The Summit League has been on the rise for much of this decade, but the confederation of Midwest and Great Plains schools really outdid itself in 2015-16.
Riding a very nice non-conference performance, the Summit in late December was as high as eighth in the conference RPI. That put it ahead of the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, West Coast Conference and briefly even the American Athletic Conference, and is an almost unconscionable feat for a conference that played just 34.1% of its non-conference games at home.
Of course, a drawback when a league is better from top to bottom is that its teams can beat each other up, and that happened to the Summit to a degree. The co-champions-South Dakota State and surprising IPFW-finished with four losses each, and positions 3-8 in the standings were separated by just one game in each slot. North Dakota State and South Dakota State also dealt with some injury issues, but overall the league still finished 12th in the final conference RPI, still ahead of the MVC and WCC and right on the heels of the Mountain West.
South Dakota State shared the regular season title but won the conference tourney and was the headliner much of the year. The Jackrabbits defeated conference champions Florida Gulf Coast, Middle Tennessee State and Weber State and also topped Illinois State, Minnesota, TCU and UC Santa Barbara as part of a tough non-conference schedule, leading to a season-ending RPI of 39. With an experienced backcourt and one of the most productive freshmen in the country in Mike Daum, SDSU made its third trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years, and gave a good account in a narrow loss to Maryland.
IPFW and North Dakota State also reached the 20-win mark, though, and perhaps the best signs of the Summit’s strength were accomplishments by two of its bottom three teams, who defeated future NCAA Tournament participants for the league’s two best wins. Cellar occupant Western Illinois recorded one of the more shocking wins of the entire season, winning at defending national runner-up Wisconsin in its season opener, while seventh-place finisher Oral Roberts won at crosstown rival Tulsa in December.
|South Dakota State||12-4||26-8|
|North Dakota State||8-8||20-13|
The Summit League tourney continues to be one of the better attended ones in the country, and with the conference’s increased strength across the board, this year’s event also stepped up a notch in its competitiveness. Highlighted by a pair of one-point semifinal games, five games were decided by eight points or less, and other than top seed IPFW’s 86-70 win over No. 8 South Dakota in the quarterfinals, every game was competitive to the final minutes.
Along with the top seed advancing, a significant upset, a near upset and a surprise in seed only also marked the first round. Seventh-seeded Oral Roberts led No. 2 South Dakota State virtually the entire way, leading by 15 at one point and holding a seven-point lead with two minutes left. The Jackrabbits outscored ORU 10-0 the rest of the way, though, to win 73-70 behind 26 points from Daum off the bench. Day 2 of the quarters saw fifth-seeded North Dakota State handle No. 4 IUPUI 60-45, and 6 seed Denver picked up the first really big upset with a 78-70 win over No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha with Joe Rosga scoring 25 points.
Semifinal Monday was spectacular in every way. IPFW led defending tourney champion North Dakota State 15-2 after 5 1/2 minutes, built an 18-point lead late in the first half and was still up 10 with just over four minutes to play, but the Bison rallied. Carlin Dupree’s layup with four seconds left gave NDSU its first lead of the game and a 69-68 victory, ending the Mastodons’ hopes for their first NCAA Tournament appearance. The second game followed a perhaps even more bizarre script. As expected, South Dakota State was handling Denver early, leading by 12 late in the first half and up 30-22 at halftime, but the Jackrabbits scored six points over the first 15 minutes of the second half. By that time, the Pioneers had built a 49-36 lead, but the Jackrabbits suddenly found their way. Daum hit a free throw to tie it with 28 seconds left, and Jake Bittle made the first of two foul shots with two seconds remaining as SDSU survived for a 54-53 win.
South Dakota State and North Dakota State met in the final for the second straight year and the third time in four years. NDSU provided a stout challenge into the second half, taking its last lead on two Paul Miller free throws with 14:13 left. The Jackrabbits followed with an 11-2 run to take control and never let the Bison get closer than five the rest of the way in a 67-59 win. Daum capped a huge tourney by scoring 18 points and winning tournament MVP honors.
