All Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Mike Daum, F/C, R Jr., South Dakota State
Coach of the Year: Rodney Billups, Denver
Newcomer of the Year: Renard Suggs, G, R Sr., Omaha
Freshman of the Year: Cameron Hunter, G, North Dakota St.
1. South Dakota St.
Key Returners: Mike Daum, Chris Howell, Reed Tellinghuisen, Tevin King, Lane Severyn, Skylar Flatten
Key Losses: Mike Orris, AJ Hess
Key Newcomers: Brandon Key, Dallas Polk-Hilliard, David Jenkins Jr.
Postseason Projection: 15 seed
Outlook: Are you ready to read 500-600 words gushing about Mike Daum? I hope so, because I’m ready to write 500-600 words gushing about Mike Daum.
Daum, of course, is the monster in the middle for the Jackrabbits, easily the conference’s best player and a dark horse All-American candidate due to his bonkers scoring ability. He helped the Jackrabbits recover from a miserable start to the season to win the Summit Tournament and earn the league’s NCAA Tournament bid, the second in as many years for the small town Nebraska native. He’s caught the attention of NBA radars, but if he does stay for all four years, he’s well on his way to one of the best mid-major careers of all time.
Also, a quick shoutout to reserve big man Ian Theisen, as his top of the key 3-pointer gave SDSU a 15-12 lead over Gonzaga and caused an eruption of joy at our Vegas bar table (we had all bet on the Jackrabbits first to 15 points, +400).
Alright, let’s get some bad out of the way – TJ Otzelberger, please take the 1-3-1 zone you tried to install and launch it into the sun. The Jacks were routinely torched throughout the first half of the season and were giving up easily the highest percentage of three-pointers in the country (most of them wide open). They simply didn’t have the length and recovery ability to play a zone that necessitates both, and opponents happily feasted on open corner threes time and time again. After an 8-13 (1-5) start to the season and a bottomed-out KenPom ranking of 259th (they started 113th), Otzelberger had an epiphany that his team sucked on defense, and they switched back to a more basic man-to-man. They then won 10 of their next 13 games en route to the Gonzaga loss. The 1-3-1 may be useful as a curveball at times, but the evidence was clear – stick to man!
The emergence of Chris Howell was also a giant part of the turnaround, as his athleticism added an element on both ends of the court that the Jacks simply didn’t have. He proved to be an excellent rebounder and finisher, and he got to the line at will against more slow-footed Summit defenders.
Although a ton of the offense was run through Daum in the post, allowing him to score or draw double teams and kick out to spot up shooters, the addition of JUCO point guard Brandon Key will be huge. Michael Orris was a steady presence (and he hit the game-winner against Omaha in the Summit Championship), but Key’s ability to get into the lane and find the open shooter or cutter will provide an extra dimension for the Jacks offense.
Key and Daum will run their fair share of pick-and-pop, but Daum post-ups will still be the offense’s fulcrum. He can shoot over opponents, bully them to the rim, or go around them and do this, even to Power 6 defenders. His shooting ability also makes his pump fake a deadly weapon, leading to sweeping drives to the lane and letting him display his smooth touch off the glass. I also feel it necessary to mention that he shot 87% on a ridiculous 273 free throw attempts – get those free points! SDSU can space the floor around him with wings like Reed Tellinghuisen (the ideal stretch four), Lane Severyn and Skylar Flatten, and Daum’s passing showed progress last year, allowing him to make teams pay for doubling too frequently.
Bottom Line: On the strength of Daum, South Dakota State should again have the best offense in the Summit, and after adding a pure passer at PG, they could finish even higher than 71st nationally (per KenPom). The defense should be better, as well, with a whole year of playing man-to-man. I’ll openly admit my love for the Dauminator, but I don’t think it’s showing bias to take the Jackrabbits to reach the “Summit” this year.
2. South Dakota
Key Returners: Matt Mooney, Carlton Hurst, Trey Burch-Manning, Tyler Peterson
Key Losses: Trey Dickerson, Tyler Flack
Key Newcomers: Stanley Umude, Nick Fuller
Postseason Projection: CBI
Outlook: South Dakota was one of the surprises of the league last year, as the Coyotes used four key transfers to leap up the standings from eighth to first. In just his third season in Vermillion, Craig Smith captured a conference title, and with so much talent returning, hopes are high for a repeat performance.
