Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Summit League was competitive from the start last season, with the top three teams in the conference separated by just two games, and a battle to the finish at the top of the standings is expected once again during the 2014-15 campaign.
After bursting onto the scene last season with a school-record 25 wins, IUPU- Fort Wayne has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the league. The Mastodons will have to adjust to life under a new head coach, but with the return of their entire starting lineup, it's safe to expect a similarly successful season this time around. IPFW's most direct competition appears to be the Denver Pioneers, a historically solid program with plenty of depth and senior leadership.
This hectic era of conference realignment has allowed Oral Roberts to return to the league after a short stay in the Southland Conference over the past couple of seasons. The Golden Eagles will be in great position to compete for a title thanks in large part to the league's best backcourt led by Obi Emegano and Korey Billbury.
North Dakota State and South Dakota State finished first and third, respectively, in the league standings a season ago, but both teams endured a large roster turnover that will likely be too much to overcome in one offseason.
Nebraska Omaha is an intriguing squad that showed vast improvement a season ago. The Mavericks will be eligible for certain postseason tournaments once again, like last season when they qualified for the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, but they won't be eligible for the Summit League title until their Division I transition is complete in 2017.
Western Illinois has fallen from grace since a strong run earlier in the decade, and its growing pains will likely continue with a new head coach on board. South Dakota and IUPUI have been perennial bottom dwellers in recent seasons, and the squads haven't done enough in the offseason to change that outlook.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: IUPU-Fort Wayne
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. IUPU-Fort Wayne, 2. Denver, 3. Oral Roberts, 4. North Dakota State, 5. South Dakota State, 6. Nebraska Omaha, 7. Western Illinois, 8. South Dakota, 9. IUPUI
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
IUPU-FORT WAYNE: The Mastodons not only shocked the Summit last season but were one of the nation's most pleasant surprises with a school-record 25 wins, which included a 10-4 mark in league action. Although they lost out on the NCAA Tournament after falling to NDSU in the league championship game (60-57), their season continued on in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, where they won their opening-round matchup with Akron, 97-91. Tony Jasick has moved on and now coaches at Jacksonville, prompting the promotion of former assistant Jon Coffman as the program's 12th head coach. Coffman will have the luxury of welcoming back all five starters, led by 6-foot-9 forward Steve Forbes (12.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Pierre Bland (9.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Joe Edwards (8.1 ppg), Michael Kibiloski (7.2 ppg) and Isaiah McCray (6.7 ppg) are all expected to be regular contributors once again for the league favorites. Max Landis (6-2, 175), a transfer from Gardner Webb who averaged 7.9 ppg in 2012-13, will bring depth to the backcourt.
DENVER: The Pioneers had their first season as a member of the Summit in 2013-14 and regressed to 16-15 overall (8-6 in the league) after posting back- to-back 22-win campaigns in the years prior. Denver is in good position for improvement in Joe Scott's eighth season as coach, however, as it will welcome back four starters. The loss of well-rounded forward Chris Udofia (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.9 apg) will certainly hurt, but the squad retains leading scorer Brett Olson (14.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), who made 68 3-pointers at nearly a 44-percent clip. Jalen Love, along with Olson, started all 31 games last season and averaged 9.1 ppg, while Cam Griffin (8.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Bryant Rucker (6.7 ppg) also bring valuable experience to the starting lineup. True freshman Daniel Amigo (6-10, 250) and redshirt freshmen Dorian Butler (6-6, 225) and Duke Douglas (6-4, 185) will all have a good chance at an immediate impact in their first seasons.
ORAL ROBERTS: The Golden Eagles were one of the Summit League's best earlier in the century, finishing in first place five times from 2005-2012 while placing no lower than third in any of those seasons, and after a brief two- year stint in the Southland Conference, they have returned to the league for head coach Scott Sutton's 16th season. In 2013-14, ORU was a mere 17-16 overall, its worst season since winning 16 games in 2008-09, but the return of four starters this time around should assure its status as one of the league's best. The loss of Shawn Glover (21.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) will be a big blow, but the squad hopes Obi Emegano can step into the role of go-to scorer. Emegano played just four games last season prior to tearing his ACL, but he was dynamic in scoring 19.0 ppg on 65.6 percent field goal shooting, and he's now fully healthy nearly a year removed from surgery. Korey Billbury (15.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is also a key part of the equation, with complementary players Brandon Conley (5.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Bobby Ward (6.6 ppg) expected to fill bigger roles.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE: The Bison were the class of the Summit League a season ago, earning their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2009 following a 12-2 league mark and a 60-57 win over IPFW in the league tournament championship game, and they even made a splash on the national scene by pulling off a No. 12/No. 5 upset over Oklahoma in the Big Dance, 80-75 in overtime. NDSU has a lot to live up to after a program record-tying 26 wins a season ago, especially with coach Saul Phillips bolting for the Ohio University job and the loss of its three best players Taylor Braun (17.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Marshall Bjorklund (13.2 ppg) and TrayVonn Wright (11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Former assistant and first-year head coach David Richman will have a new-look roster to tinker with, but he'll at least have Lawrence Alexander (11.1 ppg) and Kory Brown (7.0 ppg) returning to the starting lineup. The loss of three stud forwards means that junior Chris Kading (2.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg) and sophomore Dexter Werner (2.8 ppg) will see a large uptick in usage.
