Sunday, January 2, 2011

Summit League Non-Conference Wrap

With the exception of a few random games here and there, The Summit League's ten teams have wrapped up non-conference play. While the individual records may vary, most of the squads had fairly solid non-conference seasons. There were not many huge upsets this year, but several teams did a great job of raising the conference profile with wins over schools from similar conferences. Perhaps most importantly, several schools that have hung around the middle of the pack in The Summit League established themselves early with a handful of quality wins and competitive losses. Overall, there is a sense that The Summit League is a conference on the up-and-up. With the arrival of conference games it is time for teams to prove that their more or less successful out-of-conference results can create an uber-competitive January and February. While most teams have now played four conference games already and are focused on these next two months, let's take a look back at November and December to wrap up the early results.

Conference RPI: 23
The conference currently sits at the 23rd position in the conference RPI rankings, the same spot it finished at in 2009-10. There is a chance this could fluctuate a bit as the season goes on, but it's certainly an okay spot to be in for now. At present, The Summit League does not have ten teams playing aggressive non-conference schedules so as a result there are a few teams high in the RPI and a few at the bottom. Centenary also ranks in the bottom 5 in most statistical categories, including RPI (344/345), which does nothing to help the profile of the league. With the departure of Centenary after this season (344) and Southern Utah the year after (264), there is room for The Summit League to move up in this regard, especially if the teams showing improvement this year can sustain the success.

Biggest Surprise: IPFW
There are a few candidates for this topic, but IPFW probably sticks out as the biggest of the surprising bunch for its non-conference results. The team lost four games in the non-conference season, three of which were to Xavier, Cincinnati, and Purdue (and the first two were rather competitive matches). The sole loss to a mid-major was at Valparaiso on a night when the Dons shot just 26% from the field. Overall, this is a pretty impressive mark for a team that in the past might not have beat similarly-leveled mid-majors. The Mastodons have been getting it done with superior guard play from seniors Ben Botts and Zach Plackemeier and great effort from perhaps the most surprising player in the conference, Frank Gaines. (Note: IPFW has additional non-conference home games in January and February against SIU Edwardsville and Chicago State, respectively, in what should be two easy wins).

Biggest Disappointment: Oral Roberts
Nothing against our friends from Tulsa, but this non-conference season was rubbish for the Golden Eagles. They got a nice win on the road at Utah and hung tight with Texas Tech but failed to post wins over middling mid-majors or score a major upset as happened three times last season. For a team returning two potent scorers in Dominique Morrison and Warren Niles and two developing big men in Steven Roundtree and Damen Bell-Holter, it comes as a surprise that they dropped a few games or weren't as competitive in others. The loss of Michael Craion with a foot injury surely hurts this team, but we know that the roster is still talented enough to be better than 3-8 outside of The Summit League. (Note: ORU still has a non-conference game at Akron on 1/3 and a Bracket Buster game in late February).

Evaluating Teams Via Their Pre-Season Poll Rank:
(1) Oakland
Oakland ranks atop the conference in most computer rankings (Kenpom, The State, RPI) and is ranked in the mid-major human poll put out by CollegeInsider.com. While the team lost two games against mid-major opponents (Wright State and Valparaiso), it competed admirably through one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country and pulled an upset of then seventh-ranked Tennessee. Overall, most would say Oakland passes the eye test as the team to beat in The Summit League.

(2) Oral Roberts
As discussed above, ORU had a rocky out-of-conference experience marked by inconsistency and perhaps a lack of leadership. This is a team without a single four-year player, and its only seniors are minor bench players who transferred in. Michael Craion, a junior college transfer, is a senior who could have sparked the team much like Kevin Ford did in his two years as a Golden Eagle, but Craion has been out with a foot injury and will seek a medical redshirt. As a result, ORU is still a young team that looks like it needs to learn how to win. The talent is there, but they need for it to all come together before they're ready to compete for a top-spot in the conference. This pre-season ranking is looking like it might not hold up unless they can use their struggles to get better over the next two months.

(3) IUPUI
The Jaguars have had to endure quite a bit of travel this non-conference season as they've played everywhere from Washington to Pittsburgh and Florida to Las Vegas. They had just two home games, both against non-DI schools, and played three games in three days in nearby Oxford, Ohio. They won just four Division I games, the highlight of which is a blowout of Green Bay on a neutral court. There is something to be said of the way they played Ohio State in Columbus (75-64 loss) as well as a two-point loss to an undefeated San Diego State team on a neutral court. IUPUI is a team that can keep games close due to the all-around ability of Alex Young and his scoring pal Leroy Nobles, but times are bleak when those two aren't knocking down shots. Dayton transfer Stephen Thomas has been a welcome addition for the team, but as a guard he doesn't give them a presence where they need it the most: the post. As one of the weakest rebounding teams in the country in raw (330) and tempo-free (254) figures, it remains to be seen if they will be able to stay afloat against some of the conference's better post-play teams.