In a league that zigs towards being extremely reliant on the three-pointer, South Dakota zags to a focus on getting to the rim and, more specifically, the free throw line for easy points. Wings Trey Burch-Manning and Carlton Hurst excel at getting into the paint and drawing contact, and star guard Matt Mooney can also get to the rim in a pinch. Those three guys made the team go – the Coyotoes were significantly better with all three playing together:
The loss of Tyler Flack as a big man threat is a huge one, though. Dan Jech looked like a potential breakout player last year after a solid freshman campaign, but he struggled with injuries for most of the season, and Smith ended up stumbling on the hyper-effective four-guard/wing lineup. The middle of those lineups is wide open, though, so Jech and Tyler Hagedorn will battle for minutes (and may play together at times), with Nebraska grad transfer Nick Fuller a candidate for minutes as well.
If you spend too much time worried about the paint, though, Mooney will light you up from deep. He made a prolific 75/201 last season, and his constant movement off the ball always has the defense’s attention. This distraction helps open up driving lanes for the rest of the team, and frantic closeouts when Mooney catches the ball also allow him to get to the rim with even more ease.
The biggest worry is at point guard. Trey Dickerson grad transferred to Georgetown, so Smith will have to rely on Triston Simpson and possibly versatile guard/forward Tyler Peterson to initiate the offense. Having a super-creative point guard isn’t crucial in the continuous high motion offense that South Dakota runs, though, so those guys will just need to get the ball over halfcourt and into the true playmakers hands.
Defensively, Smith relies heavily on man-to-man, and with Hurst, Peterson, and Burch-Manning, he has plenty of versatile defenders to employ his scheme. They were the top defense in the conference, although that still only meant a 125 ranking nationally in KenPom’s adjusted rankings. With so many other solid defenders, Mooney is able to be a ballhawk, and his second-ranked steal rate in the conference evidences his ability to be disruptive.
Bottom Line: Despite some questions at point guard, there’s plenty of talent to compete at the top of the Summit once again. Smith really seemed to find the right style for his roster as they won 8 of their final 9 games. The South Dakota Showdown games with Mike Daum and the boys in Brookings should be phenomenal battles, and unless Denver or Fort Wayne find some defense, those games could decide the conference title.
Key Returners: Daniel Amigo, Joe Rosga, Jake Pemberton, Thomas Neff, Jake Krafka, Christian Mackey
Key Losses: CJ Bobbitt
Key Newcomers: Donoven Carlisle, Elijah Blake, Elvin Rodriguez
Postseason Projection: CIT
Outlook: Year One of the Rodney Billups era in Denver was largely a success – Daniel Amigo had a breakout campaign, the Pioneers continued to be an excellent shooting team, and most importantly, they no longer played at the pace of a distracted snail. A tempo ranking of 247th wouldn’t seem fast to most basketball fans, but after watching Denver finish 350th for three straight years under Joe Scott, Pioneer fans probably wondered how Usain Bolt had NCAA eligibility.
That increase in pace was noticeable on both ends of the floor. On offense, the attack had a more interior-focused tinge to it, and although Denver was still one of the most potent three-point offenses in the country (11th nationally in percentage), the aforementioned emergence of Amigo as a true post threat was crucial. His size and skill allowed Billups’s squad to get more easy points and open shots on the perimeter, as he forced most teams to send a double team to prevent him from scoring on the block. And with deadeye weapons from deep like Joe Rosga and Thomas Neff routinely burying those open looks, it allowed Denver’s offense to rank third in the Summit.
Billups also placed an increased emphasis on the offensive glass after it was Scott’s Princeton offense ignored it for years, and more minutes for Christian Mackey should lead to plenty of second chance points. He was one of the country’s best offensive rebounders by rate (would have ranked in the top 15 had he played more minutes), and if he and Amigo can manage to tone down the foul trouble that plagued them constantly last year, they could make a dominant twin towers duo in spurts. Jake Krafka provides a stretch four component when Billups wants more space on the floor.
