By Kevin Sweeney
The Summit League has become one of the most interesting and competitive one-bid leagues in the country. However, it still lacks the coverage and attention it deserves due to its location. That said, it should be an outstanding conference to follow this season, and I’m looking forward to what I expect to be an extremely tight conference race. Of note: the Summit is down to 8 teams for this season, as IUPUI left for the Horizon this offseason and North Dakota joins the conference in 2018-19 from the Big Sky.
- South Dakota State- Mike Daum. That’s the reason SDSU is the favorite in the Summit this season. Coming off a season in which he averaged 25 points and 8 rebounds per game, Daum is an absolutely dominant force who makes the game easier for everyone else on the court (except who has to guard him). The Jackrabbits really came into their own as the season went on last year, and I expect that momentum to continue into 2017-18.
- Denver- I’m very high on Denver this season. They have an outstanding duo in junior guard Joe Rosga and senior big Daniel Amigo, and were in contention for a conference title last until they lost 5 of their final 6 games. Look for a jump from the Pioneers in year 2 under Rodney Billups into legitimate conference title contenders.
- South Dakota- In most conferences, Matt Mooney would be the preseason player of the year. The presence of Daum takes that off the table, but Mooney is an elite player in his own right. My question with the Coyotes is point guard play, as Trey Dickerson departed this offseason as a grad transfer to Georgetown. Sophomore Triston Simpson will have to step up in that role.
- North Dakota State- It’s hard for me to bet against this NDSU program given how strong it has been in recent years, but the departures of uber-efficient big man Dexter Werner and talented scorer Khy Kabellis give me cause for pause with the Bison. However, the core of Paul Miller and AJ Jacobson is outstanding and should lead NDSU to a lot of wins this season.
- Fort Wayne- Scoring punch won’t be lacking for the Mastodons despite the departure of the talented Mo Evans, as Bryson Scott and Kason Harrell are double digit scorers in the backcourt while John Konchar remains one of the best and most versatile players no one has heard of in college basketball. Where Jon Coffman’s team must improve is on the defensive end, where they ranked 250th in defensive efficiency a season ago.
- Nebraska-Omaha- Coming off a trip to the Summit League title game, UNO loses a ton of production, including star point guard Tra-Deon Hollins, scoring wing Marcus Tyus, and dominant big Tre’Shawn Thurman. Mitchell Hahn is a nice piece to build around as a stretch big, but they’ll need someone to step up and run the show in their breakneck-paced offensive scheme. I think that guy will be sophomore KJ Robinson, who scored 15 points and was a defensive catalyst with 3 steals in a hurricane relief scrimmage vs Creighton.
- Oral Roberts- Year one of the Paul Mills era in Tulsa will be one of transition, as he has a dominant big man in Albert Owens to rely on in the post, but not a ton of talent around him. Missouri State transfer Austin Ruder provides much-needed floor-spacing to give Owens and Emmanuel Nzekwesi some room to operate.
- Western Illinois- Who doesn’t love the Leathernecks? Unfortunately, it looks like another ugly year on the horizon, with their top 2 talents in Garret Covington and Mike Miklusak both graduating. Brandon Gilbeck returns as an elite rim protector (3 blocks per game) but will need to up his offensive game with the departure of that duo.
Champions: South Dakota State
The Fighting Mike Daum’s (trademark pending) are my pick to win the Summit. The addition of JUCO point guard Brandon Key, who averaged over 12 points and 7 assists in junior college, is the exact piece TJ Otzelberger’s club needed, a true table-setter for Daum who can space the floor as well. Daum himself will win the Jackrabbits a ton of games this season, but a guy like Key stepping up right out of the gates would be huge. One piece not to be forgotten about is Reed Tellinghuisen, who made a ton of key plays down the stretch last season, averaging 14 points and 5 rebounds on 36% from 3 in the season’s final 9 games.
Dark Horse: Fort Wayne
This team is really intriguing to me. Losing a guard who could score and distribute like Mo Evans obviously hurts, but there are still plenty of weapons on this roster. John Konchar doesn’t get the credit he deserves on the national level, a hyper-efficient scorer who rebounds extremely well for his size and also is a great passer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him step into a primary ball-handling role this season to allow guys like Harrell and Scott to focus on scoring off the ball. That dynamic would be super fun to watch, and while Fort Wayne will need to defend better than last season, they are going to score a ton of points and be competitive in pretty much every game in the Summit.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Matt Mooney (South Dakota)
- G: Paul Miller (North Dakota State)
- G/F: John Konchar (Fort Wayne)
- F: Mike Daum (South Dakota State)
- F: Daniel Amigo (Denver)
Player of the Year: Mike Daum (South Dakota State)- We’ve touched on Daum at length in this piece, but the 6-9 forward can do everything on the basketball court. He’s an elite shooter, unstoppable in the post, and an improving ball-handler. He is one of the leading candidates to lead the country in scoring this season, and it wouldn’t stun me if he averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds per game this season.
Breakout Player of the Year: Emmanuel Nzekwesi (Oral Roberts)- Assuming new head coach Paul Mills implements a style similar to the one he ran as an assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor, Nzekwesi should thrive. A strong-built 4 who can score inside and out, Nzekwesi posted impressive numbers as a freshman (over 9 points and 6 rebounds per contest) and compliments senior big Albert Owens perfect. Look for a huge year from Nzekwesi.
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Key (South Dakota State)- Another guy I touched on earlier, Key is the type of distributor perfect for TJ Otzelberger’s free-flowing offensive system. I expect him to thrive and be a huge part of SDSU’s success this season.