With a few outliers remaining, nearly all non-conference games are in the books as we get set for the start Summit League play in men’s and women’s basketball. As always, there are some surprises through the first couple of months of the season that raises the eyebrows for those of us that follow the conference closely and *think* we know what to expect. A few takeaways so far…
Leathernecks Early Season Splash
The Western Illinois men’s basketball program is off to its best start in three decades winning nine of eleven non-conference games that includes victories at Nebraska and Northern Kentucky. The Leathernecks have the highest NET rating in Summit League to date and are scoring over 80 points per contest. The emergence of Colton Sandage along with the additions of Luka Barisic and Trenton Massner have given WIU five legit scorers that are versatile and confident. It’s a group shooting 40% from three-point range as a unit and not only will Rob Jeter’s club be tough to handle at Western Hall, but will be a threat to knock off some teams on the road. It’s been a fun storyline to follow.
The Roos Are Hopping
Over the last decade-plus, South Dakota and South Dakota State have been the gold standard for mid-major women’s basketball programs. Multiple NCAA Tournament berths and victories have set the Jackrabbits and Coyotes apart from every other team in the Summit League. The question others keep asking is “When will there be another challenger in the conference race?” Oral Roberts, Western Illinois and most recently, North Dakota State have risen to be best candidates. But Kansas City will be a program to watch this conference season. The Roos three-headed monster of Naomi Altnatas, Brooklyn McDavid and Mandy Willems have shown the ability to carry the offensive load and it’s a team that controls the glass. KC’s +11 rebounding margin is far and away the best in the conference and is holding teams to a paltry 58 points per game. Defending and rebounding will keep the Roos in a lot of games and will make Jacie Hoyt’s bunch tough one to beat night in and night out.
Western Illinois has also had an impressive non-conference run with a 9-2 record. J.D. Gravina’s crew can score and always plays with a pace that is hard to simulate in practice. Scoring over 80 points per game, the Leathnecks NET of 134 is fourth best in the league.
New Kids On The Block have 'The Right Stuff'
I hope everyone appreciates the ode to Donnie, John, Joey, Jordan and Danny. It was the consensus amongst most of us Summit Leaguers that it would take the University of St. Thomas some time to adjust to Division One making the transition over from Division Three. However, the Tommies are showing they are not going to be easy marks in the win column this season for anybody. It’s a club that loves to bomb away from outside the arch, led by Riley Miller who has hit fifty-three triples already is shooting 46% from long range. St. Thomas has not only been competitive, but have three Division One non-conference wins and are scoring 78 points per contest. The Tommies are also only turning it over about 11 times per game, best in the Summit League. They played Drake tough on the road and was in a one-point game with Montana State at home with six minutes left. Where this program ends up in conference standings is hard to predict, but teams better be ready for a hard-fought game, especially at Schoenecker Arena this season.
November and December Doesn’t Always Lead to Results In February and March
If there is one thing we should all remember (especially on the men’s side), the non-conference portion of the schedule is important for league prestige, seeding in the NCAA Tournament and overall placement among its peer institutions, but doesn’t mean much once the grind of the conference schedule sets in. We have seen plenty of teams limp through November and December before hitting their strides in February/March. No program is a better example of that than North Dakota State. Over the years, the Bison have had some head-scratching performances early in the season only to turn it on in crunch time and grind ways to victories when it matters most.
The non-conference has meant far more on the women’s side with SDSU and USD playing aggressive schedules with the hopes of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, should they get knocked off the league tournament. Case in point last season with the Jackrabbits earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament field despite Omaha pulling off a first-round shocker in the Summit League Tourney. Getting two teams out of the Summit League this season on the women’s side might be more difficult based on the NET rankings at this point, but with the expanded field to 68 (finally!), that should help the cause for both programs, along with Kansas City.
Odds and Ends
The Summit League is ranked 24th out of 32 Division-One men’s leagues in conference RPI, while the women are 18th. The South Dakota State men’s basketball team is still amongst the national leaders in points per game (87.3) and three-point shooting (44.1%). Win or lose, Eric Henderson’s group is fun to watch. The Kansas City men are allowing only 60.4 PPG, best in the Summit League, but are again among the worst in the nation in fouls committed per contest (20.6). On the flipside, the NDSU men are top ten nationally in fewest fouls committed per game (13.0/avg). The Bison defend without fouling consistently better than any other team in the league. Western Illinois’s 13.5 offensive rebounds per game are best in the league and is top 25 nationally.
On the women’s side, South Dakota is allowing only 56.2 PPG, best in the Summit. Hard-nosed defense has been a staple under Coach Dawn Plitzuweit. Western Illinois’s 82.0 PPG is tops in the league and top 20 nationally. The Leathernecks shoot 46% as a team, tops in the conference as well. WIU and Oral Roberts also get to the free throw line far more than any other team in the Summit as well. North Dakota’s 78.3% free throw percentage is Top 20 nationally as well.