The x-factor for Denver’s offense this year is Ade Murkey, a dynamite athlete who never quite carved out a definitive role last season. He’s not a gunner like many of Denver’s guards, but his ability to attack the rim, draw contact, and finish with authority adds a completely different element. If he gets the minutes, he’s a breakout candidate.
Defensively, Billups also shifted principles – under Scott, they were almost exclusively a matchup zone team, whereas the new regime only used zone sparingly. Look at the precipitous dropoff in zone possessions last season:
This wasn’t necessarily a home run change, though. Rosga, Neff, and Krafka struggle to stay in front of dynamic drivers, and Jake Pemberton and Murkey can only do so much to cover up those flaws. The guards inability to prevent teams from blitzing the rim was a big reason Amigo and Mackey always got in foul trouble, so staying in front will be a team-wide focus. It could also lead to rotation minutes for freshmen Elijah Blake and Elvin Rodriguez, two quicker guards who fit Billups’s desire to become more athletic on D.
The one plus is that Denver’s man-to-man approach allowed them to control the defensive glass behind Amigo, Mackey, and Krafka, completely taking away second chances as a route to easy points. That should continue into 2017-18.
Bottom Line: Denver has an efficient offense, and with Amigo back in the paint and plenty of shooters dotting the perimeter, that should only get better with another year in the new system. The defense is concerning, though – while playing Blake and Rodriguez more may help some of the primary weaknesses, their inexperience will surely lead to others. Overall, an experienced roster and a promising young coach should lead to another highly competitive season, albeit lagging slightly behind the South Dakota schools.
4. Fort Wayne
Key Returners: John Konchar, Bryson Scott, Kason Harrell, Xzavier Taylor
Key Losses: Mo Evans, Brent Calhoun, DeAngelo Stewart
Key Newcomers: Chris Rollins, Matt Weir, Dylan Carl, Jairus Stevens
Postseason Projection: CIT
Outlook: Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne...sigh. I rode extremely hard for the Mastodons in the preseason last year, and a shocking (to some) early home upset over big brother Indiana had me feeling great about that prediction. Led by Mo Evans, Kason Harrell, and the ludicrously efficient John Konchar, the offense lived up to its billing, but the ‘Dons took a Vow of No Defense and got absolutely torched on the other end.
In a league with the 11th, 27th, 34th, and 54th-ranked three-point shooting offenses as opponents (Fort Wayne itself was 18th, for the record), giving up a massive proportion of threes is not a recipe for success. Jon Coffman’s defenses were much better at taking away the line in the previous two seasons, so it’s rather odd to see them so noticeably drop off. Here’s an easy visual for that trend:
Coffman will need to emphasize getting out on shooters if the defense hopes to improve in the shooting-rich Summit.
About the only thing the Mastodons did well defensively was clean the glass. Konchar is a bafflingly great rebounder for his size (6’5, 207), but the loss of Brent Calhoun will be a hit. Big man Xzavier Taylor looks like a lion at 6’9, 255, but rebounds like a lamb (6’1 guard Bryson Scott had a higher defensive rebounding percentage). As he steps into a bigger role in the paint, he’ll need to change that.
Let’s talk Mastodon offense, because that’s where things get fun. Scott likely slides to point guard after the graduation of the uber-productive Evans, and with two knockdown wings to dish to in Harrell and Konchar, he will likely have a pleasant job. Coffman’s teams play at a very quick pace, taking the first available good shot rather than draining the shot clock, and this emphasis on transition offense will benefit Scott as well – although a solid shooter, he thrives when using his physical frame to bully smaller guards and get to the rim.
Jax Levitch is a breakout candidate as a stretch four, a versatile and lanky forward who can be disruptive on defense as well. Problem is, getting him to shoot is like convincing a shy freshman to ask his crush to Homecoming (he took 6.1% of Fort Wayne’s shots when on the court, an insanely low number), so getting him to break out of his shell will be crucial. Jordon King and a band of youngsters make up the team’s depth, led by redshirt freshmen Chris Rollins and Dylan Carl and true freshmen Matt Weir and Jairus Stevens. Rollins and Weir will see some minutes at point guard, allowing Scott to play off the ball more (and Konchar will play smallball four often), and Stevens is a dynamic athlete, a luxury in short supply in Fort Wayne.
