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Jackrabbits setting fast pace in Summit League

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 3, 2017 07:40 PM

The Summit League is looking to rebound from a season that was a massive letdown. After making the 2016 NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed, South Dakota State repeated as Summit League Tournament champions but did so entering the dance with 15 losses and got slapped with a No. 16 seed.

It looked like the newly branded Fort Wayne Mastodons were destined to be one of the nation's top mid-majors after an exciting home win against then-No. 3 Indiana, but both the Mastodons and Hoosiers turned into disappointments.

Fort Wayne was certainly a fun team to watch, ranking fourth in D-I basketball with 86.9 points per game, but it also ranked in the bottom 35 in the nation in defense. The Mastodons were 6-6 in games decided by six points or fewer. Defense is something this team must improve moving forward, and that will have to happen without Mo Evans, the leader in points and assists from last year.

The team returns starting guard Bryson Scott, who had over 16 points per game last season and is a better rebounder, though his 3-point percentage (33.5) needs some work. It helps that alongside him is 6-foot-4 John Konchar, who hit 64.7 percent of his shots overall and nearly 52 percent of his 3s while registering 14.9 points per contest.

The Mastodons played a lot of four-guard lineups last year and may need to give guard Jordan King more time this year to platoon with Kason Harrell because their main post presence from last year, Brent Calhoun, is no longer with the program. That will cause Xzavier Taylor to be their starting five, and boy does he have some big shoes to fill. Taylor is listed at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, which is good size for mid-major basketball, but in comparison to the 6-foot-11, 290-pound Calhoun, he looks somewhat petite.

Given the amount of turnover this roster has and the fact this team faltered in conference play last year even with all their piecse, Fort Wayne is likely to tumble down the conference standings.

Though the South Dakota Coyotes were unable to finish the job and go to their first-ever NCAA Tournament, they did capture the Summit League regular-season crown and got their first-ever 20-win season as a member of the conference.

The future looks bright for this program as their lone senior on the roster last season was 6-foot-7 forward Tyler Flack. While replacing a player that averages over 15 points and leads the team with 6.8 boards per game is never a cakewalk, it does help that Trey Butch-Manning returns as a junior and has been working in the offseason on his jump shot.

The team received some bad news during the offseason with guard and last year's assists leader, Trey Dickerson, electing to transfer, though the fact that he and Triston Simpson essentially split time is a plus. Leading scorer Matt Mooney is also solid at running the offense and is coming off a sophomore season that saw him put up 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game

The Coyotes got a nice bonus from Carlton Hurst, who hit nearly 48 percent of his 3s  If Tyler Peterson can build off of a solid freshman campaign of being a priority reserve, this team could shoot its way back toward the top of the conference.

Since coming into the Summit League, North Dakota State has been a force to be reckoned with and is looking to get up off the mat after losing five of their last nine games to close out the 2016-17 season.

The Bison play a slower style of basketball that relies on taking care of the ball, as they finished 15th nationally in fewest turnovers committed. A big reason for this is the cerebral knowledge shown by the backcourt of Khy Kabellis, A.J. Jacobson and Paul Miller.

This trio is back for another ride following a season in which all three averaged over 10 points per game and dished out between 1.8 and 2.7 assists per contest while shooting over 37 percent from 3.

Look for 6-foot-6 sophomore stretch player Tyson Ward to have an expanded role. He is a capable 3-point option, knocking down over 37 percent of his triples as a freshman.

If 6-foot-8 sophomore Deng Geu can step in and be a serviceable big man who can reel in some rebounds, North Dakota State should have a good chance at making the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past five years. The Bison had won 20 or more games each of the past four years entering the 2016-17 season, but they finished last year at 19-11.

Omaha had a nice 18-14 season, highlighted by a 10-point road win against Iowa, and is in search of the school's first trip to the NCAAs.

A problem this team had was its inability at times to get stops. The Mavericks had a high-powered offense and ranked 13th nationally with 83.9 points per game, but they allowed 83.5 points per game on the defensive end, which was 343rd of 351 D-I teams. That led to a lot of their games being lopsided affairs, as 10 of their 14 losses were by double-figures.

Omaha has to replace its top two starting guards in Marcus Tyus and Tra-Deon Holland, which will be extremely difficult for coach Derrin Hanson, who needs to recognize this year's team is much different than the one from the 2016-17 and adjust accordingly. His top returning scorers are forwards Michael Hahn and Tra'Shawn Thurman, who stand 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8, respectively, and combined for over 25.5 points and 12 rebounds per game last season.

The team is bringing in former Nebraska forward Nick Fuller to sure up their frontcourt. He rarely played for the Big Ten team, but let's face it, the Summit League is not on the same level.

Their best returning guard is another guy with size in 6-foot-5 Zach Jackson, who shot a team-best 45.1 percent from 3 and had 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game a season ago.

Omaha must slow things down with its bigger lineup and focus more on the defensive end. If the Mavericks fail to do so, it could be a long year for them in an improving league.

T.J. Otzelberger's first year as coach of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits did not get off to a sizzling start, but it ended well with the team winning the Summit League Tournament and giving Gonzaga a hotly contested first half of basketball as a 16-seed.

