One week to go! Today, we dive into the Summit League. The league loses Fort Wayne to the Horizon while adding back Kansas City after its stint in the WAC. Another addition is likely on the way in the University of St Thomas, who is set to make the move from D3 to D1 and become the second D1 team in the state of Minnesota. But for now, we’re stuck with nine here. Let’s dive in:
- South Dakota State – Eric Henderson keeping things rolling at SDSU despite inheriting a roster that lost a ton of key guys from the 2018-19 season. Winning 22 games and capturing the Summit League title sets the tone for a strong future for the program, and with the team’s top five scorers returning the Jackrabbits have a chance to be one of the better mid-majors in the country this season. Big man Douglas Wilson is the league’s best player, a terrific finisher around the rim who keyed an offense that ranked fourth nationally in effective field goal percentage last season. The two-big looks Henderson deploys with Wilson and uber-efficient forward Matt Detlinger is tough for mid-major clubs to match up with, and having a pair of snipers like Noah Freidel and David Wingett on the wing opens up space for Wilson and Detlinger to operate in the paint. One major concern is the team’s lack of a true point guard – Brandon Key filled that role when on the floor last season, but now big wing creator Baylor Scheierman seems likely to take on bigger initiation responsibilities as a sophomore. Freshman William Mfum could also take on some ballhandling responsibilities. It feels like the Jackrabbits are one piece away from being a major threat to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, but this is without a doubt an intriguing team that should be a cut above the rest in the Summit.
- South Dakota – The Coyotes graduate four double-figure scorers, but still have plenty of talent and could be the “best of the rest” in the Summit this season. Todd Lee’s teams run great stuff on the offensive end, though it certainly helps to have great personnel: having a pair of guys who shot over 43% from 3 including the nation’s leading 3-point shooter in Tyler Hagedorn tends to make any offense look good. That floor-spacing from the center position was critical, particularly because it created tons of driving lanes for athletic wing Stanley Umude. This year’s likely starter at the center position in Nebraska transfer Brady Heiman seems unlikely to bring that level of spacing, though Heiman moves well and should be an impact player in the Summit League. A newcomer-heavy group in the backcourt will determine this team’s ceiling – D2 transfers AJ Plitzuweit and Kanon Koster should be plug-and-play contributors, while JUCO imports Mason Archambault, Boogie Anderson, and Xavier Fuller could also make an impact. Plitzuweit seems likely to have the biggest role from day one as the likely starting PG after posting a 2:1 A:TO and averaging over 14 points per game at Augustana, while the Scottsdale CC duo of Anderson and Fuller should bring major scoring pop on the wing. There’s a lot of projecting to do with all these newcomers, but Umude is a heck of a place to start and I like these transfers on paper.
- North Dakota State – Dave Richman’s club graduates two dynamic shot-makers, leaving behind a solid roster of previous contributors but not a ton of creation ability. Replacing the high-scoring duo of Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward will be a massive challenge: they combined to average over 35 points per game, were the team’s top two assist-getters, and each shot the ball extremely well from beyond the arc. So who is creating offense for the Bison this season? JUCO import Donald Carter Jr seems like the type of do-it-all floor general who could eat minutes from the outset, but freshman Dezmond McKinney seems like a critical piece as a guard who can score the ball right away. I’m not necessarily buying huge steps forward from Tyree Eady and Sam Griesel, both of whom profile more as complementary pieces than stars. Expect more offense to run through big man Rocky Kreuser, who is solid around the rim and has some floor-spacing ability. Richman’s clubs have consistently made winning plays – made free throws, controlled the defensive glass, and protected the ball. Is there enough on this roster to win a bunch of close games in a league that is always competitive?
- Oral Roberts – Scott Drew disciple Paul Mills picked up the pace last season, going to a more pressure-oriented defense to force turnovers and spark a unit that had been one of the nation’s worst in his first two years in Tulsa. What resulted was a defense that forced turnovers at a higher rate than any other Summit League team, and we’ll see if they can continue that momentum this season. The loss of Deondre Burns at point guard is a big one, but D2 Arkansas Tech grad transfer RJ Glasper should be a plug-play starter at that spot next to a high-level shooter in Max Abmas. The other key loss is double-double machine Emmanuel Nzekwesi, a four-year starter who totaled close to 1,500 points and 900 rebounds in his career with the Golden Eagles. Stepping up in his absence will likely be Elijah Lufile, who rebounds well but doesn’t bring the same skill level on the offensive end. That likely leaves a bigger role for Kevin Obanor, the junior big man who is one of the more talented players in the conference thanks to his ability to play inside and out at 6-8. Mills’ clubs love to pound the glass, and if they can maintain that turnover edge they should finish in the top half of the conference.
- Omaha – Things start for the Mavs with Matt Pile, one of the best big men in the conference and a guy who averaged a double-double last season. Pile struggles at the free throw line, but he protects the rim and cleans the glass at a high level. But how good this team is will be dictated by growth from some young players in the backcourt – particularly Zach Thornhill and Marlon Ruffin. I’m particularly high on Ruffin, a sophomore from Madison, WI who is an impactful slasher and can hit outside shots. Ruffin scored in double figures 12 times in Summit League play, including a 30-point outburst against Western Illinois in late February. With the graduations of KJ Robinson and JT Gibson, Derrin Hansen desperately needs a breakout season from Ruffin, and I believe he’ll get one. Improvement on the defensive end feels important as well – the Mavs simply didn’t make life difficult very often for opponents last season, and with less margin for error on offense without Robinson and Gibson it becomes particularly necessary to get it going on that end.
