By Kevin Sweeney
Mid-major conference tournament upsets are always bittersweet.
On one hand, who doesn’t love watching the underdog shock an entire arena? On the other, it’s in the best interests of most leagues for its best teams to win the conference, especially when those teams have a legitimate chance to win a game or two in March Madness. We saw this in Sioux Falls last March, when the Mike Daum and David Jenkins-led South Dakota State Jackrabbits fell in stunning fashion to a hot-shooting Western Illinois club. It was a moment that was quintessential March Madness: the stunned looks of SDSU players seeing a dream slip away, the raw emotion from WIU for keeping their season alive another day.
#1. South Dakota– The popular choice here is North Dakota State, and given the Bison pretty much run it back from a team that danced a season ago, that’s not surprising. That said, I’m bullish on South Dakota in year two of the Todd Lee era. The Coyotes bring back four starters, including perhaps the league’s best player in multi-talented wing Stanley Umude. They also get one of the better big men in the conference in Tyler Hagedorn back healthy after he missed last season with a foot injury. Between Hagedorn and Nebraska transfer Brady Heiman, USD should have one of the league’s best frontcourts to go with a veteran backcourt and a star in Umude on the wing. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in my mind.
#2. North Dakota State– Another reason I am picking USD to win the league is I’m not quite as high as others are on NDSU. A run through the Summit League Tournament last year (avoiding South Dakota State in the process) has made many forget that this team was just 15-15 in the regular season in 2018-19. In addition, I think the Bison will miss Deng Geu more than many realize– his inside-out scoring ability and versatility were assets for Dave Richman’s club. I love the duo of Vinnie Shaheed and Tyson Ward, and I think Sam Griesel could have a breakout sophomore campaign. This team should win 20 games, but I feel inclined to lean towards South Dakota to win this thing in the preseason.
#3. South Dakota State– Mike Daum, David Jenkins, Skyler Flatten, Brandon Key and TJ Otzelberger are all gone from Brookings. That is a LOT to replace, but I do think SDSU will be competitive this season despite the massive departures. Eric Henderson inherits a pair of building blocks in Alex Arians and Owen King, both of whom could be all-league players down the line for the Jackrabbits. Also critical are the additions of three impact transfers: Tray Buchanan and Douglas Wilson from the JUCO ranks and David Wingett from Memphis. Buchanan will provide much-needed scoring punch as the Jacks look to replace Jenkins’ backcourt presence, while Wilson provides an older option for a depleted frontcourt. The x-factor is Wingett, an elite shooter who was a priority mid-major recruit before Memphis swooped in late in the 2018 cycle. Wingett has great size and can shoot the cover off the ball– he will fit in very nicely.
#4. Omaha– The Mavericks stunned most prognosticators with a 12-win jump in 2018-19. How? They took care of the ball and shot the cover off it. That’s a pretty good recipe for success, and with three double-digit scorers back, the identity of this team shouldn’t change much. Losing an elite scorer like Zach Jackson could eat into this team’s efficiency on the offensive end, and Mitch Hahn was a pretty terrific stretch four who’ll have to be replaced as well. That said, a core of JT Gibson, KJ Robinson, and Matt Pile is a pretty good one, and Ayo Akinwole showed some flashes as a sophomore that he could break out.
#5. Oral Roberts– A Scott Drew disciple, Paul Mills likes to play multiple bigs and pound people on the glass. Every style of play has benefits and weaknesses– going big should allow you to win on the glass, defend the rim well, score efficiently and get to the line, while hurting you in turnover margin and in the 3-point game. The problem for Mills last season: playing big didn’t help ORU’s interior defense or free throw margin. The Golden Eagles were horrible on defense and almost never got to the line a season ago, leading to a disappointing year two in Tulsa. Little Rock transfer Deondre Burns should help in the backcourt with the departure of Kaelen Malone, and Kevin Obanor looks like a star in the making up front. That said, it might not matter if ORU can’t fix those structural problems from a season ago.
#6. Fort Wayne– Two players all-time have averaged at least 19 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals per game for a season: Penny Hardaway and John Konchar. Replacing one of college basketball’s most unique hidden gems will be a massive challenge for Jon Coffman and company at Fort Wayne, especially considering shot-making guard Kason Harrell is departing as well. The frontcourt pairing of Matt Holba and Dylan Carl should be steady, but Coffman desperately needs Jarred Godfrey and Matt Weir to grow up fast in the backcourt. Kansas State transfer Brian Patrick could help at guard as well.
#7. North Dakota– Well-regarded D2 coach Paul Sather takes over at UND after winning over 65% of his games in 14 seasons at Northern State. He’s fortunate to inherit a returning backcourt that features a veteran playmaker in Marlon Stewart and a lights-out shooter in Aaron Moody. Perhaps some positive free throw luck can make a difference as well– the Fighting Hawks lost seven games by five points or less a season ago, and that was with opponents shooting a blistering 78.6% against them at the charity stripe. Regression to the mean in that area alone could steal UND a few more games.
#8. Western Illinois– The Leathernecks sent shockwaves through the mid-major basketball landscape last March when they stunned South Dakota State in the Summit League quarterfinals, and Billy Wright will hope that win can spark some positive momentum going forward in Macomb. The loss of Brandon Gilbeck really hurts– Gilbeck ranked in the top five nationally in block rate as a steady defensive anchor, and losing him could tank a defense that wasn’t exactly great with him a season ago. That said, WIU has a dynamic combo guard in Kobe Webster to run the show and a pair of sophomores I’m high on in Ben Pyle and Zion Young. That should probably be enough to keep the Leathernecks out of the cellar.
#9. Denver– What projected on paper to be a potential breakthrough year for Rodney Billups’ team turned out to be several steps back, and the Pioneers surprisingly bottomed out despite having Joe Rosga back for his senior year and adding a talent like Ronnie Harrell to the mix. It’s not back to square one for Billups, who desperately needs David Nzekwesi and Jase Townsend to look like building blocks for this program long-term.
All-Conference First Team:
- Kobe Webster (Western Illinois)
- Vinnie Shahid (North Dakota State)
- Stanley Umude (South Dakota)
- Kevin Obanor (Oral Roberts)
- Tyler Hagedorn (South Dakota)
Player of the Year: Stanley Umude (South Dakota)
Umude taking his name out of the transfer portal after pondering a move to greener pastures was absolutely massive news in this conference. Umude is a sure-fire high-major player, an athletic wing with very good defensive instincts who can score at all three levels. As he continues to improve as a shooter, expect those who don’t know his name nationally to become well aware of just how good this kid is.
Breakout Player: Alex Arians (South Dakota State)
Arians plugged in perfectly to a glue guy role as a freshman, hitting outside shots, slashing, and defending while looking nothing like a freshman on a loaded SDSU team. Now. he’ll step into a much larger role as a sophomore, with a heavy scoring load heaped onto his plate as a primary shot-creator for this team in transition.
Newcomer of the Year: Doug Wilson (South Dakota State)
Several different SDSU guys could win this one, but I’ll roll with Wilson, who put up monster numbers at the D2 JUCO level and has earned rave reviews in practice. He should provide a much-needed inside presence for this team.