Bottom Line: It’s unlikely that Fort Wayne can plug the holes in the sieve defense without an influx of more athletes, but if the freshmen can play right away, at least there will be more depth. The brilliance of Konchar and the team’s overall shooting prowess gives them a high upside, but defense and possibility of a cold shooting night keeps the floor low. For that reason, they’ll have some big wins, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they also fall victim to lowly Western Illinois at least once, among other head-scratchers.
5. North Dakota St.
Key Returners: Paul Miller, AJ Jacobson, Tyson Ward, Dylan Miller
Key Losses: Khy Kabellis, Dexter Werner, Carlin Dupree
Key Newcomers: Cameron Hunter, Chris Quayle, Nnamdi Van Dulm, Rocky Kreuser
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It’s possible (maybe even likely) that I look like a fool for placing the Bison so low in these rankings. Since joining the Summit way back in 2007-08, North Dakota State has never finished worse than 8-10 in the league, and it returns three starters (including its best player) from a team that went 11-5, good for second in the standings.
So why, then, would I possibly have them in the bottom half of the league?
Well, for one, I think the teams ahead of them are all quite good – the prediction equivalent of the breakup quote, “it’s not you, it’s me.” However, if I were to name flaws for the Bison, they would start in the backcourt. The graduation of Carlin Dupree followed by the unexpected transfer of Khy Kabellis to Pacific (maybe a little expected: he’s from Escondido, CA) leaves a massive hole at point guard, one that will have to be filled by redshirt freshman Cameron Hunter. Hunter has the pedigree – his pops ran the point for the 1986 KU Final Four team – but he’s thin and inexperienced, so I expect to see some turnover struggles, which would be extremely uncharacteristic of a Dave Richman-coached team. Luckily, the Summit isn’t exactly a fortress of elite defenses.
My other major question mark here is the interior: Dexter Werner leaves a massive chasm in the lineup on both ends of the court. His finishing, defensive rebounding, and quick hands were vital. With him on the court, NDSU was +0.11 points per possession; without him, they were -0.05ppp, per Hoop Lens. The defensive efficiency will most notice his absence on the glass, a staple of Richman’s scheme. His cadre of big guards (Paul Miller, AJ Jacobson, Tyson Ward) will help on the glass, but they’ll really need breakout performances from Dylan Miller and Deng Geu to maintain the level of proficiency that Richman demands.
Okay, enough with the negativity – there’s a lot of talent here, so I’ll stop being Jimmy Raincloud. Miller is one of the Summit’s best scorers (his per game numbers are just limited by the snail’s place the Bison play at), and his ability to attack off the bounce or cash from deep at 6’6 makes him a matchup nightmare. As mentioned, NDSU has multiple of these big wing weapons, and I expect to see all three of them on the floor together quite a bit. Jacobson is mostly a floor-stretcher, though he does have some off-the-bounce cache, and Ward is the heir apparent to Miller’s starring role.
The length of these three also key Richman’s extended man-to-man, designed to run opponents off the three-point line and challenge all shots. Newcomers Chris Quayle and Nnamdi Van Dulm should both help as well; both are long athletes who, at minimum, should fit the physical profile that the defense demands. Geu showed enormous defensive potential last year with his versatility and shot-blocking, but like so many young big men, he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble at all.
Bottom Line: Miller, Jacobson, and Ward are an extremely potent triumvirate, but with questions at both point guard and in the paint, I’m concerned about whether this team can reach its potential. Richman is an excellent coach who has been in the program since 2003 as a grad assistant, but he faces an uphill battle with the talent assembled on both squads down in South Dakota. The teams from 3-5 are a toss-up, I just happen to like the other two ever so slightly more.
Key Returners: Mitch Hahn, Zach Jackson, Daniel Norl
Key Losses: Tra-Deon Hollins, Treshawn Thurman, Marcus Tyus
Key Newcomers: Renard Suggs, Lamar Wofford-Humphrey, Matt Pile, Ayo Akinwole
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: After the two most successful seasons since the school’s (admittedly recent) jump to Division I, Omaha now faces the unenviable task of replacing inarguably its three best players. Tra-Deon Hollins (one of the nation’s most prolific passers and stealers for two consecutive years) and Marcus Tyus graduated, while TreShawn Thurman transferred to Nevada (everybody’s doing it!), so coach Derrin Hansen (who guided the Mavericks through the D-I transition) will need to find new stars to avoid sinking back towards the Summit’s depths (oxymoron!).
