By Chris Molicki
No offense to the rest of the Summit League, but the conference crown is a two-horse race. Not only are these two teams prepared to be tough outs in March, but they also come from the same state. It’s very likely that South Dakota and South Dakota St. will square off with an NCAA tournament bid on the line.
But just in case that doesn’t happen, it’s important to see what the other teams in this conference are bringing to the table. There’s a few squads that can hang with the South Dakotas, chaos will reign in the Summit.
The Battle at the Top
South Dakota: Craig Smith and his boys are riding a six-game win streak as the odds on favorites to win the Summit League. The Coyotes fell short last season, but Smith expressed to The Brunch that his bunch is laser-focused and knows what needs to be done. South Dakota played a tough nonconference schedule, traveling to Duke, TCU, and UCLA, playing each competitor tough. The Yotes have great balance, as they rank in the top 50 in defense and the top 100 in offense in the nation. By being smart with the ball and forcing a ton of turnovers, South Dakota has completely convinced me that they could fit the glass slipper in the NCAA tournament, and a guy like Matt Mooney could lead the Coyotes to March immortality.
For more on South Dakota, check out our interview with head coach Craig Smith.
South Dakota St.: The Jackrabbits are on a six-game win streak of their own, and something will have to give when these two teams meet Thursday in a matchup that will say a lot about the direction of the conference tournament. South Dakota crushed SDSU 87-68 about a month ago, so revenge will be on the mind for T.J. Otzelberger’s team. The Jackrabbits have a high-powered offense that shoots a ton of threes (and shoots them very well at 39.2%) and protects the ball. They also rank 22nd in the nation in defensive rebounding, something that helps mask their deficiencies on that end of the ball. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Mike Daum. The junior averages 23.5 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game and has been one of the best NCAA players for the past few years. Daum has what it takes to slay the dragon (or the coyote).
So You’re Saying There’s A Chance
Fort Wayne: The Mastodons have been average and inconsistent (they rank 154th in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency). However, their defense has seen an uptick in conference play, as they’re forcing turnovers, cleaning the glass, and collecting blocks and steals left and right. IPFW has three scorers averaging more than 14 points per game, including senior Bryson Scott at an astounding 22.4. But they’re 0-3 against South Dakota and South Dakota St., and they didn’t really accomplish much outside of the Summit League. Saturday’s home date with the Jackrabbits is the last chance for Jon Coffman’s bunch to make a mark on the regular season, and if they do, the Mastodons have as good a chance as anyone in scoring a surprise NCAA berth from this conference.
Denver: Only one of two teams to knock off South Dakota, the Pioneers have been a surprise team in the Summit. They stepped up their defense and have been hitting threes at an insane rate (41% from deep), which makes sense considering junior Joe Rosga and seniors Daniel Amigo and Jake Pemberton all shoot above 43% from behind the arc. Simply put, Rodney Billups’s team has the ability to get hot and upset one the top dogs in the Summit. They’ve won six of eight and haven’t lost to a bad team in over a month. Denver is the true definition of dark horse in this conference tournament.
North Dakota St.: Ever since their road win at South Dakota, the Bison have greatly underachieved this year. Sure, they really only have a solid offense to their credit, but Dave Richman’s team has lost five in a row against Division I opponents, and the wheels have completely fallen off. There’s too much talent on this team not to be closer to the South Dakota schools, and perhaps do-it-all senior forward Paul Miller lifts this team to new heights in the conference tourney. But as of right now, they sit at a distant fifth in the conference.
Oral Roberts: With a nonconference schedule including Kansas St., Arkansas, Minnesota, UNLV, Oklahoma St., and Tulsa, some might’ve thought that the Golden Eagles would be battle-tested entering Summit play. Instead, they’ve gone without a regulation win since January 6th. Oral Roberts is a young team, and three of their five double-digit scorers will be returning next year. But they’ve been horrific on defense (306th in the nation) and their only offense has been off offensive rebounds. Paul Mills’s team will likely have a one-game run in the conference tournament.
Nebraska Omaha: As bad as Oral Roberts has been on defense, Omaha has somehow been worse, ranking near the bottom in nearly every defensive statistic recorded by kenpom.com. They do have surprise wins over Denver at Fort Wayne, but both came at home, where the Mavericks will not play in the conference tournament. Expect a lot of scoring in their first round game, with the majority of it going against Omaha.
Western Illinois: Yes, the Leathernecks’ youth may give them an excuse and yes, freshman Kobe Webster has been a sensation, but Billy Wright’s seat may be hot regardless after an awful season. Western Illinois an appaling offense that has led to them recording only seven wins this year against Division I opponents. Look away, folks.