah said. “I was talking to him (this spring) and had a good relationship with him. He spoke highly of (Kirkwood head men’s basketball coach Tim) Sandquist.”
It also helped sway Noah that Owen had gotten to know a handful of Kirkwood players and thought highly of them.
Noah may not be at Kirkwood long. His goal remains to land at a four-year Division I school. After one year at Kirkwood, it could be that his recruitment begins all over again.