Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios In The Summit League

The great thing about the months leading up to the start of the college basketball season is that fans have hope. It doesn't matter whether your team won a conference championship or finished with three wins in the last campaign because the beginning of fall brings with it excitement surrounding new players, improved returners, and fresh opponents. Different teams may have differing goals; for example, the program with a new coach and seven new players may seek to simply stay competitive, win the games it can, and build for the future. The powerhouse school returning four experienced seniors, on the other hand, may have national title aspirations. Whatever the case, every school goes into the new season expecting to accomplish its best case scenario for the year. However, as we know, some teams can't reach that point without other teams failing to achieve their own goals. With that said, we're taking a look at the various best and worst case scenarios for The Summit League teams in 2010-11, knowing full well that a few teams will experience the bliss of the best case and others pain of the worst variety.

Best Case: No matter the case, it will be an incredibly long season for new Head Coach Adam Walsh and his Centenary Gents squad in 2010-11. This will be the program's last season as a Summit League and Division I member, so Walsh will most likely have to motivate his guys by telling them to enjoy the ride while it lasts. The Gents just recently filled out their roster, and fans better hope those last few spots were earned by hard-working, quality-character individuals because they surely won't stack up well against Summit League foes in the talent department. If Walsh's guys play their butts off, there is a chance Centenary could win a few games or pull off an upset or two that could alter the conference standings a bit.

Worst Case: Hopefully the Gents can pick up an early home win against Arkansas-Monticello because their remaining non-conference slate will be tough. There is a legitimate shot the team could head into the true conference portion of the season with a 1-12 (0-2) record, though two wins are possible. A record like that should give one an indication of how they'd fare the rest of the season. It won't be pretty.

Best Case: A third place finish is not out of the question for IPFW in 2010-11. I'm of the opinion that Oral Roberts and Oakland will battle for the top two spots, and while IUPUI is likely to be in that mix, there are still a lot of lingering questions in my mind about the Jaguars. Therefore, we could see a solid IPFW team - which beat SDSU in Sioux Falls last season to make it to the semis of the conference tournament - battle for that third position. The Mastodons have a fairly manageable non-conference schedule and rather balanced conference portion which should guarantee them a second-straight winning season. Coach Dane Fife has slowly but surely built the IPFW program to the point now where its fans should reasonably expect a solid regular season and decent conference tournament showing.

Worst Case: A top-five finish is probably a more realistic prediction for the Mastodons this season, though clearly not the worst. If that were to happen, we'd likely see the Dons lose a few of its early-season games, including the Toledo and UT-Martin dates at home. Suffering from a lack of confidence due to November and December struggles, the team would limp its way through Summit League play, ending the season with a sub-.500 record and first-round exit from the conference tournament.

Best Case: The Jaguars will have as experienced a backcourt as one will find in The Summit League this season. John Ashworth and Leroy Nobles will need to utilize their experience in helping lead the team because forward Alex Young won't be able to carry them to a championship by himself. Young, entering his junior season, will be the featured player for IUPUI for the first time, following the graduation of Robert Glenn. He'll need to have a Player Of The Year kind of season to ensure his team's spot at the top of the conference standings. If he does this - and the Jags receive some contributions from new freshmen - then the team can reasonably expect a top-three finish.

Worst Case: IUPUI managed to have a stellar season in 2009-10 despite a lack of scoring distribution. Case in point: around 94% of the team's scoring game from a total of six players, and three of those players who alone accounted for 45% of the team's points per game have since graduated. Those three - Robert Glenn, Jon Avery, and Billy Pettiford - were all around 6'7" players who made significant contributions on the glass as well. Outside of Coach Ron Hunter's starting five and sixth man from last year, only two other players - freshmen Greg Rice and Sean Esposito - played what one could describe as significant minutes, and both are guards. Rice and Esposito should make strides in their second season, but they'll be playing behind the team's two most experienced guards throughout. What this means is that IUPUI will be incredibly inexperienced and undersized in the frontcourt; perhaps not so much against the lower-echelon of The Summit League, but certainly against favorites Oakland and Oral Roberts. Freshman Michael Patton, a 6'9" product, could play immediately due to the team's lack of depth in the paint, but big men most often struggle to make an impact in their first year in this conference. I don't expect the Jags to fall out of the top five by season's end, but they might be destined for an otherwise mediocre season highlighted by great individual performances from Alex Young.

