SMSU MEN’S BASKETBALL: All in the Family

MARSHALL – Recruiting talented players is essential to succeeding in college sports.

Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball head coach Brad Bigler has proven that he and his staff can recruit with the best of them.

“When I go into the living rooms of recruits and I talk with their parents, I make sure they all know that our men’s basketball program is an extenuation of my family,” Bigler said. “That’s the way I feel this program should be run.”

That approach brought redshirt seniors Will Giddings and Matt Zager to Marshall a year before seniors Vinard Birch and Nick Smith signed on. All four of them had college basketball careers that rank among the best in Mustang history.

Bigler was the lead recruiter as an assistant coach under former Southwest Minnesota State head coach Greg Stemen.

Smith and Zager both scored more than 1,000 points in their time at SMSU with totals of 1,192 and 1,098, respectively.

Smith, a two-time All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference second team honoree, finished 10th all-time in points and his 174 blocks are the most by any SMSU player in program history. During his final three seasons, Smith led the Mustangs in rebounding (610, 6.7 per game) and field goal percentage (432 of 772, 56.0 percent). As a senior, Smith was selected to the College Sports Information Director’s Association (CoSIDA) Academic All-District second team.

“Our team was never about having a superstar player. We always did it together,” said Smith, a 6-foot-9 center from Johnston, Iowa. “My teammates allowed me to turn into the player I became.”

Smith averaged 10.2 points per game in his 117 contests with the Mustangs.

Zager, a 6-2 guard from Shakopee, ended up 14th all-time in points and his 123 steals are seventh in SMSU history. He finished with a scoring average of 9.6 points.

Giddings and Zager were extremely accurate from 3-point range throughout their careers. Giddings made 42 percent (91 of 215) of his 3-pointers, while Zager dropped in 38 percent (82 of 214) from long range. Both of them made more than half of their overall field goals – 51 percent each. Giddings was 300 of 589, while Zager was 427 of 836.

“One of the things Coach Bigler taught me to do was to slow the game down. After I did that, I was able to see things on the court I had never seen before and my game developed along the way,” said Giddings, a 6-5 forward from Blaine, who contributed 7.3 points a game.

Zager said the Mustangs were a competitive bunch of athletes on-and-off the court.

“It didn’t matter what we were doing – either on the court or away from it,” Zager said. “We became a close group of friends who all have competitive personalities. One of the things we like to do is play different video games and we compete against each other in that.”

The competitiveness definitely showed, especially for Birch, who is the all-time assist leader (396) at SMSU and finished career with 990 points, only 10 markers away from being the third member of this group to score 1,000 points. He also added 126 steals.

Birch, a 2013-14 second team All-NSIC selection and the 2011-12 NSIC Defensive Player of the Year, was sometimes used as a decoy to draw opposing defenses into the lane.

“If I saw an opening to the basket, I wanted to take it,” said Birch, who started all 116 games of his SMSU men’s basketball career and averaged 8.6 points. “I could either get a layup or, if that shot was not there, I could pass the ball out to one of our shooters on the perimeter.”

All four of them were solid free-throw shooters with Smith leading the way at 75 percent, followed by Birch at 72 percent, Giddings at 71 percent and Zager at 70 percent.

The senior Mustangs also expressed affection for Marshall and its hospitality.

After SMSU’s 82-65 NSIC Tournament first-round victory against the University of Mary on Feb. 26 at the R/A Facility, Giddings said he and his teammates appreciated all of the support Mustang fans gave the team.

“(Trying our best to win games is) the least we can do for the town of Marshall because of what it’s done for us,” Giddings said. “We’re proud that we can leave people with a smile on their face.”