With the calendar turning to November, the addition of men’s basketball to the North Dakota State agenda is a welcoming sight.
A rash of transfers and graduations has dramatically altered the Summit League pecking order. With yet another intriguing season tipping off, a fresh slate of action on the hardwood requires an examination of the Summit League field.
No. 1: South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits are the pedigree of the Summit League, and that won’t change in 2018. SDSU returns six players from a season ago, including seniors Mike Daum, Skyler Flatten, Brandon Key and Tevin King. There simply aren’t enough good things to be said about Daum. The Kimball, Nebraska product is closing in on 3,000 career points and is one of the biggest stars the conference has ever seen. He’s a lock to win his third consecutive Summit League Player of the Year Award and will key the SDSU scoring attack.
Even with starter Reed Tellinghuisen graduated, head coach T.J. Otzelberger will have the Jackrabbits’ offense humming again. Starlet David Jenkins, Jr. will more than make up for Tellinghuisen’s departure. The sophomore ranked eighth in the nation among freshman in scoring last year and will only continue to amaze.
It’s possible that SDSU can improve on its school-record 28 wins from last year’s campaign. With Daum and the rest of the core back for another run, expect the Jacks to win the conference and pull off an upset in March.
No. 2: Denver
Right behind the Jacks this season is Denver, a team on the rise under head coach Rodney Billups. Anticipate Denver cracking the 20-win threshold this winter. Denver is headlined by Joe Rosga, who averaged 16.1 points per game a year ago en route to a First Team All-Summit nod. Rosga will be called upon to carry the scoring load once again, especially given the graduation of Daniel Amigo and Jake Pemberton.
Graduate transfers Ronnie Harrell, Jr. and Tory Miller-Stewart will serve as stopgaps to counter Denver’s losses. Miller-Stewart missed all but six games a year ago due to a broken bone in his foot.
Beyond Rosga, Ade Murkey and Jake Krafka are the top-two returning scorers and are in line for an uptick in minutes. If those two can’t step up, Rosga is capable of single-handedly stealing games for the Pioneers. The Saint Paul, Minnesota native scored 20 or more points in six games last season and is difficult to stop when he’s on point.
When Denver can play on their own terms, they are a difficult matchup for any team. The Pioneers were stingy defending 3-pointers last year, which bodes well against the likes of SDSU. That said, it’s pivotal that they improve on the road, where they were 3-9 in conference play last season.
No. 3: South Dakota
The Coyotes are in a difficult situation entering the 2018-19 campaign. Not only are the Coyotes without former head coach Craig Smith — who now coaches Utah State — they lost top scorer Matt Mooney, who took his 18.7 points per game to Texas Tech.
There is no one on the current roster that can match Mooney’s scoring output. Trey Burch-Manning is the Coyotes’ best returning player. Burch-Manning is a force in the post, but is known for his rebounding more than his scoring. Tyler Hagedorn will do his best to reprise Mooney’s scoring prowess. The senior averaged 13 points per game in 2017.
USD’s bread and butter last season was their defense, as the Coyotes allowed the lowest points per game and field goal percentage in the conference. They’ll need that to hold true again to be successful in 2018.
No. 4: Purdue Fort Wayne
Rounding out the top half of the field are the Mastodons. Like USD, they are suffering a massive scoring loss in the form of Bryson Scott. The imposing guard came second only to Daum a season ago with a scoring average of 22.6 points per game. Fortunately, the Mastodons have an impressive duo to fill the void.
That pairing is led by John Konchar. The Swiss Army knife, Konchar was a force on the glass and was first in the Summit League in assists per game. He’s the team’s top returning scorer and without Scott, his role in lighting up the scoreboard will only grow. He and fellow senior Kason Harrell will form one of the top backcourt groups in the conference.
The Mastodons will go as far as their starting guards can take them and are candidates to sniff 20 wins.
No. 5: North Dakota State
All attention in Fargo will be on head coach Dave Richman and his new-look Bison. Six players left the program after last season, and now the fifth-year head coach is banking on a young nucleus to earn him another contract. The squad lacks a senior and lost over 3,000 points in the form of Paul Miller and A.J. Jacobson.
It’ll be up to the athletic Tyson Ward to lead the team. An electrifying guard, Ward burst onto the scene as a freshman and has developed a strong all-around game. Ward and the Bison won’t be without options either. Cameron Hunter ranks second among returning scorers, and Jared Samuelson will be a sniper from beyond the arc. Transfers Vinnie Shahid and Jordan Horn flashed promise in the Herd’s exhibition game with Concordia. Freshmen Sam Griesel and Jaxon Knotek each posted double-digits against the Cobbers as well, but their roles going forward are unknown.
In addition to Hunter, expect Tyree Eady, Deng Geu and Rocky Kreuser to all take big steps forward for the Bison. The offense tended to be sluggish and one-dimensional a season ago. That will change, but it’s hard not to view NDSU as a house of cards.
No. 6: Western Illinois
Slowly but surely, the Leathernecks are moving in the right direction. For a third straight season, WIU is built around 7-footer Brandon Gilbeck. The senior was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year last season with 199 rebounds and 72 blocks. He also honed his offensive game, pouring in a career-best point total.
The Leathernecks unearthed a legitimate gem in Kobe Webster. The Indianapolis man was a breath of fresh air for WIU and sparked the lineup as an immediate starter. If he continues his upward trajectory, the Leathernecks can find themselves in the middle of the pack in the conference.
No. 7: Oral Roberts
The Golden Eagles managed just 11 wins in 2017. It could be a serious challenge replicating that mark given that three double-digit scorers departed. Big man Emmanuel Nzekwesi will be the focal point for ORU and rightfully so. The 240-pound junior averaged 12.7 points per game in 2017.
It will be tough sledding for the Golden Eagles, whose only other returning starter is Sam Kearns. Kearns has a quality 3-point shot on a team that was dreadful from the perimeter. It’d be forgivable if they were better defensively, but they simply aren’t and neither of those areas will improve dramatically.
No. 8: North Dakota
Summit League newcomers, the Fighting Hawks are in for a challenging transition to their new conference. The move was made infinitely more difficult due to the transfer of Geno Crandall to Gonzaga. Crandall was the lone bright spot of a dismal Fighting Hawks squad in 2017, and in the immediate aftermath, it will be challenging to fill the void.
In recent seasons, the Summit League has been far tougher than the Big Sky, so the Fighting Hawks will have to claw their way into the tournament. UND has just enough to make it, but it will be at least one season until they are serious contenders in their new conference.
No. 9: Omaha
On the outside looking in is Omaha. The Mavericks were perhaps the Summit League’s most unimpressive side in 2017. UNO surrendered over 80 points per game in conference play — the only team to do so — and won only one road game.
Zach Jackson will lead the Mavericks’ efforts once again this season. He at least won’t have to go it alone like he did for stretches in 2017. J.T. Gibson will join Jackson as a starting guard. Mitch Hahn was injured midway through the season, but when healthy the forward gives Omaha more punch.