(SportsNetwork.com) - The 2015 Summit League Tournament kicks off on Saturday, with all games being played at Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The second-seeded North Dakota State Bison look to defend their 2014 tournament title but face stiff competition from their next door neighbors, the top-seeded South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
The Jackrabbits (21-9) enter the tournament on a bit of a down note, losing their last regular season game to the South Dakota Coyotes on Saturday, which snapped a four-game winning streak and meant that the Jackrabbits would have to share the regular season title with the Bison. Though both finished with a 12-4 conference record, the Jackrabbits got the top seed by virtue of the league's tiebreakers. The Jackrabbits open play on Saturday evening against eighth-seeded Western Illinois.
The Jackrabbits come with a balanced attack, as they are second in the Summit in scoring, putting up 72.9 ppg, and third in defense, allowing just 64.6 ppg. They feature two scorers in the top 10 in the league, with Summit Conference Defensive Player of the Year Cody Larson averaging 14.3 ppg and Newcomer of the Year Deondre Parks just behind him with 14.0 ppg. Larson also pulls down 7.4 rpg, good enough for third in the Summit.
The 20-9 Bison, led by Coach of the Year Dave Richman, take on seventh-seeded Denver in the late game Saturday night. The Bison also enter the tournament following a loss, falling to Oral Roberts in their final regular season outing. Prior to that, the Bison had won their last two and have come out ahead in five of their final seven regular season outings. They are led by the Summit's top scorer and conference Player of the Year, Lawrence Alexander (19.1 ppg), who also ranks as one of the top 3-point threats in the league, knocking down 44.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc. They are also the top defensive unit in the Summit, as opponents are scoring just 62.3 ppg against them.
The third-seeded Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (17-13) take on the sixth-seeded IUPUI Jaguars on Sunday night. The Golden Eagles finished conference play with a 10-6 record and excel at the offensive end, ranking third in the league in team offense (69.8 ppg). Their main weapon is Obi Emegano, the second leading scorer in the Summit with 18.1 ppg, but they may be without the services of top five scorer Korey Billbury (14.4 ppg), who was suspended indefinitely from the team on Feb. 25 by head coach Scott Sutton for a violation of team rules.
The Mastodons of Fort Wayne (16-13) ended the season winners of eight of their last 10 games, en route to a 9-7 conference mark. As the fourth-seed, they will match up against fifth-seeded South Dakota on Sunday evening, with whom they split the season series, each winning as the visiting team.
Like their first round opponents, the South Dakota Coyotes (16-15) enter the postseason with a 9-7 record and some momentum, having won five of their last six games, including a victory over the top-seeded Jackrabbits in the final game of the regular season.
The Jaguars (10-20) finished with a 6-10 record in their Summit campaign and lost three of their last four, including a double overtime loss to Omaha to finish regular season play. They lost both matchups this season against their tournament foe, the Golden Eagles.
Second in the Summit League in defense at just 63.1 ppg, the Denver Pioneers (12-17, 6-10), played the Bison close on both occasions, falling in overtime on the road on Jan. 29 and losing 60-57 in the final game of the regular season on Feb. 28. The Pioneers ended the regular season losers of four of their final six.
After winning their first two conference tilts, Western Illinois (8-19, 3-13 SL) has fallen on hard times. Losers of their last eight contests, the Leathernecks were winless in the month of February and have not had a win since a victory over IUPUI on Jan. 30.
With a 5-11 record in Summit League play, Omaha (12-17) will miss the conference tournament as the Mavericks finished their fourth and final season as a reclassifying Division I program, but next year they will be fully eligible for postseason play.
The victory in Saturday night's meetings get an extra day off and take on the winners of Sunday night's matchups in semifinal play on Monday night. In Tuesday night's title game, look for North Dakota State and South Dakota State to meet one last time to settle the question of the top team in the conference.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: North Dakota State