(4) North Dakota State
The Bison had a fairly impressive non-conference schedule, highlighted during the first three days when the team beat defending Big West champs UCSB, topped a solid Denver squad, and took Oregon to overtime before losing by five points. NDSU only played one other major conference team, a big loss at Minnesota. Aside from those games, the team beat two other mid-majors, including in-state rival North Dakota, and loss to two mid-majors. It's a winning record for non-conference play, but the record does not contain many major wins, except for maybe UCSB. Perhaps a good sign for the team heading into January and February is that senior guard Freddy Coleman has upped his points per game by nearly ten and he is the team's second leading rebounder despite being 6-foot-3. That type of play will come in handy against some of the conference's better teams that have guards who board well. Additionally, freshman Marshall Bjorklund proved why he is a starter by averaging 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Overall, we learned in non-conference play that NDSU is a very capable team which shoots well from deep (41.7%, seventh in the nation), guards the interior fairly well (46.4 D2FG%), and rebounds just as well as Oakland.

(5) South Dakota State
SDSU's strength of schedule is fairly weak, but there's no doubting that the team won the games it needed to win and then some. The highlight was a ten-point drubbing of Iowa that aired on the Big Ten Network for everyone to see how disciplined this Jackrabbit team can be when everything is clicking. It also served as the introduction to Nate Wolters, a sophomore phenom who is on his way to conference stardom. Wolters is a versatile guard who can get to the basket with ease (his 80 free throw attempts are second in the league among guards), knock down the occasional triple, rebound at an impressive rate, and distribute the ball effectively as the team's floor general (5.8 assist/game - best in conference). And he manages to do all of that without committing turnovers, as he holds a 2.8 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, again best in the conference. Pair Wolters with a few veterans and some promising freshmen and one can see how this team went 8-3 in non-conference play, including a close loss to Minnesota. Like NDSU, SDSU is a great three-point shooting team that guards the paint fairly well and can rebound with the conference's best. However, they are also the smartest team in the league: they commit just 10.8 turnovers per game (tenth in the country) and have a turnover rate - for tempo-free fans - of 15.2 percent (fourth in the country). Scary combination, and the reason why a fifth place finish is probably not in SDSU's future.

(6) IPFW
We talked a bit about IPFW's non-conference season in our "Biggest Surprise" category, but to extend that here, it appears like the Mastodons will be contending for a spot higher than sixth place. They'll have to continue to get superior play from Plackemeier and Botts in the backcourt and some more manly efforts from junior big man Trey McCorkle. The team's interior play will need to improve especially to effectively guard teams like Oakland, SDSU, and NDSU that have strength in the frontcourt. However, we may also see a team where a mix of stellar guards and team grit could possibly make-up for a supposed weakness down low. Whatever the case, judging from non-conference play, this might be the best Dons teams ever under coach Dane Fife.

(7) Western Illinois
The Fighting Leathernecks have stayed true to coach Jim Molinari's grind-it-out system throughout non-conference play with mixed results. In the early season, WIU went to Columbia and nearly upset Missouri, a team that has gone on to prove it is quite good this season, by playing its usual brand of hard-nosed defense and slowing the pace. The team was unable to ride the momentum of that competitive game as Western lost four of its other five non-conference games against Division I competition. A big reason why the team has floundered despite the scoring surprise of Matt Lander has been because of Ceola Clark's nagging injury. The team's floor leader has played in just six games this season, and it shows. Clark is capable of scoring and rebounding in bunches, but he's also the team's best distributor and the conference's best defender (as his Defensive Player of the Year trophy from last year proves). For WIU to retain this position or move up, it needs Clark back soon.

(8) UMKC
UMKC ends non-conference play with a 7-3 record (with a game at Kansas still on the horizon), a notable mark for a program that has failed to have much success in recent years. While the team was able to host a lot of home games in November and December which could build confidence and fan support, there is reason to be skeptical of the team's chances at continuing with such winning in conference play. Out of 345 teams in Division I, UMKC's non-conference schedule (before the Kansas game) ranks 342nd, mostly the result of playing new DI schools like North Dakota, SIU Edwardsville, Central Arkansas, Utah Valley, and Houston Baptist. While credit should be given to UMKC for taking care of business, this team hasn't been tested by very many teams from a similar level. The team's bright spot has been Spencer Johnson, a forward having a resurrection in his senior year by averaging 12.1 points and 9.8 rebounds on 51.3% field goal shooting. Coach Matt Brown has been using a tight rotation this season and for the first time has a few seniors who are actually providing some leadership on the court. That's a positive for this program and one that will hopefully carry over into future conference play.