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE: Heading into last season, the Jackrabbits had represented the league in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years, and while their three-peat bid fell short with a loss to IPFW in the league tournament (64-60), it still finished up an impressive 19-13 (10-4 Summit) and earned a berth to the College Basketball Invitational. If SDSU wants to be considered one of the league's best once again in Scott Nagy's 20th season at the helm, it will need to do so in the absence of two of the league's best from a year ago, as Jordan Dykstra (16.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Brayden Carlson (14.9 ppg) have both graduated. Their departure has left a scoring void that is expected to be filled by Cody Larson (13.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg), who shot 52 percent from the field as the third option in 2013-14. The only other returning starter is Jake Bittle (8.5 ppg), who is a strong perimeter defender with nearly two steals per game. Junior college transfer Deondre Parks (6-4, 190) and freshman Reed Tellinghuisen (6-6, 175) have performed well in the preseason and will be given an opportunity to contribute right away.
NEBRASKA OMAHA: The Mavericks saw a big improvement in their overall record last season, jumping to 17-15 from 11-20 in 2013-14, but their performance in the league did not change much. For the second time since joining the league, Omaha finished in sixth place, going 5-9. Because of their ongoing transition into Division I that won't be complete until 2017, the squad was unable to partake in the Summit League Tournament, but it was still able to accept an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, where it won a first- round matchup over North Dakota (91-75). Heading into Derrin Hansen's 10th season as head coach, the Mavs will need to adjust to life without John Karhoff (13.2 ppg) and Justin Simmons (10.2 ppg), but they still have plenty of experience to work with. C.J. Carter (13.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) was an All-League honorable mention selection. Devin Patterson (10.1 ppg, 3.3 apg) led the league in steals with 1.8 per contest. Mike Rostampour (9.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Marcus Tyus (9.4 ppg) and former Wright State product Daniel Meyer (6-9, 240) give depth to a squad that scored just shy of 80 ppg last season yet were vulnerable on the other end of the floor (75.1 ppg).
WESTERN ILLINOIS: The Leathernecks had an unfortunate plummet in production last season. After earning bids to the College Basketball Invitational in both 2012 and 2013, WIU went from one of the league's best to occupying the bottom of the standings, finishing 10-20 overall and only ahead of IUPUI in the league at a mere 4-10. The poor season prompted a changing of the guard at head coach, as the program brought back aboard Billy Wright to fill the void. Wright served as an assistant at WIU from 2008-2013 before taking an assistant coaching gig at Ball State last season. Wright will have the advantage of having familiarity with the upper classmen on the roster, including junior forward Tate Stensgaard (6.2 ppg). Garrett Covington (14.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) was named the league's newcomer of the year as a freshman and will be the go-to scoring option once again. Jabari Sandifer (9.0 ppg) was also stellar as a freshman, although a handful of the nine newcomers will need to emerge as dependable assets if the Leathernecks are to improve upon their lackluster offensive production (61.3 ppg).
SOUTH DAKOTA: The Coyotes haven't been much more than an afterthought since joining the league in 2011-12, registering 12 wins or fewer in all three seasons. The program has brought aboard a new head coach, Craig Smith, to help initiate a change of culture in the locker room. Smith has spent the last two seasons as an assistant at Nebraska and is a former NAIA National Coach of the Year with Mayville State. He will have his work cut of for him with a team that scored just 69.5 ppg and allowed 71.7 ppg a season ago, especially with the loss of top forward Trevor Gruis (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Brandon Bos (11.9 ppg) is back as the leading scorer and was nearly automatic at the foul line (101-of-117, .868), but he shot just 38.4 percent from the floor. Tyler Flack (8.5 ppg, 4.7), Trey Norris (8.0 ppg, 4.0 apg), Adam Thoseby (7.7 ppg) and Casey Kasperbauer (6.7 ppg) were all solid performers, but someone will need to step up their play if South Dakota is to take a leap in the standings.
IUPUI: The Jaguars brought up the rear in the standings for the second straight season, finishing a lowly 1-13 in the league while finishing with the exact same woeful overall record as they did during the 2012-13 campaign (6-26). The poor season unsurprisingly brought an end to the Todd Howard (26-70 in three seasons) era, and the team ushered in former Memphis and Loyola-Chicago assistant Jason Gardner as the new head coach. IUPUI disappointed both offensively (66.4 ppg) and defensively (74.5 ppg) last season and have lost Ian Chiles (15.8 ppg), Mitch Patton (12.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Ja'Rob McCallum (9.4 ppg) from last season's squad, but a new-look roster is likely the best thing for the program right now. Khufu Najee (9.9 ppg) and Marcellus Barksdale (8.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.7 apg) bring valuable starting experience to the table, and freshman Aaron Brennan (6-6, 200), John Hubler (6-5, 185) and D.J. McCall (6-5, 180) are all anxious to make an immediate impact.