Daily Herald
Monaghan enjoys his view of March Madness
By Marty Maciaszek | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 3/14/2012 11:30 PM

Zach Monaghan is among the college basketball fans who love the "One Shining Moment" musical finale to the TV coverage of the NCAA tournament.

A year ago, the Fremd High School senior was among the millions watching "my favorite part of the tourney" unfold.

Now, he's among the select few living one of most exciting stretches of every year for sports fans. Last year's Daily Herald Cook County All-Area Basketball Team honorary captain is a reserve freshman guard on a South Dakota State team making its first trip to the big dance.

"It's been a lot of fun and I'm trying to take everything in," Monaghan said Tuesday night shortly after the Jackrabbits arrived in Albuquerque, N.M. "The goal (eventually) was we were going to make it to the NCAA tourney and win a game in the NCAA tourney.

"My first year here, it's kind of spoiled me, and it's been great. I don't really think it will all sink in until we play (tonight) and I get to be a part of that."

South Dakota State is one of those potential magical and mysterious teams that is 27-7 and won the Summit League title but is also just a few years removed from its step up from Division II competition.

And while the 14th-seeded Jackrabbits have the same record as their second-round opponent, the third-seeded Baylor Bears come from one of the proverbial power conferences where they just lost in the Big 12 title game to Missouri. They play at 6:27 p.m. today local time on truTV at The Pit, which is famous as the site of underdog North Carolina State's shocking 1983 title victory at the buzzer.

Yes, it is a long way from a year ago when Monaghan had just finished leading Fremd to a regional title.

"You look at Baylor and you go through film and see Perry Jones III," Monaghan said of the 6-foot-11, 235-pound sophomore who was the Big 12 preseason player of the year. "Then I think about last year and I was playing against Barrington High School and Schaumburg High School.

"You try and grow from it and take everything in. As the season progressed, one thing I learned was to take everything in and try to learn from any little thing I can."

This season definitely has been a learning and humbling experience for someone accustomed to being the main guy. Monaghan was set back by dislocating both kneecaps in a three-week period at the beginning of the year and has averaged 2.2 points in 25 games with a pair of starts.

Monaghan did not see action in South Dakota State's dramatic 52-50 overtime comeback over Western Illinois for the Summit title. But playing time figured to be tough to come by as the backup to 6-4 junior point guard Nate Wolters, who averages 21.3 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game.

"Nate Wolters is phenomenal and being able to play behind him is a blessing in disguise," Monaghan said of the NBA prospect. "He has the best work ethic of a basketball player I've been around.

"Just talking with a lot of guys on this team, older guys who have paid their dues, and everyone struggles their first year. They're good role models and I couldn't ask for a better group of guys."

This experience has Monaghan more determined than ever to make sure he's an even larger part of more NCAA trips in the future. He also believes this team has the ingredients to make the kind of surprising run that is one of the big attractions of the NCAA tournament.

And Monaghan is prepared if his chance for a shining moment arrives earlier than expected.

"My dad (Dale) keeps telling me you never know when your opportunity is going to come and I'm just waiting on it," Monaghan said. "Hopefully I'll be ready if it does come but I'm here enjoying the ride."

One that's a long way from where he was a year ago.

mmaciaszek@dailyherald.com