The heart and soul of last year's unit is back. That heart and soul is one man and his name is Mike Daum. The 6-foot-9 forward was the Summit League Player of the Year as a sophomore, averaging a ridiculous 25.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, all while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. His ability to hit nearly 42 percent from 3 helps give stretch guards Reed Tellinghuisen and Skyler Flatten, both of whom are 6-foot-6, more open looks.

Daum came up mammoth when the squad needed him most, dropping 37 points in a three-point Summit League Tournament final win over Omaha. A few weeks prior, he had a 51-point game in a close victory over Fort Wayne.

The Jackrabbits have to tighten up on defense, as they allowed opponents to hit the second-most 3s of any team in DI basketball, but they also hit the 27th most 3s in the nation and ranked 17th in most triples attempted.

It would not surprise if the team tries to have a bit more balance this year with 6-foot-9 senior forward Ian Theisen, who averaged five points and just under three boards per game and is capable of hitting 3s. If he can become a guy who can clean up the offensive glass and block a few shots, two things the Jackrabbits did not do well last year, it could put  this team over the top.

Even if that does not happen, Otzelberger built his name on coaching as an ace recruiter for Iowa State under Fred Hoiberg and has five solid players entering the program. With the state of South Dakota having little to no talent at the high school level, he decided to hit the state of Wisconsin hard, grabbing four commits from America's Dairyland.

With Daum coming back, the team could trot four guys out of the stands to play alongside him and still likely get at least the 18 wins that were achieved last year. If one of their incoming guards like Brandon Key or David Jenkins can turn into a solid facilitator, the conference is South Dakota State's to lose.

Much like the Jackrabbits, the Pioneers of Denver went 8-8 in conference with a first-year coach. Rodney Billups is hoping his team can get to the tournament that South Dakota ended their season in, and he has pretty much his entire roster back from last year for another ride.

The Pioneers are weaker in the post than around the perimeter, but they have a nice big man to build around in Daniel Amigo. The 6-foot-10 senior averaged 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds and could have had more had he not picked up an average of 3.6 fouls per game as a junior.

The team has an option to change that in 6-foot-7 forward C.J. Bobbitt, who had 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game but did not get his nose dirty in the paint as much as he could have and also dealt with foul trouble frequently last year.

If those two can do a bit more on the glass, Denver will be a 20-win team thanks to the development of its guards. The Pioneers were 12th in the nation in 3-point percentage last year at 40.2 percent, and it was spearheaded by Joe Rosga. As a sophomore he scored 15.2 points while making 44 percent of his 3s.

Point guard Jake Pemberton did a great job of getting Rosga and others the ball, averaging a team-high 4.4 assists to go with over nine points per game of his own. Rosga assisted on a lot of Pemberton's points with 3.2 assists per game of his own.

No matter what, Denver will be dangerous next year and will be gunning for its first NCAA Tournament trip in school history. The roster is dangerous, and if freshman point guards Elijah Blake and Elvin Rodriguez Jr. can step in and make some contributions as well, look out.

It seemed Western Illinois was poised to turn the corner during the 2015-16 season when it went on the road and defeated Wisconsin to tip off the season. But the Leathernecks started conference play 0-8 that season and did not rebound during the 2016-17 season, when they went 8-20.

It's going to be a long climb for the Leathernecks just to get to the middle of the Summit League pack as their top two scorers from last year, Garrett Covington and Mike Miklusak, are out of eligibility. Covington averaged over 20 points, 3.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while Miklusak had 15.5 points per contest and a team-high 8.9 rebounds. The two also got the most free throws on a team that was 343rd in the nation in free throws attempted last season.

With these departures, coach Billy Wright has to do a better job of using the three 6-foot-10 or taller players on the roster. Brandon Gilbeck averaged seven points and 6.4 rebounds per game while Jordan Hughes and Chris Snyder couldn't buy minutes during the 2016-17 season.

With returning guards C.J. Duff and Dalan Ancrum each hitting over 40 percent from distance last season, building a solid base in the paint improved rebounding could be exactly what this team needs to take strides in the right direction.

Considering this team has not won more than 10 games since the 2012-13 season, it would be foolish to predict anything other than a long season for the Leathernecks.

Oral Roberts was a disaster a season ago, finishing dead last in the conference, and the days of the Golden Eagles dominating the league about 10 years ago have to feel more like 100 at this point.

Scott Sutton, the son of the legendary Eddie Sutton, was fired as coach during the offseason after an 18-season run with the school. It is up to longtime Baylor assistant Paul Mills to steer the program in the right direction.

That will be difficult with only two players returning who averaged more than four points per game during the 2016-17 season. Those two players are starting the four and five, Emmanuel Nzekwesi and Albert Owens, which reduces the sting a bit. Owens, who is a load at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, was the team's top scorer with 17.4 points per game and also chipped in 5.6 rebounds.

Oral Roberts is a ways away from being competitive in the conference. The Summit League has a divide between a few teams that can compete like Dakotas and Denver, and the ones that cannot like Oral Roberts and Western Illinois. Fort Wayne also could take a dive.

Greg Peterson’s Summit League forecast:

1. South Dakota State

2. North Dakota State

3. Denver

4. South Dakota

5. Nebraska-Omaha

6. Fort Wayne

7. Western Illinois

8. Oral Roberts

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