Best Case: We wrote about UMKC's schedule extensively in our preview, but to keep the story short here, the Kangaroos have a non-conference schedule full of cupcakes. UMKC will play a whole bunch of fringe Division I schools, teams that the Roos should beat in a best case scenario. Assuming losses at Kansas, Kansas State, and Wichita State, there is a realistic possibility the Kansas City-based school ends up with seven or eight wins prior to beginning the bulk of its Summit League games. The winning record could give the team a confidence boost, leading them to a just below .500 record in conference play. Despite what will surely be a very low RPI and strength of schedule, at year's end the 2010-11 season would largely be looked upon as a success by UMKC administrators and fans.

Worst Case: The reality of the situation is that UMKC lost two of its top three scorers from last season in Trey McKinney-Jones and Latreze Mushatt, who ended up at the University of Miami and Murray State, respectively. Perhaps the two guys didn't fit in the locker room or grew tired of the losing at UMKC, but they had talent or otherwise they wouldn't be playing for an ACC squad and a team that went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March. Player turnover has been a bit of a thorn in the side of the program recently, but maybe - just maybe - this season will bring some stability for Coach Matt Brown. Even so, the team will be working with talent that just doesn't stack up with the best in the conference. At worst, the team could finish just ahead of Centenary and out of the league tournament, with hope that key pieces will stick around for the next year.

North Dakota State
Best Case: North Dakota State tricked us all. During its first year of post-season eligibility (2008-2009), the team absolutely dominated The Summit League en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Then, a historic group of seniors graduated, leaving behind a squad of players who had a lot to live up to. The Bison players were not bad in 2009-2010, but they sure were not too memorable either. Aside from Michael Tveidt, the current roster lacks the standout dudes who were present during that magical run two seasons ago. Add to that the fact the program is isolated over in Fargo and you have the formula for a team for which prognosticating proves difficult. For example, the Bison could trick us all again in 2010-11, showing up with a focused, hard-working group of guys playing incredible team basketball. If that's the case, they could easily be in the mix for a top-four finish in The Summit League.

Worst Case: On the other hand, the Bison could be fairly underwhelming again this season. Tveidt may "get his" and will his team to a few victories, but one player's efforts only go so far. Realistically, it'd be impossible for the Bison to finish at the bottom of this league; the coaching and general hard-working vibe that North Dakota State recruits seem to emit simply won't allow that to happen. However, Coach Saul Phillips could continue to struggle to achieve the kind of success that made his program a national favorite just two years ago while he waits for some of his new talents to gain valuable experience.

Best Case: Clearly, Oakland's best case scenario would involve a second straight Summit League championship. However, the path to get those rings is far from guaranteed. Oakland brings back a solid roster, but the loss of Derick Nelson and Johnathon Jones results in some uncertainty at the small forward and point guard positions. Seniors Will Hudson and Keith Benson provide stability in the paint, but the offense will need to be facilitated and the team will need a shutdown defender to emerge on the wing. The Golden Grizzlies do not suffer from a lack of players who could fill either of these roles, but until it actually happens, some skepticism will ensue. With that said, this is about Oakland's best case which would mean some combination of Drew Maynard, Blake Cushingberry, and Drew Valentine providing solid defense at the forward position and Reggie Hamilton finding his niche as Oakland's starting point guard. Make this happen and Oakland will be darn tough to beat.

Worst Case: Perhaps Oakland's "point guard by committee" concept doesn't go exactly as planned, meaning Hamilton, Larry Wright, and Ledrick Eackles never fully embrace the distributor role, instead opting to score, score, and score. If their shots fall, the team would be okay, but that's a tough way to live. Furthermore, most of the premiere talent in The Summit League will rest on the wing this season, where Derick Nelson will no longer be available to fill the roll of defensive stopper. If Drew Maynard doesn't make some serious leaps in his defensive ability, then players like ORU's Dominique Morrison, IUPUI's Alex Young, and NDSU's Michael Tveidt will exploit this weakness on their way to torching the Golden Grizzlies. The positive play of Benson likely wouldn't be enough to get the team past ORU, leaving Oakland to end the season with a top-three finish.

Oral Roberts
Best Case: The expectations in Tulsa are high this season, as they should be. Oral Roberts returns most of its significant pieces from last season (sans Kevin Ford) and welcome back several players who missed the previous year due to injuries. The emergence of Michael Craion as a legitimate banger should help alleviate the loss of Ford, and sophomore Damen Bell-Holter should continue to progress after turning in a serviceable freshman performance in the paint off the bench last year. Dominique Morrison and Warren Niles will look to match or improve upon their impressive 2009-10 outings. From top-to-bottom, the Golden Eagles have the most stacked roster in The Summit League. While many of these players may not have the deep tournament experience that so many former ORU players are accustomed to having, Coach Scott Sutton surely does and will have his troops prepared to take down the reigning champs from Rochester, Michigan. Simply put, Oral Roberts has the best shot at cutting down the nets in Sioux Falls.