(9) Southern Utah
SUU struggled early and often in the non-conference stretch which was probably the consequence of adjusting to new line-ups. Ray Jones, Jr. has been a blessing for the team this year and has started in all but the first game of the season for the Thunderbirds, but other players have struggled to find such consistency. Matt Hodgson, a 6-foot-11 project from Australia, has failed to stay out of foul trouble and has found himself out of the starting line-up in recent tips, a bummer considering he gives the team size and shot-blocking ability. Other players need to come along or be more consistent for SUU to make enough noise to be eligible for the conference tournament in March.

(10) Centenary
There are currently five winless teams in all of Division I, and Centenary just might be the worst of the bunch. The Gents have trouble scoring and give up a lot of points on the defensive end, but it's hard to be too critical of a team with just four scholarship players. Centenary's coach, Adam Walsh, seems to be taking it in stride as a recent interview with ESPN.com would suggest, and he realizes the extreme disadvantage they have in playing a Division I schedule this year. Only the coldest of hearts would wish a winless season on this program, so here's to hoping the Gents can pick up a win or two in January and February.

Five Players We're Excited To See More Often
(G) Nate Wolters, Sophomore (SDSU)
Now that Johnathon Jones has graduated, it's safe to say that Nate Wolters is developing into the league's best point guard. He's a great scorer with ability to draw the foul and is turning into the floor general of this year's Jackrabbits team. SDSU fans have to feel happy about the development of Wolters, still just a sophomore. A Ben Woodside-esque career is in the picture for this dude.

(G) Frank Gaines, Sophomore (IPFW)
Frank Gaines might be the best name in the conference. Something about it exudes confidence and grit. Gaines is just a sophomore who is having a breakout season as a starter alongside Plackemeier and Botts for the Mastodons. Gaines is quick and big enough at 6-foot-4 to draw contact as he slides into the lane, scoring in bunches from the field and charity stripe. Where he is perhaps most impressive is on the glass, pulling down 6.5 rebounds per game. In a lot of ways, Gaines is the type of player Oakland's Ledrick Eackles could be with a bit more consistency in his shooting and selection. Oakland fans should take note of this guy.

(G/F) Travis Bader, Redshirt Freshman (Oakland)
Oakland's Travis Bader must have used his redshirt year wisely as he has been an incredibly productive player for the Golden Grizzlies in his first season. Bader has hit 13 more three pointers than the next best freshman in the conference and in fact is second among all classes of players in that category, behind only his teammate Reggie Hamilton (41). At times, Bader has shown an ability to get off quick jump shots inside the arc as well as a fastbreak dunk or two, but the primary reason to watch him is because of his great stroke from downtown.

(F) Steven Roundtree, Freshman (Oral Roberts)
Oral Roberts has received a big boost inside from a lanky freshman by the name of Steve Roundtree. At 6-foot-8, the frosh is big enough to play the post for the Golden Eagles, yet he has the ability to slide over to the wing position and take opponents off the dribble. He's thirteenth in the conference in scoring and sixth in rebounding, numbers which should hold up through conference play. If ORU is able to stay afloat at the top of the standings, Roundtree will be one of the chief players responsible.

(F) Marshall Bjorklund, Freshman (NDSU)
NDSU freshman Marshall Bjorklund isn't too far from Roundtree in terms of production this season. He is the third leading scorer and second best rebounder among freshmen in The Summit League, but where he really makes his impact is on the offensive glass, ranking fourth in raw figures just behind Roundtree and the Oakland duo of Keith Benson and Will Hudson. The only major-minutes player in the conference who grabs more offensive than defensive boards overall is Hudson, yet as a freshman Bjorklund is displaying the same kind of prowess albeit at a lesser rate. Still, the Bison faithful must be excited about this young player who could help anchor the post for many years to come.

Red Line Look-Back
The Summit League has had 29 opportunities to take down a team from above the Red Line thus far, with UMKC's trip to Kansas as the 30th and final chance on January 5th. Out of the many chances, Summit League teams were only victorious three times. South Dakota State beat Iowa, Oral Roberts took down Utah, and Oakland topped seventh-ranked Tennessee. All of the upsets occurred on the opponent's home court. Overall, that is a win percentage of 10.3%, whereas the national average as of this post is 15.6%. While the league trails the national average, it's still mighty close and perhaps puts into perspective just how difficult it is to topple the Red Line.

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