Omaha has been in the nation’s top 11 in tempo during all 6 years that it’s been a D-I program, playing at a breakneck pace and getting out in transition on offense whenever possible. One might think that without Hollins and Tyus pushing the pace, Hansen might take his foot off the gas, but considering he still pushed the maniacal tempo in the years before Hollins arrived, it’s natural to expect that to continue this year. He’ll need to find a quarterback, and as of this writing, it’s unclear who that will be – the main candidates are KJ Robinson, a promising rising sophomore, and true freshman Ayo Akinwole. Both will likely see some growing pains during their first minutes as D-I lead guards, which will hinder the offense’s efficiency.
The strength of the team will be its wing scorers, as Washington State transfer Renard Suggs, Zach Jackson, Mitch Hahn, and Daniel Norl can all get buckets in their own way. Suggs will fit into the offensive attack perfectly, a good athlete who will score a ton after being a high-usage guy for the Cougars. Jackson, Hahn, and Norl are more comfortable from deep, as each shot 38% or better from the outside last season, and if they can space the floor in both transition and halfcourt situations, it will open up driving lanes for Suggs and the young PGs.
Defensively, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mavericks thrive on turnovers, though it will be a longtime before they find an on-ball menace quite like Hollins. They play predominantly man-to-man, relying on the individual pressure to make ballhandlers uncomfortable and gambling excessively. This pressure often leaves them exposed to easy shots, both on straight line drives to the rim and on wide open threes, so finding a way to generate enough steals to make that approach profitable will be massive. The interior will be more exposed without the stalwart presence of Thurman on the glass and at the rim, and Daniel Meyer probably isn’t fast enough to keep up with the offensive pace, so expect to see a lot of freshman Matt Pile and Eastern Michigan grad transfer Lamar Wofford-Humphrey.
Bottom Line: It’s simply too much to expect Omaha to stay competitive after losing so much, especially considering how much the other league contenders bring back. Hansen should work on integrating the freshman and reinforcing the core of Hahn and Jackson, with the hopes that the 2018-19 season can again be one of contention.
7. Oral Roberts
Key Returners: Albert Owens, Emmanuel Nzekwesi
Key Losses: Kris Martin, Jalen Bradley, Aaron Anderson, Aaron Young
Key Newcomers: James Conley, Austin Ruder, Sam Kearns, Kellen Manek
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: After 18 seasons, Scott Sutton will no longer be roaming the sidelines in Tulsa, as the school dismissed him after two down years. I’d argue that’s an awfully quick trigger for someone who consistently won at Oral Roberts, to the point of nearly being 100 games over .500 in conference (196-100, to be exact). But alas, he’s gone, and in comes Paul Mills, a longtime Scott Drew assistant at Baylor.
With Mills likely comes the Drew philosophy – which means an aggressive, attack the glass offense driven by relentless big men, and a zone-heavy defensive approach, most often relying on a funky 1-1-3 matchup zone that morphs into the shape of whatever alignment the offense throws at it. Despite a last place Summit finish last year and some heavy attrition in the backcourt, this roster actually fits that scheme pretty well.
Albert Owens is the undisputed best player, a 6’9, 270-pound beast who constantly attacks in the lane and is a decently efficient post-up option (67th percentile nationally, per Synergy, on an extremely high volume). He’s a good offensive rebounder and shot-blocker, as well, two traits that will fit seamlessly into the Mills system. Emmanuel Nzekwesi, a major breakout candidate, serves as a nice complement, and his rebounding prowess and versatile upside should similarly enjoy the coaching transition to a more interior-centric game.
Drew’s teams consistently thrived on ball movement offensively as well, though, and that part is a greater concern for the Golden Eagles. The entire backcourt rotation is gone, so Mills is starting from scratch there, and he’ll turn to a a couple seasoned newcomers: JUCO guard James Conley and Missouri State transfer Austin Ruder. Conley helmed the formidable Hutchinson Community College offense last year, helping them to a 35-2 record and the school’s first NJCAA national title since 1994. Ruder is a pure shooter, and Mills will hope he can provide some floor spacing around the talented big men.
