The Summit League men’s basketball season has reached a fever pitch, and after a season of intrigue, the league title and a trip to the NCAA tournament boils down to three games. Which team will walk out of the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center with the hardware remains to be seen, but with only two days until the tournament tips off, it is time to scout the field.
Each of the conference’s eight member schools earned a bid into the tournament this year as a result of IUPUI’s defection.
While South Dakota State and South Dakota highlight this year’s top contenders, it is anyone’s game afterward. The in-state rivals vied for the top spot all year, but the Jackrabbits finished 13-1 in first. Both teams have aspirations for state bragging rights and another title.
It came down to the final two games of the regular season to separate Denver and Fort Wayne, who were both jockeying for the No. 3 seed. Ultimately, it was the Pioneers who edged the Mastodons by a half-game for the spot.
North Dakota State stumbled throughout the second half of the season. Still, a 22-point win over Omaha on the season’s final day may signal that the Herd are moving in the right direction at the right time. The Bison squeaked into the No. 5 seed ahead of a youthful and energetic Oral Roberts squad.
Omaha and Western Illinois close out the octet, and while neither side dazzles in the standings, either side may have the offensive firepower to shock one of the South Dakota teams up top.
With that in mind, The Spectrum has broken down the quarterfinal matchups to discover who will be the last team standing when the dust settles and the players to keep an eye on this weekend.
No. 1 South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs No. 8 Western Illinois Leathernecks
The Jacks are loaded with offensive talent, pacing the conference in scoring with 85.3 points per game. SDSU has scored over 90 points three times in conference action and gone over the century mark once. Mike Daum, a shoo-in for his second conference Player of the Year Award and member of the mid-season watch list for the Lou Henson Award, averaged a double-double this year with 23.6 points per game (PPG) and 10.1 rebounds per game.
True freshman David Jenkins burst onto the scene with 15.9 PPG in his debut campaign. Western Illinois’ Kobe Webster counters him on the opposite end. Webster one-upped Jenkins, scoring at a clip of 16.3 PPG.
Teammates Dalan Ancrum and Brandon Gilbeck supported the youngster with double-digit scoring averages this season as well. In spite of this, it would take a mammoth effort from the spark plug Webster and the rest of the Leathernecks to upset the titleholders.
No. 2 South Dakota Coyotes vs No. 7 Omaha Mavericks
The second matchup Saturday night features both ends of the Summit League’s defensive spectrum. The Coyotes’ stout defense posted the top mark in scoring defense and opposing field goal and three-point percentage. Meanwhile, Omaha ranked last in the three categories.
Surrendering only 67.3 PPG, USD is a matchup nightmare for the Mavericks, who ran up the scoreboard in three of their four conference victories. Omaha has marquee wins over Denver and Fort Wayne, but have lost their last four games, the worst skid in the bracket.
Omaha’s best chance to unseat the stingy Coyotes is to turn the game into a shootout. The South Dakota defense is too good to let that happen, though. UNO’s Zach Johnson brings the firepower with a scoring average of 17.4 PPG, but USD and top-15 scorers Matt Mooney and Tyler Hagedorn can spark the offense if need be.
No. 3 Denver Pioneers vs No. 6 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
Denver comes to Sioux Falls as a team capable of making noise and turning heads. The Pioneers may have only finished the season with an 8-6 record, but there are no weaknesses to the disciplined squad.
Joe Rosga is surging of late, scoring more than 20 points in four of the last seven games. The junior shot a blistering 55.6 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from beyond the arc during conference play. Possibly one of the conference’s most overlooked players, Rosga is heating up at the right time, as is his team. Denver finished its season 7-2, presenting the best threat to the top two.
Oral Roberts features five players averaging north of 10 PPG. Emmanuel Nzekwesi is an emerging young power, but Denver’s methodical style of play ought to wear down the Golden Eagles. The three seed is instrumental for Denver’s championship hopes, as they will avoid SDSU in the semifinals.
No. 4 Fort Wayne Mastodons vs No. 5 North Dakota State Bison
The Bison have undoubtedly been the most frustrating team to watch in the 2017-18 season. NDSU is capable of playing incredible basketball, as evidenced by their win over South Dakota, but frequently plays from behind after spotting opponents leads. In their home matchup with the Mastodons, NDSU allowed Fort Wayne to jump out to a 12-point lead in under seven minutes of play.
Avoiding such a deficit will be integral if the Bison hope to advance. Their offense begins and ends with Paul Miller, who is third in the conference with 19.4 PPG. It’s no question the senior can score, rather it is a matter of who will join him. Miller was the only player to score in double-digits in last year’s quarterfinals burnout against IUPUI. Tyson Ward, A.J. Jacobson, Jared Samuelson and Cameron Hunter support Miller on a sharp-shooting team.
In a toss-up matchup, Fort Wayne senior Bryson Scott gives his squad a key advantage. Scott can score at will, posting a dominant 22.2 PPG this year. Kason Harrell and John Konchar provide a punch on the offensive end to relieve the scoring burden from the outstanding guard. The Mastodons’ offense is unstoppable, so the best hope for the Bison is to bottle them up, which they have the ability to do as one of the Summit League’s better defensive sides.
Ultimately, the last quarterfinal game will come down to the wire, but regardless of the outcome, the winner figures to meet their maker in the semifinals against the Jackrabbits.
With such a packed field, the Summit League tournament ought to provide entertainment and drama once again. Let the madness begin.