The Summit League tournament begins this Saturday, March 3 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Before the gripping seven games get underway, keep in mind some of the major storylines.
Can anyone stop the Dauminator and the Jackrabbits?
South Dakota State went on a blistering run in conference, posting a 13-1 record with an average margin of victory of 11.5 points. It appears to be a cakewalk for the Jacks, who rank No. 4 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid Major poll and are a strong candidate to ravage brackets in March Madness. However, there are landmines in the field that can derail SDSU’s title aspirations.
On their own half of the bracket, Fort Wayne looms as a possible semifinal opponent. The two sides played two hotly-contested games decided by a total of nine points. While the Jacks emerged victorious from both, the Mastodons, led by Bryson Scott and sidekicks Kason Harrell and John Konchar, have the firepower to match SDSU.
In the finals, the Jackrabbits are liable to run up against Denver or in-state rival South Dakota. SDSU beat the Pioneers by 22 points in Brookings but narrowly escaped Colorado with a win Feb. 8. Denver is trending in the right direction, and if the two meet in the finals, it will be a matchup of the Summit League’s two hottest teams. The Coyotes meanwhile are the only team to beat SDSU in conference play and would relish the opportunity to take another swing at the top dogs in the state.
Who are the dark horses in the field?
It is challenging to choose a dark horse in a field of only eight teams, but a few sides could play the role of Cinderella and shock the conference. Chief among these teams are Denver and Fort Wayne.
Denver is a departure from other sides in the conference in that they have a grinding style of play, evidenced by their No. 7 ranking in shot attempts. That style could present an issue to opponents in a stretch of three games in four days. The Pioneers have a strong identity and have won seven of their last eight, putting momentum on their sides.
Fort Wayne has the capability to match up with any team in the conference thanks in large measure to their scoring capabilities. The Mastodons lead the conference with 15.4 turnovers per game and use the takeaways to generate points with their lethal offense. A finals appearance is possible given that their side of the bracket avoids the league’s best defense in South Dakota.
North Dakota State also presents an outside title chance, although inconsistent play may ultimately doom the Bison.
Who are the unknown players to watch in the tournament?
The Summit League is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts with an infusion of up-and-coming talent. Beyond the headliners such as Scott, Mike Daum, Paul Miller and Matt Mooney, many young players have a chance to make a name for themselves in the tournament.
David Jenkins Jr. of SDSU and Kobe Webster are both battling for the Summit League Freshman of the Year Award. The two rank seventh and eighth in the conference in scoring average, with Webster holding a slight edge. Jenkins posted two electrifying performances, scoring 31 points on two occasions, against Colorado and Denver. Webster has had his share of dominant performances as well, scoring over 20 points eight times this year with a high-water mark of 27.
Emmanuel Nzekwesi of Oral Roberts, who took home the honor last year, is also a player to keep an eye on. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Texan used a powerful physique to tally 12.5 points per game and 7.1 boards per game, both increases from last year.
What can Bison fans anticipate out of NDSU?
Last year’s underwhelming quarterfinal loss to IUPUI is still fresh in the memory of Bison faithful. This year, an inconsistent squad stumbled down the stretch to a 5-9 Summit League record, the nadir of which was a six-game losing streak to conference foes. The Herd managed to close the season with a 22-point win over Omaha, which could springboard them into rejuvenation.
When Paul Miller finds his shooting stroke, NDSU is a hard team to put away. With that in mind, he cannot bear the scoring load for the Bison alone. A.J. Jacobson, Tyson Ward or Cameron Hunter will need to alleviate the burden if they are able to move past Fort Wayne.
NDSU played two difficult outings with the Mastodons, both of which resulted in losses. The Herd can get revenge if they can hang in the game and avoid burying themselves in a deep hole. A second-half onslaught can give NDSU a lead and perhaps catapult them into the semifinals. Much like their season, however, nothing is a certainty.