By Kevin Sweeney
Keeping coaches has proven a challenge for Summit League clubs, with Craig Smith, Saul Phillips, and Scott Nagy among the coaches who have recently left for what I would describe as “incrementally better” jobs– Phillips and Nagy took jobs in a one-bid league, while Smith nearly took the worst job in the MVC (Drake) before taking a mid-pack Mountain West job at Utah State. South Dakota State seems in most danger of losing its coach next, with TJ Otzelberger likely to earn plenty of attention over the next few seasons. Otzelberger has proven himself a strong recruiter and did a great job making adjustments in year 2 after some early struggles in his first season as a head coach.
#1. South Dakota State
There’s little debate about this pick. The Jackrabbits arguably have the 2 best players in the conference in Mike Daum and David Jenkins, as well as perhaps the best coach in the conference in TJ Otzelberger. That’s generally an excellent recipe for success. SDSU has one of the best offenses in the country, with Daum featured as a shooting 5-man who can also do the dirty work inside and collect rebound after rebound. His presence lets the Jackrabbits go 5-out, creating some great floor spacing and driving lanes. This team could win an NCAA Tournament game, and nearly did last season. That’s the only thing left for Daum to check off the list in his storied career, one that has featured trips to the Big Dance in each of his first 3 seasons.
Rodney Billups continues to assemble talent at Denver, and this could be a bit of a breakthrough year despite the graduation of talented big man Daniel Amigo. Scoring guard Joe Rosga returns along with a few other key rotation cogs, and Billups adds a pair of high-major talents to the mix in grad transfers Ronnie Harrell (Creighton) and Tory Miller-Stewart (Colorado). Harrell is especially interesting, with the size to play the 4 or even the 5 at the mid-major level but an absolute nightmare in the open floor, while Miller-Stewart should step in nicely to help fill Amigo’s void. I don’t think this team can catch SDSU, but they should win 20 games.
#3. South Dakota
All is not lost for South Dakota despite losing its rising star coach Craig Smith and its best player in Matt Mooney, as Todd Lee looks to continue the momentum this program had under Smith, The frontcourt remains intact, and the Trey Burch-Manning/Tyler Hagedorn pairing that Lee is likely to deploy should be one of the league’s best. The question is who’ll create offense for this group, as Wyoming grad transfer Cody Kelley looks likely to start at point guard with Tristan Simpson and Trey Peterson providing scoring punch on the wing. In a less-structured offense than Smith’s motion attack, it will be interesting to see how this club fares.
#4. Purdue Fort Wayne
Replacing 22+ point per game scorers is never an easy task, but its an undertaking that Jon Coffman will have to take on this season with the graduation of the high-scoring Bryson Scott, who spent 2 years with the program after beginning his career at Purdue. While that type of loss is tough to overcome, the Mastadons do have a strong core in place, featuring unique point forward Jon Konchar and scoring guard Kason Harrell, along with a pair of high-level newcomers in JUCO product Dee Montgomery and NAU transfer Marcus DeBerry.
#5. Oral Roberts
Year one of the Paul Mills era was a solid one– the Golden Eagles performed about as expected but positioned itself nicely for the future with a strong recruiting class. Mills, a Scott Drew disciple, is still all-in on playing big in this era of pace and space, as he rotated through 3 excellent big men who were mostly non-shooters last season and has continued to recruit size. A pair of well-regarded recruits in Francis Lacis and DJ Weaver should provide some length as wing/forwards likely to play the 3 in Mills’ system, while Emmanuel Nzekwesi should continue his rise as one of the best players in the conference. This team could be a dark horse with reasonable guard play.
#6. North Dakota State
NDSU is sliding in the wrong direction as the Dave Richman era enters year 5, with the Bison coming off a 15-17 mark despite having one of the better players in the conference in Paul Miler. Long wing Tyson Ward looks most likely to pick up the slack after an impressive sophomore campaign, but a pair of incoming guards in JUCO product Vinnie Shahid and Siena transfer Jordan Horn will be critical for Richman to get things moving back in the right direction.
The Mavs get a lot back from tough 2017-18, with a core of Zach Jackson and Mitchell Hahn likely enough to compete in a lot of Summit League games. The defense was the biggest issue for Derrin Hanson’s club– Hanson’s teams play a style that will allow a lot of points but should force turnovers and earn the Mavs plenty of easy baskets, and that just didn’t happen enough last season. That should probably be attributed to the loss of point-of-attack defender Tra-Deon Hollins, who racked up tons of steals in his Omaha career and wasn’t replaced well last season. Forcing more turnovers would certainly help fix those defensive foes and help the Mavericks climb back up the standings.
#8. North Dakota
Losing your best player the year before moving up in conference is never ideal, and that’s what Brian Jones will have to deal with as Geno Crandall decided to grad transfer to Gonzaga late this offseason. The Fighting Hawks have a nice trio in place in Marlon Stewart, Cortez Seales, and Conner Avants, but have almost nothing else left in terms of proven commodities. It could be a tough transition year for UND.
#9. Western Illinois
The Leathernecks will always hold a special place in the hearts of most CBB diehards thanks to their hilarious mascot, but they have struggled on the floor for several seasons. However, there might be some reason for optimism this year with Kobe Webster and Brandon Gilbeck returning and well-regarded freshman Zion Young joining the fray.
All-Conference First Team:
- David Jenkins– SDSU (16.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, .432/.382/.799)
- Joe Rosga– Denver (16.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, .481/.440/.901)
- John Konchar– Fort Wayne (14.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, .482/.384/.648)
- Ronnie Harrell– Denver (7.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, .465/.333/.797 with Creighton)
- Mike Daum– SDSU (23.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, .462/.425/.851)
Player of the Year: Mike Daum (SDSU)
Not much explanation is necessary here, so I’ll instead discuss Daum’s incredible career. He’s poised to win Summit POY 3 times, accumulate over 3,000 career points and around 1,200 career rebounds, all while shooting 43% from 3 for his career.
In short: that boy good.
Breakout Player: Matt Pile (Omaha)
Pile showed some promise as a freshman, averaging 6 points and 4 rebounds per game while showing some ability to protect the rim. If he can make offenses think twice before entering the paint, it could really give this Omaha team a big lift on the defensive end of the floor.
Newcomer of the Year: Ronnie Harrell (Denver)
I was stunned to hear that Harrell was transferring down, as I expected him to be a big contributor for Creighton this season. Instead, he’ll be a star in the Summit, likely playing the 4 and exploiting mismatch after mismatch thanks to combination of size and athleticism. I could see him averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 3-4 assists per contest in his only season for the Pioneers.