|South Dakota State point guard Nate Wolters leads a loaded team defending its first Summit title. (US Presswire)|
First, the changeover. Oral Roberts and Southern Utah are out and Nebraska-Omaha -- which will henceforth here and hopefully everywhere be simply referred to as "Omaha" with the same type of emphasis as Eli Manning at the line of scrimmage -- is in. It'll be at least three years before Omaha's even a factor in the top half of the league, though, so let's get to the goods and after a quick bow of our heads to the departed and terrific ORU, which is off to the Southland.
Among the nine programs, South Dakota State is the league favorite by way of having the league's best player in Nate Wolters, the No. 71 guy on our list of top 100 players in college basketball. Wolters, who I think is top-40, is a do-it-all guard who can play three positions at this level but is probably suited best as a shoot-first point guard. The Jackrabbits are more than him, though. In fact, what's surprising about the team is how good it is despite that Wolters and 6-foot-7 forward Tony Fiegen are the team's only seniors. And SDSU only loses one senior from last season. Scott Nagy's team had good fortune to land the league tournament on their stomping grounds (some league coaches believe that's why they ended up going to the NCAAs instead of ORU or Oakland), and that'll be the case again this season.
The twist on SDSU this year could be the improved play of the team all around, so we could have a season where Wolters might not even win Player of the Year in the league, yet the Jackrabbits could cruise to a title. We'll see. Last year Wolters took on more of a burden, but this year the team might not need him to average more than 17 points per game, especially since junior forward Jordan Dykstra will command a lot of attention, too. Brayden Carlson could also make the Summit's second team.
SDSU is no gimme to win the Summit League, though. North Dakota State brings back a group that was 17-14 last year but sputtered down the stretch. Most of the key-minutes guys return, and it's entirely possible sophomore guard Lawrence Alexander has a huge boost this year and becomes Wolters-lite. Combing that possibility with all-league player Taylor Braun means NDSU should challenge and make it an awesome BATTLE OF THE DAKOTAS, HELL YEAH. (A nice subplot to the rivalry: SDSU and NDSU play similar motion offenses; both teams don't clutter up their schemes with a lot of sets. But, mainly, DAKOTA BATTLE SOMEBODY GET SAM ELLIOT ON VOICEOVER DUTY.)
Oakland should be the only other realistic possibility to win the league. The secret weapon here is Duke Mondy, a Providence transfer who the Oakland coaching staff is raving about. He's a 6-foot-4 point guard who had trouble scoring in the Big East but led the league in steals three years ago. He's become an even-better passer in his redshirt year off. Oakland coach Greg Kampe believes Mondy is as good as any player he's ever coached -- and Kampe's sent guys to the pros. He'll have to make up for the loss of Player of the Year Reggie Hamilton, who was a special player. Fortunately, Travis Bader is back, and as you'll see below, I've got him as one of the five best guys in this conference.
"The league last year was the best it's ever been. And in three years, the league is going to be the best it's ever been because those three Dakotas will be competing for the same kids. SDSU is a unanimous pick to win the league but remember, it's never won the conference. It won the tournament at their place in overtime against a bad team (Western Illinois) because the two best teams in the league got beat. The kid they lost, (Griffan) Callahan, was a glue guy. Tough as nails. I think they're gonna be surprised how much he meant to that team.
"North Dakota State (is) a really young team that started strong and finished bad. So who are they? Are they the team that played well early or the team that overachieved? Braun is a (positive compliment with curse word included). They don't have much depth. Western Illinois came out of nowhere but lost three key components. Leading scorer was a freshman and he transferred. They've got the best big in the league. After that, there's the dividing line."
The league's best
- Summit League Preseason Player of the Year: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State. I've become the de facto president of the Wolters fan club, but it's with good reason. He had a 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio last year and was No. 16 in tempo-adjusted assist rate in the country. But he also scored 1.6 points per possession while taking 33 percent of his team's shots when he was on floor.
- Taylor Braun, North Dakota State. He's a tough matchup because he's probably a 3 or a 4 man's size but plays like a guard. Physical, aggressive and athletic. Reliable shooter who will likely free up the offense by commanding double teams with regularity.
- Frank Gaines, Fort Wayne. Good player on a crappy team who will have ridiculous stats this year. He draws so many fouls because he's incredibly explosive, a lanky lefty with a good body who can create so well off the break. He has a similar game to IUPUI's Alex Young, who was an NBA prospect last year. His stats will be ridiculous, super explosive. A lefty slasher with a good body. Lanky. His stuff comes off the break and getting to the basket. Similar to Alex Young.
Travis Bader,Oakland. I've heard ravings about Mondy, but I'm only taking one Grizzly and am giving it to this ridiculous shooter who hit 10 3s against South Dakota State last year. He'll have a green light bigger than Wolters'. He was second in the nation in 3s made last season and should/could ultimately be the conference's all-time leader in 3s made.
- Terell Parks, Western Illinois. Parks got better as the year went on last year. He's a JuCo transfer, he's a senior now, and he's far and away the best big man in the league. Would be stunned if he didn't make the Summit's first team next March.
Numbers to know
8/15. How long it will have been in years since a Summit League team has won an NCAA tournament game come next March. Technically, Oakland did it get an NCAA win in 2005 when it defeated Alabama A&M in the play-in game, but we're not willing to earnestly accept that as a tried-and-true Big Dance W. So prior to that, it was 1998 and ... yep! Valpo's famous run, back when Valpo was in the Summit and not a turncoat heading out to the Horizon.
1.15. South Dakota State averaged a league-best 1.15 points per possession last year, an awesome rate for a team, and in fact tied for fifth-best in the nation according to StatSheet.com.
26 to 16. In the past four years, the Summit has improved its conference RPI rank from 26 to 16, a steady climb and the largest in college basketball during that time. League RPI is far from perfect, but that is indisputable evidence over the Summit's ability to win outside its conference and up the quotient of good teams inside. But I have to admit, looking at the league this year, it's hard to see the RPI improving again, to 15 or better.
Previously in previews:
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC
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Correction: The preview initially noted North Dakota State did not have a nickname. It is in fact the University of North Dakota that is currently without a moniker due to NCAA revoking "Fighting Sioux."