Those two should be the “1-1” part of the 1-1-3 zone, and since Mills is optimistic that Nzekwesi can play the 3 in his system, one of Kellen Manek or Chris Miller may join the zone’s back line. Manek is more of a shooter, whereas Miller fits the Baylor mold of a big man who wants to brawl inside. Jontray Harris is an athletic wing who will probably alternate between the 2 and the 3 (for when Mills opts to go a little smaller). For a zone, Drew’s defenses were relatively effective at taking away the three; you have to beat them with patient, careful ball movement, working patiently until you get a good shot.
One extreme oddity with this squad – despite the firing of his father, Spencer Sutton still decided to stay with the team. I’m sure Sutton loves his teammates and he didn’t want to simply leave right away, but it has to be hard to not feel a small bit of betrayal after the ousting of your father.
Bottom Line: This is an intriguing team. The roster is not bereft of talent, particularly with some strong frontcourt pieces that should fit perfectly into the new scheme, and if the guards adapt to the new environment quickly, ORU could surprise. The Summit is talented this year, though, so the focus should be on implementing the new system and setting a new tone in Tulsa.
8. Western Illinois
Key Returners: Delo Bruster, Brandon Gilbeck, Dalan Ancrum, CJ Duff
Key Losses: Garrett Covington, Mike Mikluskak, Jabari Sandifer
Key Newcomers: Charles Gavin, Kobe Webster, Isaac Johnson
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: After driving through Macomb, IL, several times on the road from Wisconsin to Columbia, MO, I have no idea how to make a recruiting pitch to go there. It’s a smallish town that is nearly an hour from any major highway (yes, Garmin took us on a weird route to end up going through there), and the basketball program’s history is not exactly rich with tradition, as they’ve never made an NCAA Tournament since joining Division I in the 1981-82 season. They did, however, qualify for the 8-team Summit League tournament last year (when the league had 9 teams), and they automatically make it this year, so things are looking up?
The loss of the school’s #3 all-time leading scorer, Garret Covington, will make things difficult, though. He was a vital part of Coach Billy Wright’s perimeter-based offensive attack, and a large burden will now fall on point guard Delo Bruster and breakout candidates CJ Duff and Dalan Ancrum. The best part of Wright’s squads has been their perimeter shooting, and Ancrum’s absurd 52% success rate from deep was third in the country. If he somehow maintains even close that on a higher volume, he’ll be a major weapon. Duff is the intriguing potential star – he took a major back seat to the upperclassmen last year, but he has the potential to emerge with far greater opportunity this time around. Sophomore Jeremiah Usiosefe played both forward spots last year, but his dismal 27% three-point shooting needs to improve to replace the graduated Mike Mikluskak’s production.
Freshman guards Kobe Webster and Isaac Johnson will likely see some opportunity right away as well. Wright loves to play two point guards at the same time to help break down the defense, and while Bruster and Duff seem locked into the starting lineup, Webster would allow the dual-PG system to be a near-constant lineup choice.
The perimeter production is constantly at the expense of any inside presence, though, as the Leathernecks never get to the free throw line and treat offensive rebounds like Cookie Monster treats organic vegetables. This limits the team’s offensive ceiling, as easy points are nearly impossible to come by.
Coach Billy Wright, entering his fourth season in Macomb, runs relatively distinct styles on both ends – defensively, it’s almost exclusively man-to-man, with a concerted focus on taking away the three-point line and funnelling opponents into the lane. They don’t force any turnovers whatsoever (350th in the country), but this is actually a sound strategy given the presence of Brandon Gilbeck, one of the nation’s elite shot-blockers (#3 by rate). Gilbeck struggled mightily with foul trouble, but when he was on the court, he’s a major difference-maker.
Bottom Line: The pieces fit well into Billy Wright’s system, but despite the fit, neither the players nor the schemes are good enough to compete in this league. Another finish towards the bottom of the standings seems likely, and Wright could be on the hot seat after never finishing higher than 8th in the conference.