Todd Eisner’s eyebrows raised when he got the news.
Former Caledonia star Owen King had officially put his name in the transfer portal. He was leaving the South Dakota State men's basketball program.
The Winona State University head coach knew he had a strong sell. First, Winona State is just 37 miles away from Caledonia. If King chose to come home, he’d have a chance to watch his dad, Brad, and his youngest brother, Eli, attempt to bring a state championship to Caledonia.
But most importantly, Eisner believed that he could give King exactly what he wanted. The chance to play.
Recruiting is a fickle game sometimes. But King didn’t mince words with Eisner.
The plan was in place.
If a Division I program offered King a chance to have a big role, he was going to take that opportunity.
If King decided to play NCAA Division II basketball, he was going to do so at Winona State.
Eisner was on pins and needles as he awaited the news. But it wasn’t just King that he was after. Winona State had also targeted King's South Dakota State teammate Alou Dillon.
Eisner waited and waited.
Finally, he got the call. King and Dillon were both coming to Winona State.
“We were so excited,” Eisner said. “We felt like adding these two were no-brainers. They really fit the two areas we felt like we needed to improve on.”
'GO GRAB IT'
Winona State had a disastrous start to the 2019-20 campaign. The Warriors lost six of the first nine games. They were out of sync. Eventually, Eisner righted the ship and the Warriors finished 15-6 down the stretch.
But as they entered the offseason, they knew they had big shoes to fill at point guard. Do-everything senior Caleb Wagner was graduating after averaging a team-high 20.8 points per game as a senior and shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. He led the team in assists and steals while playing more than 35 minutes per night.
Eisner gave Wagner the keys to the offense and let him go.
But with Wagner leaving, there was an opening. And King has all the tools to step into Wagner’s shoes.
“Owen was really looking for a significant role,” Eisner said. “We never guarantee anyone anything, but there’s 35 minutes per game at a position where we set up Caleb to have success. We told Owen, ‘Hey this is the same thing we would do with you, so go grab it.’ He can use the next two years to blossom and have an opportunity to get the minutes that he’s looking for in his college career.”
The additions of King and Dillon could really raise the ceiling for Winona State in 2020-21.
Even though he was tattooed to the bench as a sophomore at South Dakota State, King’s confidence never wavered. He still believed he was the same explosive player he was in high school when he scored 2,437 career points.
“I knew I could still play,” King told the Post Bulletin. “I felt like I needed more. I felt like I was more restricted. The opportunity to play free again was huge.”
Eisner and Winona State don’t plan to put a saddle on King. They want him to play loose.
Winona State was one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country last season. The Warriors knocked down 11.3 3-pointers per game last year, the most in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
“It’s certainly something that we’re trying to sell in recruiting,” Eisner said. “Kevion Taylor led the league in 3s per game. Our starting center made 31 3s in 22 games. We want everyone to shoot it. We want people to know that if you’re comfortable shooting them, we want you to shoot it. (Wagner) certainly was given the green light to let it go, and we’re giving Owen the green light to let it go. We honestly do that with every position.”
Eisner is obviously high on King’s potential to lead WSU to some big-time success over the next two years, but King could also help Winona State in recruiting. Southern Minnesota basketball fans know the name Owen King. And there are some talented players in the area.
Lake City’s Nate Heise will play Division I ball at Northern Iowa. Mayo’s star duo of Gabe and Mason Madsen are headed to Cincinnati. Stewartville’s Will Tschetter is getting Division I looks. Dozens of others are heading to play college basketball.
“Any time that the area has talented young people playing at the high school level, we certainly want them to know Winona State would be a great option for them,” Eisner said. “There have been guys that have been given the opportunity to go play Division I. You wish them the best and hope that their dreams come true. And then others that maybe don’t get the opportunity to play Division I and we want them to know our history and that this has been as good of a Division II program in the country. We want them to know that this is a great place to spend four years or two years on their basketball path.”
Division I basketball didn’t work out for King. But now, he’s able to come home, and Winona State is going to give him every opportunity to find his groove again.
“It’s going to be huge,” King said. “To not be able to play the game I love, it was really hard. I would get spot minutes and basically a practice player. It wasn’t easy for me but at the same time it’s going to make it even better when I can play again. I’m so thankful.”