Worst Case: Perhaps Oral Roberts will miss Kevin Ford more than predicted, especially if Bell-Holter doesn't start to step up to fill that role, which could make the team susceptible in the paint. The team will also have a bit of a log-jam in the back-court, where Ken Holdman will look to keep his starting role over transfer Rod Pearson (who played four games last season before going down with a season-ending knee injury) and redshirt freshman Hunter McClinktock (a touted recruit who missed last year with a torn ACL). Solid guard Warren Niles will also be back there looking to match his 2009-10 output levels. While it's always great to have that much talent, there's also a chance that a lack of playing time leads to chemistry issues. That's about the only thing holding back the Golden Eagles from a run at the conference crown.

South Dakota State
Best Case: The Jackrabbits will be entering the 2010-11 season with more games under their collective belts than any other Summit League team thanks to a four-game trip Winnepeg at the end of August. This experience will prove helpful as SDSU will have five freshmen this season looking to fill out roster spots around familiar names like Clint Sargent and Griffan Callahan. If true freshmen Jordan Dykstra and Marcus Heemstra are able to make an immediate impact on the wing and in the paint, then the Jacks may be poised for a rather successful season. Coach Scott Nagy successfully secured a number of great non-conference home games which should further increase the Jacks' chance of winning early and often. Going into the conference season with a winning record could do wonders for the team's confidence, leading them past the likes of IUPUI into top-three consideration with Oakland and Oral Roberts. Given the huge fan advantage the team has in Sioux Falls, it'd be awful difficult to beat a driven Jacks team come conference tournament time.

Worst Case: While South Dakota State returns several key players this year, most of them are guards or small forwards. In fact, the only guys above 6'7" on the roster from last season are Tony Fiegen, who played very sparingly, and Dwight Pederson, a transfer who played in just four games during 2009-10. Needless to say, the Heemstra/Dykstra freshmen combo should be heavily relied upon for the Brookings-based team next season. These two are proven winners in high school, but if they are unable to make a measurable impact early on in their college careers, then SDSU may be destined for a middle-of-the-pack finish in 2010-11.

Southern Utah
Best Case: Southern Utah is one of those isolated teams, so far away with so little coverage it's difficult to predict how they'll do from year to year. So in writing about the Thunderbirds, I'm taking some liberties. If I were a diehard SUU fan, though, I'm sure I'd be happy to see some progress. In this case, progress could be measured by qualifying for The Summit League tournament. While the T-Birds would likely face a first round exit, just getting there would be an accomplishment for a team that has struggled mightily in the past few seasons.

Worst Case: If Southern Utah finds itself outside of the conference tournament again, no one would be surprised. Another losing season in Cedar City would continue to drive Summit League enthusiasts mad, making them wonder why the Thunderbirds continue to be a representative of the conference. The loss of scoring guard Davis Baker would seem to indicate that Roger Reid and Company are in for another long season.

Western Illinois
Best Case: The key to WIU's success in 2010-11 will be if the players around Ceola Clark can make strides in their offensive ability. While the Leathernecks held opponents to 60 points per game last season (no doubt led by Clark, the team's defensive specialist), they only scored 59, by far the lowest in the conference. There is nothing wrong with controlling the tempo, but you have to put points on the board when it matters. Clark is certainly capable of doing it on his own, in every sense. He averaged 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.7 steals per game last year as a sophomore on his way to earning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year. It's scary to think he could actually improve on those numbers this season, potentially putting himself in Player of the Year contention. If his teammates help him out, then Western Illinois has a shot at a top-five conference finish. In order to do that, the Leathernecks will need to dispatch of teams like SUU, UMKC, and Centenary while at least splitting matches against NDSU, SDSU, IPFW. This is all that separates WIU from a 2009-10 repeat and a rare winning season.

Worst Case: Last season, David Nurse was the second leading scorer for the Leathernecks with 9.2 points per game. In other words, Clark was the only double-digit scorer for WIU in 2009-10, and the next best scorer has since graduated. Furthermore, the team welcomes just two new additions this season, one is a player from France and the other is Head Coach Jim Molinari's son who is eligible after redshirting his freshman season. In other words, the roster this season hasn't changed a whole lot, meaning Western Illinois will need its returning players to make some very large leaps in order to improve on last year's record. Otherwise, they should expect another subpar season in Macomb this year.

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