Eli Linton is the RTC correspondent for the Summit League.
A Look Back
It’s been a crazy few weeks in the “race for the Summit.” Oral Roberts and UMKC have been gunning for IPFW’s shaky #2 spot, and I expect one of these three teams will have it locked up by early February, and South Dakota State is also in the mix as well. Oakland is still rolling, almost on a boring clip, still unblemished in league play. They set a league mark of 17 consecutive conference wins, and are now 34-1 in conference play the past 35 games, good for tops in the nation. I could pretend that there are four or five teams still in this race, but in reality, Oakland will win this with ease barring a Hindenburg-sized collapse. If the ultimate goal is a berth in the NCAA Tournament, Oakland is the only threat. But there is still plenty of ball to be played, and a month to go in the season, so we will see how this thing continues to unfold.
Oakland fans will be pleased to know they were ranked #9 on the collegeinsider.com mid-major poll– Just one spot below their preseason rank. Keith Benson was also named player of the week for the Summit League, his third such award this season.
1. Oakland (11-0, 16-8)— they have won 34 out of the last 35 conference games, and they are closing in on all kinds of conference records. Keith Benson is not the only stud on this team, as Reggie Hamilton and Will Hudson have been stellar, and they clearly have no excuse to lose a conference game. But if you are one of those pessimistic Oakland fans (likely a Detroit resident), then let’s look at the ORU game. A three-point home win against an inferior ORU team is hardly dominant or impressive. It is just a little seed of doubt in the minds of the players and fans, and it is motivation for the next time—should they face each other in South Dakota. But that is just getting picky. They get scoring from all over the floor. Hopefully Larry Wright will be healthy for them down the stretch. Any lengthy absence from him could be damaging.
2. IPFW (8-3, 14-7)—I still don’t think the Mastodons can hold on to second place. They are just not a very good team. They got run by SDSU 87-52. Good teams don’t get blown out. They have been looking to Ben Botts to carry them, but it seems that every night someone else steps up to give them just enough punch to pull out a win (as in their three-point victory over Oral Roberts). But how long can that last? For awhile, it looked like IPFW was on the brink of a collapse. Two games up with eight to go, plus now holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Oral Roberts is a strong lead.
3. Oral Roberts (6-5, 9-14)—there were three positives ORU could take away from the loss at Oakland: 1) It was a three-point loss on the road to a seemingly unbeatable conference foe. What will the game be like the third time they play, this time on neutral ground? 2) They got great production from both of their guards –Warren Niles and Ken Holdman—a big reason they have won four of their last six games. They have clearly become a more complete team since their 5-10 start. 3) They appeared to have solidified their low post presence, which has been a difficult task since the loss of Mike Craion to injury. The one glaring problem still remaining for ORU is the defense. Scott Sutton is a defensive coach, but it seems like his players are not buying in to his system. It’s definitely crunch time after their loss to IPFW late. One other note: where is the leadership coming from on this team? It’s hard to lead from the bench, so that cancels out Kyron Stokes and Craion. Who will step up for this team?
4. UMKC (6-5, 13-9)—they showed us what they are capable of last week, beating IUPUI in double-overtime on the road, and nearly shocking ORU in a thriller. In my eyes, they surpassed SDSU with a rare road win on Thursday. Continuing their month of close games, the ‘Roos went on to drop a double-overtime thriller at North Dakota State. They try beating you with the three-point shot. If those are off target, they slash inside with Jay Couisnard, with Spencer Johnson crashing the boards. Their lack of size will likely keep them from winning this conference, but nobody in the Summit really wants to face the Kangaroos. They are tied with Oral Roberts with one more home game against them in two weeks—never say never.
5. South Dakota State (6-5, 14-8)— The numbers would suggest they have just as dangerous an offense as Oakland, but they have had some very tough losses in the conference so far. Nate Wolters and Clint Sargent can carry them; but they both have to be bringing their best for SDSU to beat the top 5 teams. Simply put: this is a dangerous offensive team, but they lack experience and defensive problems have dragged them down as of late.
6. IUPUI (7-3, 13-10)— This team has really underachieved in most Summit fans’ minds. They have the scoring thing down, but to win in the Summit, you need good defense and solid guard play. They have the guard play, now they just need to add the defense. Surrendering just 45 points against Western Illinois was a nice start, but not much to glean into considering the Leatherneck’s struggles. They’re third in the conference standings, but haven’t been impressive.
7. North Dakota State (4-6, 10-10) —it is virtually impossible for this team to get a win on the road, but credit the Bison for halting a four-game skid and then edging out the ‘Roos on Saturday. Wins over Centenary and Oral Roberts this week could bring them closer to the top of the middle-tier. This team is one of the better three-point shooting squads in the conference, so NDSU fans, pray for the basketball gods to send rain.
8. Southern Utah (3-8, 6-15)—at this point, SUU just needs to stay above Western Illinois and hope the weather in Montana is better than the Dakotas next year.
9. Western Illinois (2-8, 7-14)— A half-game behind SUU and still a month remaining in the season. The Hunt for March! It’s on!
10. Centenary (0-11, 0-23)—The gents are currently 0-22, and closing in on many, many NCAA records. and their manhood was recently brought into question with this ESPN article. The Centenary Gents, in my opinion, are by far the worst D-I team in the history of basketball as they bring up the rear of KenPom’s rankings. We are all witnesses.
A Look Ahead
Almost every game from here on out is an important one in the Summit, especially with everyone bunched together in the middle. Keep an eye on IPFW’s schedule; they take on IUPUI February 3 and they get a crack at Oakland February 12. If they knock off IUPUI, the race for second could see an early end. On February 10, ORU will visit UMKC for a rematch of their OT thriller from a couple weeks ago, and IUPUI will visit South Dakota State on the same night. We should see some pretty decent basketball here in the Summit over the next two weeks.