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2013-14 Summit League Post-Mortem

May 16, 2014 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

If former Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes was “Rasputin,” as Chris Berman often used to call him, then maybe the Summit League should be called the Wayne Fontes League.

The Summit is the league that refuses to go away. It has gone through name changes (including its first moniker, the Association of Mid-Continent Universities, or AMCU-8). It has seen regular membership changes, doing realignment since way before it was cool-30 different basketball members in its 31-year history, and just one current member in the league longer than 15 years. It has survived mergers, terrible geography, schools dropping down to Division III-even schools disbanding athletic programs.

Yet though it all, the Summit continues to not just almost miraculously survive, but actually improve with all the changes. The Dakota schools-North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State-were great additions, as was Denver. This year the league was a respectable 17th in the RPI, and North Dakota State became the first Summit team to win a game in the NCAA Tournament main draw since Valparaiso’s famous Sweet 16 run in 1998.

North Dakota State also scored a regular season win at Notre Dame, and the experienced Bison were the Summit’s best team, though far from its only dangerous one. Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne had its best season at the Division I level, winning 25 games, scaring the pants off teams like Dayton and Illinois, and pushing NDSU for much of the Summit tournament final. South Dakota State continued to be dangerous, while Denver was a mild disappointment but still finished in the first division. Even Nebraska-Omaha was a pest in the non-conference season against a number of bigger-name opponents.

Make no mistake, this is a solid mid-level D-I conference right now. The Dakota schools have better support than most relative Division I newcomers (and a good share of D-I veterans) and NDSU, SDSU and Denver all are established basketball programs. The Summit’s geography has tightened up some with the loss of Centenary, Southern Utah and Oakland in recent years. And the league will get even better next year when Oral Roberts returns from a brief stop in the Southland. ORU was a consistent title contender in the Summit before its departure, and the Golden Eagles’ return will add even more meat to a league that, incredibly, is not just surviving but on the rise.

Final Standings

Summitt Overall
North Dakota State 12-2 26-7
IPFW 10-4 25-11
South Dakota State 10-4 19-13
Denver 8-6 16-15
South Dakota 6-8 12-18
Nebraska-Omaha 5-9 17-15
Western Illinois 4-10 10-20
IUPUI 1-13 6-26

Conference Tournament
One of the most underrated conference tournaments in the country-Sioux Falls, S.D., supports this tourney exceptionally well-consisted of stinkers in its first four games before two quality games to finish.

Regular season champs North Dakota State received a bye to the semifinals and watched as No. 2 IPFW (85-47 over No. 7 IUPUI), No. 3 South Dakota State (71-50 over No. 6 Western Illinois) and No. 4 Denver (71-55 winners over No. 5 South Dakota) all advanced with ease. That set up two anticipated semifinal games, but the first one was no contest as NDSU led by as many as 43 in an 83-48 rout of Denver. The second semifinal was a good one, with IPFW showing some toughness. The Mastodons took the lead midway through the second half and never gave it back, withstanding a rowdy pro-South Dakota State crowd for a 64-60 win.

As sweet as North Dakota State’s NCAA Tournament win over Oklahoma was, it should be remembered that the Bison very nearly lost to IPFW in the Summit final. The Mastodons led most of the game and still were up a point after Steve Forbes hit two free throws with 1:37 left, but Taylor Braun followed with a layup and converted a three-point play as the Bison held on for a 60-57 win.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
Taylor Braun, North Dakota State
Newcomer of the Year: Garrett Covington, Western Illinois
Coach of the Year: Saul Phillips, North Dakota State
Sixth Man of the Year: Mo Evans, IPFW
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris Udofia, Denver

All-Conference Team
Marshall Bjorklund, Sr., F, North Dakota State
Taylor Braun, Sr., G, North Dakota State
Jordan Dykstra, Sr., F, South Dakota State
Luis Jacobo, Sr., F, IPFW
Brett Olson, Jr., G, Denver
Chris Udofia, Sr., F, Denver

Season Highlights

  • North Dakota State’s NCAA Tournament win over Oklahoma was one of the best games of the tournament and shined a light on the Summit’s improvement as a conference.
  • IPFW easily posted its best season as an NCAA Division I member, winning 25 games.
  • Denver’s Chris Udofia became a first team all-conference selection in his third different league. He previously won honors in the Sun Belt and Western Athletic conferences.

What we expected, and it happened: North Dakota State returned an experienced team with all five starters, and the Bison maximized that talent and experience with regular season and tournament titles and an NCAA Tournament win.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Denver was not quite the party-crasher that was expected. The Pioneers had an excellent 2012-13 season in the WAC and were a favorite to win the Summit in their first go-round, but lost a number of close games and never found consistency.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Nebraska-Omaha was very competitive in the Summit and out of conference, too. The Mavericks defeated Nevada and Northern Illinois, gave Iowa, UNLV, Minnesota and Hawaii a battle on the road, and even won a game in the College Insider Tournament.

Team(s) on the rise: IPFW. Tough call, given all the new coaches entering the league next year, but we’ll go with the Mastodons, who were ever so close to their first NCAA Tournament bid this year.

Team(s) on the decline: Western Illinois, North Dakota State. The Leathernecks had a banner 2012-13 season but sank back near the bottom of the Summit this year, and now have to replace coach Jim Molinari. WIU is a tough job, and one can only hope their 22-9 mark a year ago wasn’t the highwater mark for a while for the Summit’s lone remaining charter member. NDSU obviously will have a tough task duplicating last year after losing two all-conference players and six seniors, though we’re not expecting the Bison to drop too far.

Next Season Conference Outlook
Good as last season was, the Summit will be in transition next year. North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Denver all will have significant graduation losses, and in all five league schools will have new coaches.

IPFW may come in as the favorite. Leading scorer Luis Jacobo departs, but five of the top eight from a balanced team return, including Summit Sixth Man of the Year Mo Evans. South Dakota State will have Cody Larson back, while North Dakota State loses six seniors but returns two starters plus some key reserves and should hang around the first division.

Don’t be surprised if a familiar face is challenging for the title again too. Oral Roberts loses top scorer Shawn Glover but returns most of its team and will hope to get back Obi Emegano, who averaged 19 points over four games before an ACL tear ended his season.

Western Illinois will look to get back closer to its level of a year ago under new coach Billy Wright, while IUPUI is in full rebuilding mode. Nebraska-Omaha will continue its transition to becoming a full member of Division I, and the Mavericks still are not eligible for the Summit tourney for another two years.

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