Player of the Year: Max Landis, G, Sr., IPFW
Defensive Player of the Year: Tra-Deon Hollins, G, Jr., Nebraska-Omaha
Freshman of the Year: Mike Daum, F, South Dakota State
Sixth Man of the Year: Mike Daum, F, Fr., South Dakota State
Transfer of the Year: Tra-Deon Hollins, G, Jr., Nebraska-Omaha
Coach of the Year: Jon Coffman, IPFW
Mike Daum, F, Fr., South Dakota State
Obi Emegano, G, Sr., Oral Roberts
Tra-Deon Hollins, G, Jr., Nebraska-Omaha
John Konchar, G, Fr., IPFW
Max Landis, G, Sr., IPFW
George Marshall, G, Sr., South Dakota State
- The Summit collectively finished 60-52 in non-conference games to post a season-ending conference RPI of 12, the best in the league’s 34-year basketball history.
- IPFW’s Landis finished second in the nation in three-pointers per game (3.79) and also was seventh in three-point field goal percentage (45.8%). He more than doubled his scoring to over 19 points per game and was named an Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press.
- Nebraska-Omaha’s Hollins led the nation in total steals and steals per game (3.96). His 127 steals were the most in NCAA Division I in 14 years.
- Nebraska-Omaha ranked fourth in the nation in scoring (85.3 ppg) and also was fourth in steals per game (9.3).
What we expected, and it happened: South Dakota State came back with much the same team as the one that reached the NIT second round the year before, and the Jackrabbits performed well out of conference, were near the top of the Summit all year and nearly knocked off Maryland in the NCAA Tournament. Also, we thought IUPUI had a chance to make a leap into the first division, and the Jaguars did just that, finishing a solid fourth.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We had Oral Roberts pegged for third in the Summit and perhaps challenging for the title, but the Golden Eagles couldn’t win enough close games, losing eight times to Summit foes by eight points or less.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: IPFW was one of the better surprise stories in the country, winning 24 games, tying for the regular season title and going to the NIT for the first time in school history. Coach Jon Coffman did a terrific job in his second year with the Mastodons.
Teams on the rise: IUPUI, Nebraska-Omaha. The Jaguars continue to look up under former Arizona star Jason Gardner and may be ready to challenge for a league title. UNO as adjusted to the Division I level very well, plays and exciting style, boasts a sparkling new arena, and even with the loss of its two leading scorers brings back plenty with national steals leader Hollins plus Tre’Shawn Thurman.
Team on the decline: South Dakota State. Easy pick. Mike Daum should be a star for the next three years, but the Jackrabbits lose too much-including coach Scott Nagy-from their NCAA Tournament team.
2016-17 Summit League Outlook
The Summit will face a mighty task attempting to duplicate its banner 2015-16 season. Even with some heavy graduation losses, though, there is no shortage of talent remaining. Freshmen Daum and John Konchar of IPFW are stars in the making, Hollins should receive plenty of attention for his defense, and Western Illinois guard Garret Covington-while toiling on struggling teams the past two years-is one of the best players in the country no one knows about.
North Dakota State also has a talented backcourt with juniors A.J. Jacobson and Paul Miller, and with an experienced core returning around them-seven of nine returning rotation players-the Bison have an excellent shot at their third NCAA Tournament bid in four years. Its biggest challengers just might be the two Indiana schools, as IUPUI returns almost everyone from a team that became a tough out, and IPFW still has Konchar plus Mo Evans.
Nebraska-Omaha will be fun to watch again, while South Dakota State is in a transition year under new coach T.J. Otzelberger, but it would surprise few if the Jackrabbits find a way to hang around the top half of the conference. Young Oral Roberts will miss scoring machine Obi Emegano, but perhaps with some good fortune the Golden Eagles can turn around some of those near misses from a year ago.
Denver also has a new coach in Rodney Billups, brother of former Colorado and NBA star Chauncey Billups, and the Pioneers also lost a number of close ones in the Summit but also return Rosga, another quality freshman last year. South Dakota and Western Illinois could be better, but it won’t be easy to move up in the standings in a league that has become so competitive from top to bottom.