Monday, February 14, 2011

Week 8 In The Summit League: Taking Stock

While the college hoops scene at large spends its time debating bubble teams, here in The Summit League there is a very fascinating race going on for conference tournament positioning. Oakland is the clear favorite for the top spot in the tournament, but the battle for the two through six seeds still rages on. The league's hottest team is Oral Roberts, winner of four straight, and South Dakota State is heating up thanks to improved defensive effort. With just two more weeks remaining in league play, all of these teams will be looking to improve their standing for Sioux Falls. Let's take a look at the road ahead for each of these teams.

Oakland (Current Seed: 1)
Remaining Schedule: NDSU, SDSU, @UMKC, @ SUU
- Oakland fans, don't be fooled. This is as tough of a stretch of games as the team could have had to end this season. Of all the travel pairings in the league, I believe the NDSU/SDSU duo is the toughest. Both teams feature a few senior leaders who are going to be laying it all on the floor in these final games, and they also have a couple of young guys who are capable of changing a game. The Golden Grizzlies have the advantage in these games because they will be the last held at the O'rena this season, but it's still a tough way to close the building for the year. Following that, a tough road trip looms. UMKC's defense needs some shoring up, but my guess is the Roos will not go quietly into the night when they host Oakland in two weeks. They haven't forgotten what Oakland did to them in December, and they've been very good at Swinney Rec this season. Finally, the last game of the season is out at Southern Utah. That's a place Oakland is 4-8 at since the 1998-99 season. Coach Kampe has always said he likes his teams to be rolling in late February. This is where we find out if this year's squad exhibits that trait.

IUPUI (Current Seed: 2)
Remaining Schedule: SUU, UMKC, @ORU, @Centenary
IUPUI has a very favorable schedule for the finals two weeks. The team gets Southern Utah and UMKC at home, and while neither team is a cakewalk, these are teams that IUPUI has typically taken care of business against this season. The ORU game could end up being a "win and get the second seed" kind of game. Mark that one on your calendars.

ORU (Current Seed: 3)
Remaining Schedule: @Centenary, IUPUI, WIU
While IUPUI's upcoming schedule is favorable, the remaining games for Oral Roberts set the team up nicely to be rolling into Sioux Falls on a big winning streak. The Golden Eagles have won four straight games (a home sweep of NDSU/SDSU and road wins at UMKC and SUU), and there is no doubt they could win these last three games. With all due respect to Centenary and Western Illinois, the only game that will likely be a test for ORU is the home date with IUPUI.

IPFW (Current Seed: 4)
Remaining Schedule: SDSU, NDSU, @SUU, @UMKC
Who knows what IPFW team we will see during this stretch run. They beat all of these teams except for SDSU during the first run around, so the precedent is there to suggest the Dons could very well finish out the year by winning all of these games. Or they could split them. As has been the case with this team for much of the last month, you just never know.

SDSU (Current Seed: 5)
Remaining Schedule: @IPFW, @Oakland, @NDSU
In a interesting turn of events, one of the league's hottest teams ends the year with the toughest slate of games. SDSU has had an explosive offense all season long, but the team has recently shored up its defensive efforts in wins over IUPUI and Western Illinois. However, this stretch is just tough. Though the Jacks dismantled the Dons in Brookings, a better prepared IPFW team is typically strong at home. They'll get Oakland on a Saturday night that doubles as senior night for Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Larry Wright. And then they have to go to Fargo to face an NDSU team they haven't beat since 2006. Brutal.

UMKC (Current Seed: 6)
Remaining Schedule: @WIU, @IUPUI, Oakland, IPFW
Coach Matt Brown has done a great job with this year's UMKC team. He's gotten a lot of production out of a very slim roster that has been cut short due to injuries. When his guys play defense like they did, say, at South Dakota State (0.896 points per trip) as opposed to how they did over the weekend against Oral Roberts (1.44 points per trip), then they are a group that could battle to finish this year with a winning record and a solid seed in Sioux Falls.

NDSU (Current Seed: 7)
Remaining Schedule: @Oakland, @IPFW, SDSU
The Bison are just a game under .500 in conference play but face a challenging path toward finishing above that mark. The NDSU ballers can help themselves by splitting their upcoming road swing and taking care of business against SDSU, but at this point they'll also need some help from other teams in order to get out of playing the second seed at the tournament.

Southern Utah (Current Seed: 8)
Remaining Schedule: @IUPUI, @WIU, IPFW, Oakland
SUU very nearly beat ORU on Saturday, but the standings don't reflect "almost" getting a win. As such, the fate of the Thunderbirds will likely be determined on February 19th at Western Illinois. If they are able to get a win at Western Hall, then they'll surely be in the tournament as the eighth seed. That could set up an interesting scenario where, if everything holds, SUU and Oakland would play in Cedar City on February 26th before meeting again in Sioux Falls a week later on March 5th.

Western Illinois (Current Seed: N/A)
Remaining Schedule: UMKC, SUU, @Centenary, @ORU
The Leathernecks keep on fighting, but Jim Molinari just sounded dejected after losing at South Dakota State on Saturday. It's been a very rough season for Western Illinois due to the loss of every major contributor to injury. Molinari's squad sits firmly outside of the eight-team field for the conference tournament, but they do get to play one game in March: independent Savannah State returns a game to Macomb on March 1.

Centenary (Current Seed: N/A)
Remaining Schedule: ORU, WIU, IUPUI
If Centenary gets a win before this season is over, at least it will come within the confines of the Gold Dome. That's a great advantage for the Gentlemen, but the schedule is unforgiving. ORU and IUPUI both pay visits, leaving WIU as the only game that most clear-headed observers would give them a chance to win. Computers like that game, too: gives the Gents a 32% chance of victory that fateful Thursday evening.

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