You may not hear much about it from TV networks increasingly narrowing their coverage scope, but few NCAA Division I conferences have struck gold with conference realignment like the Summit League.
North Dakota State and South Dakota State were in the league’s footprint when both were considering moves to Division I in the early 2000’s. At the same time, the then-Mid-Continent Conference was regularly toting 15 or 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and was widely regarded as low in stability because of a footprint that spread from Indiana to Utah ad down to Louisiana. With little to lose, the conference wisely snapped them up, and the results have been superb.
Since becoming full D-I members, the two schools have accounted for five of the last seven NCAA Tournament appearances by the league. It is also no coincidence that, with the addition of these two as well as fellow Dakota school South Dakota, a league that was once considered fighting for its very survival has since made distinct progress to become a solid top 20 conference.
NDSU and SDSU put on a show again this year, tying for the Summit regular season title and also meeting in the tournament final. The title went to the team from the more northern of the two schools, with the Bison edging the Jackrabbits by a point to make their second straight NCAA tourney appearance.
It’s no coincidence that these two schools have fared so well so soon at the Division I level. Both are land grant institutions with sizeable enrollments and solid facilities, and both have healthy fan bases. Add in quality coaching staffs who have maintained stable programs, and both came to D-I well-equipped for success.
The Summit is not just the Dakotas, though, and even in a transition year that saw new coaches at five schools, the league cemented its status as a league on the rise. The Summit finished 20th in the RPI according to the NCAA’s statistics, its fifth straight year inside the top 20 in conference RPI. A year after North Dakota State won a first round game in the NCAA tourney, South Dakota State won a game in the NIT. For those who feel the need to affix alternate labels on Division I conferences, it’s quite fair to say: the Summit League is no longer a low-major.
|North Dakota State||12-4||23-10|
|South Dakota State||12-4||24-11|
The Summit League Tournament remained in Sioux Falls, S.D., but moved locations from the Sioux Falls Arena to the Denny Sanford Premier Center. Moving up to a new and larger building, the tourney smashed league records for attendance, including better than 10,000 on hand for the semifinals and 9,033 to see the title game between top-seeded North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
The top three seeds all advanced out of the quarterfinals, as No. 1 South Dakota State hammered 8 seed Western Illinois 87-50, No. 2 North Dakota State handled No. 7 Denver 61-50 and third-seeded Oral Roberts scraped by No. 6 IUPUI 58-56. A minor upset took place in the 4/5 game, as South Dakota knocked off IPFW 82-73 behind 29 points from Brandon Bos.
The semifinals also went according to seed, albeit in differing fashions. South Dakota State jumped on state rival South Dakota, hitting eight three-pointers in the first half. The Jackrabbits never trailed and led by as many as 26 in an eventual 78-65 victory. The second semi saw North Dakota State up on Oral Roberts by eight at the half, but ORU hung around and tied it with 1:38 left. A.J. Jacobson answered with a layup on NDSU’s next possession, and the Golden Eagles missed two chances to tie, eventually falling 60-56.
South Dakota State and North Dakota State played a captivating grinder of a championship game with 10 ties and eight lead changes. The Bison took control midway through the second half as Lawrence Alexander scored 17 of his 25 points, and NDSU then held as the Jackrabbits rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes. SDSU had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but a three-point attempt by Deondre Parks was off as the Bison held on 57-56.
Player of the Year: Lawrence Alexander, G, Sr., North Dakota State
Newcomer of the Year: Deondre Parks, G, Jr., South Dakota State
Sixth Man of the Year: Dexter Werner, F, So., North Dakota State
Defensive Player of the Year: Cody Larson, F, Sr., South Dakota State
Coach of the Year: David Richman, North Dakota State
Lawrence Alexander, G, Sr., North Dakota State
Obi Emegano, G, Jr., Oral Roberts
Steve Forbes, F, Sr., IPFW
Cody Larson, F, Sr., South Dakota State
Tyler Larson, G, Sr., South Dakota
Deondre Parks, G, Jr., South Dakota State
- South Dakota State defeated No. 1 seed Colorado State on the road in the opening round of the NIT for the school’s first-ever NCAA Division I postseason tournament win. The win also was the first for the league in the NIT since Wisconsin-Green Bay defeated Southern Illinois in the first round in 1990.
- Oral Roberts also defeated UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the CBI before losing to eventual champion Loyola (Ill.) in the quarterfinals.
- North Dakota State became the third straight school to win back-to-back Summit tourney titles, joining South Dakota State (2012 & 2013) and Oakland (2010 & 2011).
- North Dakota State ended the season with a 25-game home court winning streak, a mark tied with Kansas for fifth in the nation.
- Oral Roberts guard Emegano finished fifth in the nation in free throws made (205) and attempted (260). North Dakota State’s Alexander also ranked fifth in minutes per game (38.5) and eighth in three-point perecentage (44.1%)
What we expected, and it happened: Oral Roberts blended back into the Summit seamlessly, finishing third and giving North Dakota State a significant challenge in the conference tourney semifinals. The Golden Eagles also showed their potential as a program by recording the league’s two best non-conference wins, defeating Tulsa and New Mexico State.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought IPFW would make a serious run at the Summit title, but the Mastodons were uneven in finishing around .500 in league play and overall.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: North Dakota State was expected to at least be in reloading mode, if not a full rebuild after losing coach Saul Phillips. Instead, the Bison barely missed a beat in making their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Teams on the rise: All three of the Dakotas, IUPUI. North Dakota State and South Dakota State are already at the top of the Summit, but these are programs capable of making even more noise nationally. South Dakota nearly shocked Creighton on national television this year, improved three wins in the league standings and posted its first winning overall record as a full Division I member. Also, keep an eye on IUPUI, where Jason Gardner put together a feisty team in his first year, losing nine games by seven points or less or in overtime.
Teams on the decline: Denver. It’s hard to imagine the Pioneers’ slide continuing, but the fact is this is a program that has disappointed in its first two years in the Summit.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Expect South Dakota State and North Dakota State to fight it out again, likely with a dose of Oral Roberts as well. Both NDSU and SDSU lose one all-conference player. The Bison lose the conference player of the year in Alexander, one of their two double-figure scorers, while the Jackrabbits will no longer have Cody Larson, the premier post presence in the Summit last year. South Dakota State still returns one of the underrated backcourts in the nation in Parks, George Marshall and do-it-all Jake Bittle, so the advantage goes to the Jackrabbits. And don’t be surprised if they knock off a name brand or two out of conference.
Other than Alexander, North Dakota State was a young team last year, and the Bison will be again with just two seniors in the rotation. NDSU shouldn’t fall far, while Oral Roberts is a solid pick for third again with the return of Emegano, who should rank among the national scoring leaders.
There is considerable uncertainty after the top three, especially among last year’s middle tier. IPFW loses big Steve Forbes, but the Mastodons won 25 games just a year ago and maybe will be better with a year under coach Jon Coffman. Denver is due for improvement after two straight disappointing campaigns, but how much? South Dakota loses leading scorers Tyler Larson and Brandon Bos but returns most everyone else.
IUPUI will have a trio of Loyola (Ill.) transfers eligible and could leap into the first division. Nebraska-Omaha will be entertaining again, but the Mavericks were disappointing in the Summit last year and need to show some improvement defensively. Western Illinois returns nearly everybody, but it’s from a team that went 8-20 and couldn’t shoot straight (40.1%, 307th in D-I) or rebound (-5.3, 326th nationally). The Leathernecks will try to address that with height, with six players 6-8 or taller.