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OUTLOOK: The Summit League was one of the most intriguing mid-major conferences last season, as South Dakota State (13-3), Western Illinois (13-3) and North Dakota State (12-4) battled all season for league supremacy. In the end, it was the SDSU Jackrabbits who hoisted the conference tournament trophy, earning their second straight bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The league has experienced a face lift for 2013-14. Out are Oakland and UMKC, with Denver joining after jumping ship from the Western Athletic Conference. The Pioneers should immediately become one of the conference's best after logging a 22-win season, but they won't be chasing SDSU this season, instead it appears to be NDSU's time to shine.
The Bison were outstanding during the 2012-13 campaign and are expected to be the favorite for the conference championship thanks to the return of nearly all of their impact players from a season ago. SDSU figures to be in the mix, but with the loss of Nate Wolters, arguably the best player to ever play in the league, it likely won't have enough firepower to make it a three-peat. WIU also expects to be in the mix, but it too suffered a couple of big losses which may hamper its ability to compete.
IUPU-Fort Wayne has been on the rise in recent years and could be a darkhorse, although it still lacks the talent of the league's top teams. Nebraska Omaha performed better than expected during its first season in Division I, and even greater improvement appears to be forthcoming.
South Dakota and IUPUI have been the league's punching bags for a few years now, and barring an unforeseen, drastic change in the conference dynamic, the same can be expected in 2013-14.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: North Dakota State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. North Dakota State, 2. Denver, 3. South Dakota State, 4. Western Illinois, 5. IUPU-Fort Wayne, 6. Nebraska Omaha, 7. South Dakota, 8. IUPUI
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NORTH DAKOTA STATE: The Bison were one of the top teams in the Summit last season, going 12-4 versus league foes and 24-10 overall, but the season ended on a down note after they lost in the conference tournament championship game to SDSU (73-67), as well as in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational to Western Michigan (72-71 in OT). Expectations in Fargo this year are higher than ever in Saul Phillips' seventh season as head coach thanks to the return of an outstanding core, led by Preseason Summit League Player of the Year Taylor Braun. The senior guard missed 10 games due to injury last season but played very well when healthy, averaging 15.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Joining Braun on the Preseason First Team All-League squad are Marshall Bjorklund (11.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, .667 FG percentage) and Lawrence Alexander (10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg). TrayVonn Wright (10.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and Mike Felt (8.0 ppg) also bring valuable experience to the table.
DENVER: The Pioneers' one and only campaign in the WAC was a successful one. They were an outstanding 16-2 in league play, but were upset in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament by Texas State (72-68), and they finished 22-10 overall after claiming a first-round win in the NIT over Ohio University (61-57). Denver appears destined to pick up where it left off in its new conference thanks to the return of three starters, including Preseason First Team All-League selection Chris Udofia. The 6-foot-6 senior is one of the most well-rounded forwards in the country, averaging 13.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 blocks (34th in the nation) and 1.6 steals per game last season. Brett Olson (11.4 ppg) adds an outside presence after making more than two 3-pointers per contest in 2012-13, and Jalen Love (7.2 ppg) is expected to take on an even bigger role after a promising freshman campaign.
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE: The Jackrabbits have been the class of the Summit League over the past two seasons with a pair of conference tournament championships. They went 25-10 in 2012-13 that ended with a second-round loss to fourth- seeded Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, 71-56. South Dakota State will be hard-pressed to repeat its recent success in Scott Nagy's 19th season as head coach in the absence of Wolters, who earned the Summit League Player of the Year award in 2012-13 after averaging 22.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. Even with the departure of one of the nation's best players, the Jackrabbits still have plenty of talent, led by Jordan Dykstra (12.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg). Chad White (9.8 ppg) made good on better than 42 percent of his 3- point attempts last season and will be expected to shoulder a larger portion of the scoring load this time around. Brayden Carlson (9.1 ppg, 2.5 apg) started all 35 games in the backcourt for SDSU last season.
WESTERN ILLINOIS: The Leathernecks enjoyed their most successful season since making the move to Division I, going 22-7 overall, winning the regular season Summit League title at 13-3, and earning a berth in the College Basketball Invitational for the second consecutive year. Western Illinois was one of the best defensive teams in the nation (53.6 ppg), but it will need to recover from the loss off three starters, including Ceola Clark III (12.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Terell Parks (12.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg). With the departure of a few senior leaders, Adam Link (9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) will need to step up his production across the board. Remy Roberts-Burnett (6.5 ppg) will see an increase in playing time in the backcourt, and 6-foot-8 forward Michael Ochereobia (3.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg) will get the opportunity to make his mark down low.
IUPU-FORT WAYNE: The Mastodons saw a big improvement in Tony Jasick's second season as head coach in 2012-13, going 16-17 (7-9 Summit) after winning just nine games the year prior, and they hope the trend continues this season. It will be an uphill climb for IPFW, however, considering it lost one of the conference's most prolific scorers in Frank Gaines (19.8 ppg). The good news is that it returns three seniors to the starting lineup, led by Second Team Preseason All-League selection Luis Jacobo (11.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who was the only player to start all 33 games last season. Michael Kibiloski (6.8 ppg) is a threat from 3-point territory, but will need to improve his long-range shooting percentage (.356) now that he will have an expanded role. Steve Forbes, a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer, should also be heavily involved in the frontcourt mix.
NEBRASKA OMAHA: The Mavericks made the transition from Division II in 2012-13, and while the results weren't great, they certainly showed some promise by winning 11 games, six of which came in league play. An improvement for the squad and ninth-year head coach Derrin Hansen is expected thanks to the return of four starters, including Preseason First Team All-Summit League selection Justin Simmons, who averaged 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a junior last season. The experienced backcourt will be rounded out by CJ Carter (9.7 ppg, 2.8 apg) and Alex Phillips (8.2 ppg), while John Karhoff (12.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and newcomers Rylan Murry and Jake White will patrol the paint.
SOUTH DAKOTA: For the second straight season, the Coyotes won just 10 games overall and five games in conference play, this coming after they won a combined 40 games during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons as a member of the Great West Conference. The loss of Juevol Miles (15.4 ppg, 3.0 apg) certainly won't help matters, but USD hopes for an improvement in 2013-14 with the return of four starters. Trevor Gruis (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 bpg, .567 FG percentage) is one of the most polished big men in the league, and he should expect to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load. Brandon Bos (11.0 ppg) and Casey Kasperbauer (8.8 ppg) are sharp shooters from the outside with 106 combined 3-pointers. Senior Karim Rowson (7.9 ppg) will see an increase in minutes, but will need to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio (22-46).
IUPUI: The Jaguars brought up the rear in the Summit League a season ago, managing to finish just 6-26 overall and a meager 1-15 in conference, and not much is expected to change this season. The team had eight departures in the offseason, including leading scoring John Hart (14.2 ppg). One thing that IUPUI doesn't lack is size, with 6-foot-9 Mitch Patton (13.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and 6-foot-7 Donovan Gibbs (10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) both returning to the starting lineup. Ian Chiles (10.3 ppg, 2.3 apg) served mostly as the team's sixth man a season ago, and will more than likely be thrust into a starting role at guard this season. The only other returning backcourt player with any significant experience is P.J. Hubert (5.6 ppg), although Ja'Rob McCallum joins the fold after netting 10.0 ppg at Milwaukee in 2011-12.