RTC Championship Previews: Summit LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on March 9th, 2013
Eli Linton is the RTC correspondent for the Summit League.
Who’s Hot, Who’s Not
Looking at the last month of play, you would have to say that Fort Wayne and Oakland are coming in as the hottest teams. I wouldn’t expect too much from Fort Wayne, but Oakland may be a team to keep an eye on. As for who is cold? North Dakota State stumbled into the tournament, and in a way, South Dakota State doesn’t have it all together like they would hope, dropping back-to-back games to Murray State and Cal State Bakersfield. If you are a believer in momentum, then you may be leaning toward Western Illinois or Oakland for this championship. But if you think home court and, well, overall skill has something to do with it, then the Dakota teams will be the favorites in this tournament.
Possible NCAA Tournament Seeding
So if you’re like me, you will be watching this weekend wondering who you can scratch into the bottom half of your bracket as a possible Cinderella team. According to kenpom.com, SDSU has the best rank at 109, while Western Illinois is a distant 131st. If SDSU wins, they will probably pull a 14-seed, but I could even see a 13 depending on how the rest of the conference championships play out. If WIU wins, then expect a 15-seed. If anyone else decides to make a crazy run at this, then you can expect to see them in one of those first round games.
Players To Watch
- Nate Wolters, SDSU (22.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.7 APG): He may go down as one of the best players in Summit League history, and he is always the best player on the floor. His senior campaign made him the first player in NCAA history to score 2,000 points, grab 600 rebounds, and dish 600 assists. Wolters also has the most to lose and the most to gain out of all the players to watch this week. He is looking for March glory after getting a small taste of it last season, and he could really improve his NBA prospect in the next couple weeks if he can capture his second straight Summit title.
- Travis Bader, Oakland (22.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG): Although Wolters is the best scorer in the league, Bader is by far the best shooter. He led the Summit with 131 three-point field goals in the regular season, 61 more than the second place finisher, Chad White from South Dakota State. In fact, that’s best in the nation.
- Ceola Clark III, WIU (12.3 PPG, 4.3 APG): As two-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, Clark is the only player that can stop Wolters. If they meet in the championship, I guarantee it will be the best man-on-man, mid-major matchups this championship weekend. Nate the Great may not be stoppable, but if Clark gets a chance to play defense on him, he can slow Wolters.
- Frank Gaines, Fort Wayne (19.7 PPG): Another pure scorer, Gaines could cause problems for #4 seeded Oakland, a team Fort Wayne already beat twice this season. The Mastodons closed the season on fire, winning their last five game, and Gaines averaged 20.2 points in those victories. If Fort Wayne makes a run, he will be the one leading them.
- South Dakota State: What people forget about South Dakota State is that this is a very well rounded team. Besides Wolters, the Jacks have the best big man in the conference in Jordan Dykstra (12.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG), and a good supporting cast led by Chad White (10.1 PPG) who has been hot from beyond the arc. Their primary weakness may be defending against other high powered offensive teams. That being said, the last team to really take it to them in the Summit League was Oakland, who had to score 88 and get nine three-point field goals from Bader to win. If that’s what its going to take to bring down The Jacks, then you can punch their ticket now. If they take the championship it’s going to be behind Wolters leading the way while creating opportunities for his teammates to thrive. If they lose, it won’t be because Wolters did too little, but it might be because he tried to do too much on his own.
- Western Illinois: The Leathernecks were just a field goal away from the NCAA tournament last season, and after clinching a share of their first Summit League regular season title, they are coming to this tournament ready to win. We always say teams are hungry, but you can tell Western Illinois is on a mission. This kind of season comes around once every 30 years, and they won’t let it go without a fight. The only question is do they have enough offense to get it done? We know what their defense and pace of play can do–allowing their opponents to reach 60 points just nine times this year. On the flip side, they only scored 60 points per game, one of the lowest totals in the nation at 321st. Seniors Terell Parks (12.7 PPG) and Ceola Clark (12.3 PPG) are the extent of the Leathernecks offensive game. If they win, it will be because they do what they do best–Stick close until winning time, then ramp up the defense. If they lose, its because their offense was worse than their defense was good.
- North Dakota State: The finished 12-4 in Summit League play, but they didn’t have a quality win in the final two months. Their offense struggled a bit at times during the season, and they only averaged 67.3 Points per game. 2012 Newcomer of the Year Lawrence Alexander took a step back in nearly every statistical category. Although the Bison seemed to limp down the stretch, they still have one of the deepest rosters in the tournament. Taylor Braun (47% 3FG) and Marshall Bjorklund (67%FG) lead the team in scoring with a combined 26 points per game. Going into this tournament, I think I feel a little better about Oakland than I do the Bison. They struggled in the second half of the year. But for most of the tournament, they are going to have home court advantage, and they won’t have a tough game against Kansas City in the quarterfinal. If we are going to see them win, it is going to have to be behind a reawakening of their offense.
- Oakland: The Golden Grizzlies have won eight of their last 10 games dating back to January 24, but both of those losses came against their first-round matchup, Fort Wayne. Oakland was 10-6 in the regular season, with wins over all three of the top seeds in the conference in the last month. They have a high powered offense that can put up a ton of points, but they lack rebounding and defense. If they’re going to pull off the long-shot victory, they are going to need tough interior play from Drew Valentine and Corey Petros. Valentine is the wild card in the mix. We know what we are going to get from Bader, but Valentine needs to take his game to another level this week. As a guy who has been to the NCAA Tournament before, Valentine has to be a leader. If Oakland completely folds out in the first round, its because they didn’t get what they needed from their rebounding. I can see them in the championship game, and I could see them bowing out in the first round. You don’t really know which Oakland team you’re going to get.
South Dakota State over Western Illinois–I can see Oakland sneaking in, and even North Dakota State making it to the final game. The great thing about the Summit League tournament is that teams are close enough to each other that anyone can have a great weekend. But South Dakota State and Western Illinois are more equipped to have a great weekend. The Jackrabbits are the perfect team for the Summit League to send to the NCAA tournament. They have experience, they have one of the nation’s best players, and they can deliver one of those upsets we crave in the Big Dance. They struggled at times against better quality opponents, but at 22-9 with their signature win coming on the road against No.16 New Mexico, I feel like the Jacks can handle the pressure and mount a title defense. Can they win a first round game? Yes. But will they? Its unlikely. The Summit League (formerly Mid-Con) hasn’t won a game since Bryce Drew and Valparaiso went to the Sweet 16 in 1998 as a 13-seed. IF the Jacks end up with a lucky draw, and find themselves with a 13-seed, I can see them taking down an over-seeded UNLV or Arizona. But anything lower, and a matchup against Florida or Ohio State would not bode well. If Western Illinois or anyone else gets the bid, then I think expecting a Summit League upset in the tournament would be too much to ask. Although I like Western Illinois, there is no way they could go toe-to-toe with Michigan, Miami, Duke or anyone else who could possibly land a no.2 seed. Although the Leathernecks did give Michigan a scare in Ann Arbor last year. As a fan of basketball in general, you just hope for a great championship weekend, and root for the upset no matter who is representing.
While you prepare to watch giants clash in the ACC and the Big East, make sure you switch over to one of these smaller conference’s championship weekend. See what basketball is like through the eyes of the underdog. It’s pure love.