- Kansas City – The Roos head back to the Summit League after its short-lived time in the WAC, and do so with a coach in Billy Donlon who I believe will get this program going again. Donlon brought signs of life to the program in his first year, winning 16 games and setting the tone defensively by forcing lots of turnovers and defending the three well. Donlon’s desire to take the ball away (he’s had four top-15 finishes in opposing turnover rate in his head-coaching career) is an interesting stylistic contrast to a league of teams that largely take care of the ball and don’t gamble much on D. But will UMKC have enough pop on the offense end to win in their first season back in the Summit? D2 Virginia Union transfer Demarius Pitts should bring some scoring punch next to Brandon McKissic after averaging over 13 points as a freshman, and JUCO import Jonathan Bolden should see plenty of touches on the block out of Columbia State. An x-factor might be a waiver for Oklahoma State transfer Hidde Roessink, a floor-spacing European big man who didn’t do much for the Cowboys but should be more at home at the Summit League level.
- Western Illinois – It appears the Summit League is creating a “probably shouldn’t have been fired in the Horizon League” club of coaches, with Rob Jeter joining Billy Donlon in the Summit after spending time on the staff at Minnesota. Jeter (and Chicago basketball icon Nick Irvin) have quickly brought credibility on the recruiting trail for the Leathernecks, and the influx of talent joining the program is why I’m expecting some surprise victories for WIU despite bringing virtually nothing back. Former Wake Forest commit Marcus Watson was probably a reach for an ACC program, but him choosing to play for his high school coach in Irvin over several better offers is still a major coup, and athletic wing Ramean Hinton also spurned plenty of better mid-majors to come to Macomb. Five JUCO guys should also get plugged into key roles immediately – I’m particularly excited about undersized sniper Justin Brookens and athletic combo forward Cameron Burrell. A likely waiver for fellow Morgan Park alum Tamell Pearson (UAB) should solidify the frontcourt. It’s far from an ideal year to be integrating virtually an entirely new roster, but talent is there to start moving up the Summit League standings. Jeter was a great hire at a place that is very hard to win, and I’m excited to see what he can do with the Leatherneck program.
- North Dakota – The Fighting Hawks have one of the better frontcourts in the league, but major questions in the backcourt make me reticent about buying much UND stock this season. The 4-5 duo of De’Sean Allen-Eikens and Filip Rebraca is without a doubt impressive – Rebraca is highly efficient around the basket, and if Allen-Eikens can continue to improve his outside shot he has a chance to be one of the best players in this conference. But can they get good enough guard play around them? Weber State transfer Caleb Nero will be relied upon heavily as a shot-maker and ball-handler, but the Fighting Hawks will also need production from freshmen Tyree Ihenacho and Nate Shockey to avoid having the worst backcourt in the league.
- Denver – Things have really stalled for Rodney Billups at Denver after two solid seasons to start his tenure, with back-to-back 20-loss seasons and a general lack of program direction making things look fairly bleak long-term. The lone building block is Jase Townsed, a talented junior scoring guard, a high-level shot-maker who could compete for all-conference honors. But outside of him, there isn’t much to write about. Young big man Robert Jones has upside, and JUCO import Kobey Lam could bring some shot-making. But there are a lot of very unproven pieces here, and I’m not inclined to give Billups the benefit of the doubt given how the last two seasons have went with better rosters.
All-Conference First Team:
- Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)
- Stanley Umude (South Dakota)
- Douglas Wilson (South Dakota State)
- Matt Dentlinger (South Dakota State)
- Matt Pile (Omaha)
Player of the Year: Douglas Wilson (South Dakota State) – Landing a player out of junior college as good as Wilson was a game-changer for South Dakota State and is a big reason why this program is moving in a positive direction in the post-Mike Daum era. Wilson lived up to the hype last season and should continue to expand his game this season, improving his ball security and defense. Wilson and the Jackrabbits will be tested early at the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, including a season-opening test against a potential top-10 Creighton team.
Breakout Player: Marlon Ruffin (Omaha) – I spoke about Ruffin at length in my preview of the Mavericks, but I’m super excited about his development in year two of his college career. Derrin Hansen has consistently done an excellent jo developing talent during his time in Omaha, and Ruffin has all the makings of a future star. He’s athletic, confident as a shooter, and will certainly have the opportunity to shine with the Mavs needing backcourt help. Expect a big year.
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Watson (Western Illinois) – Watson has the perfect mix of talent and opportunity to be an easy pick to have a big season for the Leathernecks. A dynamic scoring point guard who had plenty of suitors out of high school, Watson will have some familiarity with the coaching staff coming in thanks to his relationship with Nick Irvin. He’ll likely have the ball in his hands from day one, and that should lead to big numbers from the jump for the Chicago native.