It may seem impossible for a team that went 3-15 in the conference to get any worse, but this could very well be the case for Centenary in 2010-11. In its final year of Division I competition, the program will field a team full of scrappy players who may be destined for success in Division III but will ultimately struggle against more seasoned talent in the conference. First-year coach Adam Walsh will have his hands full in attempting to keep his guys motivated throughout a season where the losses will surely pile up. The team could surprise us all in a few games (and we hope they do), but the reality is that the playing field just won't be level for Centenary.
The Mastodons put together a respectable season in 2009-10, its first of the winning variety since moving up to Division I. What strikes me most about last year's campaign is that IPFW managed to come up above .500 without a star player. Deilvez Yearby was a strong player for the Mastodons, but Coach Dane Fife really did a great job of maximizing the contributions of a group of players who simply knew their roles. In 2010-11, Fife loses a few of his key players of the past, so his team's success will further depend on his ability to plug in the right pieces at the right times. Fortunately, he'll have a trio of senior guards as well as developing junior big man Trey McCorkle to rely on in time of need. While there are some uncertainties with the Dons this season (mainly depth), my gut tells me that senior leadership and the natural progression of other players will result in a forward trend.
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While Oakland was dominating the conference schedule last season, IUPUI was doing enough to stay just a game or two behind the Golden Grizzlies. A season like Oakland's only comes around so often, and yet the Jaguars were doing everything they could to spoil it. Ron Hunter's squad ended the season with just three losses, and in any other year that probably would have been enough to represent The Summit League in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately (for IUPUI fans), this was not the case. Heading into 2010-11, the Jaguars will need to replace a hefty portion of their scoring and rebounding lost due to graduation. While the team will have its fair share of junior and senior leaders (as well as a star in Alex Young), I'm afraid that such intangibles will not be enough for the program compete at its 09-10 level. With that said, a drop-off from three losses to five or so shouldn't be enough to shake the IUPUI faithful.
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The Kangaroos were able to eek out six wins last season, a total that will prove challenging to match in 2010-11. As seems to have become common in Kansas City, the program experienced more roster turnover this off-season, losing two of its most productive players who opted to transfer to new schools. If UMKC is able to win six games in The Summit League, it will reflect well on Coach Matt Brown's coaching because his roster, at least on paper, does not stack up well against many teams in the conference. However, there will also be many opportunities for players to make an impact, and with several unknown commodities, the Roos could easily surprise some of their opponents. There is also the possibility that the team finds some motivation from playing in its smaller, more intimate on-campus arena for home games. Even though IPFW, North Dakota State, and South Dakota State will look to contend for spots in the upper-crust of the conference, my gut tells me that UMKC will win a few games against these opponents, yet largely stay within the .275-.375 range it has finished in over the last few seasons.
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There will be a lot of fresh blood in Fargo this season as the NDSU program welcomes the addition of three new freshman and two guys coming off first-year redshirts. The newbies will have to work hard to crack the line-up as there are several seasoned veterans in front of them, led by senior Michael Tveidt and junior Eric Carlson. This squad is chock-full of guards and small forwards, which will work against several of the teams that NDSU will compete against for seeding in the conference tournament (SDSU, IPFW, IUPUI); however, their lack of experienced big men may prove to be their downfall against the conference's elite (OU, ORU). Still, the Bison should hover around the .500 mark, meaning they'll trend in a neutral direction in 2010-11.
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Oakland Golden Grizzlies
It's virtually impossible for a team to run the table during conference play these days, especially in mid-major leagues like The Summit League where teams are especially competitive. The fact that Oakland got through the conference schedule with just one loss in 2009-10, then, is downright unbelievable. To match or exceed such a record in 2010-11 would be beyond anyone's wildest dreams, yet if the various pieces come together, there's reason to believe it could happen. Realistically, one would expect the Grizzlies to have at least a couple of letdowns during the conference season. However, they'll still be one of the top teams come season's end and a legitimate contender to earn a second-straight automatic NCAA Tournament bid on March 8, 2011.
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Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
There is no mistaking that Oral Roberts is on the up-and-up going into 2010-11. The team will be without the old brute Kevin Ford but returns nearly every other contributor from a strong 2009-10 campaign. The list of guys who can make an impact is seemingly endless, from a quartet of strong guards to superb wingman Dominique Morrison to banger Michael Craion. Damen Bell-Holter should come along some more in his second season, providing the Golden Eagles with a paint presence lost by the graduation of Ford. These dudes will be looking to prove that they can be just as successful as ORU teams of past, giving the school its best chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007-08.
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The Jacks had a strong outing in 2009-10, posting a 10-8 record within the conference and finally winning a few games on the road. Though the team lost its first round game against IPFW in The Summit League Tournament (in what was an overwhelming home game for SDSU), the season as a whole still reflected well on the program. Coach Scott Nagy has a strong recruiting class coming in this season to go along with several staples from last year. Those recruits, primarily Jordan Dykstra, will need to make an immediate impact in order for South Dakota State to do as well as it did last season. Long-term, this program is definitely trending upward, but I believe they'll take a step back in 2010-11 while some of their new cogs gain much-needed experience playing Division I ball.
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Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Davis Baker was a beast for Southern Utah over the course of his career with the Thunderbirds. In fact, he was the only double-digit scorer on the team in 2009-10. While that may be more of a result of SUU's tendency to distribute its scoring amongst all its players, there is still cause for concern in Cedar City now that Baker has used up his eligibility. Quite frankly, it's super difficult to project the program's successes or failures due to the fact its land-locked on the western side of the country with little media coverage. Judging solely by our "feeling" standard mentioned at the beginning of this post, there may not be many reasons to get stoked about Southern Utah in 2010-11.
Western Illinois Leathernecks
Coach Jim Molinari clearly has his program on the rise, but the results for the upcoming season will depend as much as ever on his coaching and training. There are hardly any newcomers entering the fold this season, and he loses scoring guard David Nurse as well as James Granstra, a player who gave the Leathernecks an extra body in the paint. However, junior Ceola Clark is about as sure a thing as you'll find in the conference and David Gebru, who enters his second season, is an interesting prospect who could provide a spark in the post for WIU if he was able to add some muscle to his 6'10" frame during the off-season. Picking WIU to improve on its 6-12 conference record of a year ago may be gutsy, but if there is a team that has the chance to surprise people, it's Western Illinois.
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