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Summit League Tournament Preview: Jackrabbits look to cap off historic season

The Jacks didn’t lose a Summit League game all regular season. Is anyone capable of defeating them in the conference tournament?

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a fan of a school that has the words “Dakota” and “State” in its name, chances are you’ve enjoyed a fair bit of Summit Success the last few years. This year’s South Dakota State Jackrabbit squad, though, may have just put all of those other great teams of yore to shame, as it became the first team in the history of the league to finish a full conference slate undefeated at a perfect 18-0.

The Jacks finished a full five games ahead of second place North Dakota State. As such, they enter the conference tournament as prohibitive favorites to cut down the nets on the lovely parquet courts of the world’s most famous five-sided basketball arena, the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Can anyone rise up to stun them?

Bracket

Schedule (all times ET)

Saturday, March 5 (Quarterfinals)

Game 1: (1) South Dakota St. vs. (8) Omaha, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Game 2: (2) North Dakota St. vs. (7) Denver, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+

Sunday, March 6 (Quarterfinals)

Game 3: (3) Oral Roberts vs. (6) Western Illinois, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Game 4: (4) Kansas City vs. (5) South Dakota, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+

Monday, March 7 (Semifinals)

Game 5: (1) SDSU/(8) Omaha vs. (4) UMKC/(5) S. Dakota, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Game 6: (2) NDSU/(7) Denver vs. (3) ORU/(6) WIU, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Tuesday, March 8 (Finals)

Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9 p.m., ESPN2

The Contenders Contender

It’s South Dakota State and everyone else. The Jacks, behind Summit POY Baylor Scheierman – who’s the fifth SDSU player to win POY in six years – outscored their league opponents by an average of 15.5 points per contest. This team can flat out stroke it, scoring over 87 points per outing, with an overall shooting percentage of 52.7% and a 3-point percentage at a ridiculous 45.2% as a team. Those numbers are good for second, first and first in the country. Incredible.

The 6-foot-6-inch, third-year guard Scheierman was, according a Summit press release, the only Division-I player this season to lead his conference in rebounds (8.2 per game, remarkable considering his size) and assists (4.6), while also pouring in over 16 points per game. He was joined on the first team by senior forward, Douglas Wilson (16 PPG, 5.2 REB), and both were complemented by Noah Friedel (15.1 PPG) and sixth man of the year Luke Appel (9.5 PPG). Head coach Eric Henderson was also named Coach of the Year.

Their defensive numbers fall a bit behind at 221st in adjusted defense according to KenPom but they are a solid rebounding team, clocking in the top 100 in rebounding rate and rebounding margin. With a NET at 71 and an impressive 27-4 record, some are speculating if they could get an at-large bid should they fall short in Sioux Falls — though a 0-2 mark in Quad 1 games isn’t helping them. They likely won’t want to find out if they could sneak in as an at-large, but chances are they won’t have to, if they can keep their hot streak going.

The DarkHorses

Something that’s definitely worth mentioning though, if you’re hoping for a little drama in this tournament, is that a couple of teams have really challenged the Jackrabbits. Those teams were North Dakota State, which lost to SDSU by just four points in both of their matchups, and Oral Roberts, which lost by six and four points in its matchups with the Jacks.

If you’ve ever watched a North Dakota State game, you just get this vibe that point guard Sam Griesel and forward Rocky Kreuser are just in control the whole time, hardly ever making any mistakes. The seniors both were unsurprisingly named to the all-conference first team. Griesel — a much larger point guard who apparently never played the position in his life before college — had 25 points in NDSU’s first meeting against SDSU, while Kreuser poured in 25 points in the second outing, but both times fell just short. The Bison come into the tournament playing some of their best basketball of the season, winning 10 of 12 games on the back of strong performances by their two all-conference players and guard Tyee Eady, and look to get some revenge on their southern rivals in the tournament final.

Oral Roberts would probably also not like you to forget about them. This of course was a team a couple inches away from the Elite Eight last year. They haven’t quite been the same this year, notably losing half of last year’s dynamic duo in Kevin Obanor, who transferred to Texas Tech. But certified bucket Max “Ace” Abmas once again led the league in scoring at 24.1 points per game, including five 30-point games, and he is capable of taking over any contest. The Golden Eagles remain a top-five scoring offense and a very good 3-point shooting team, although one area that has dropped precipitously this year is their free-throw shooting.

Last year, they set an NCAA record for team free-throw percentage at above 82% for the year, while this year they dropped nearly 10%. Still, many of the role players from last year’s run like Kareem Thompson, Francis Lacis and Carlos Jurgens are chipping in and I doubt anyone really wants to play these guys, whether in the Summit Tournament or the NCAA Tournament.

And let’s throw in a Kansas City too. It’s really hard to believe that Eric Bieniemy hasn’t gotten a head coaching job yet and — right, not that Kansas City.

But like the Chiefs, this Kansas City has a pretty electric floor general in Evan Gilyard II, who won the Summit League newcomer of the year award after spending two years each at UTEP and New Mexico State. The 5-foot-10-inch point guard has the ball on a string, and he can get to the hoop or shoot from distance. He averages 16 points per game and set up teammates like Arkel Lamar (of previous UMBC fame), Josiah Allick (on the all-hair team) and Marvin Nesbitt (Summit League DPOY). On the back of an 11-2 run through January and February, they put themselves on the precipice of a two-seed in the tourney, only to slide to the four-seed after a couple of unfavorable results on the final day. They were handled a bit by South Dakota State during the year but do own two wins over North Dakota State and could be a team to keep your eye on.

The Long Shots

If you’re a fan of the Never Made the Tournament Club column on Mid-Major Madness, you might know of the Summit CurseTM that for almost the last two decades has prevented a team from representing this conference in the NCAA Tournament that had not previously made an appearance, despite so many teams from this conference (five currently) having never made it.

It’s haunted NMTC teams when they’ve been contenders in the past, but seeing how those teams occupy the fourth through eighth seeds of the bracket, and with a juggernaut South Dakota State and solid Oral Roberts and NDSU right behind, fat chance this year.

South Dakota started off slow in non-conference but picked up steam in league play to finish a solid 11-7. They are a methodical team with four players who average in double digits, but went a combined 1-7 against the top four seeds. And they’ve fallen victim to the Curse quite a few times.

Western Illinois started off with a number of solid wins in non-conference play getting to 9-2 with wins that include Nebraska and three MAC teams, but couldn’t replicate that success in league, finishing a surprising 7-11 over the final 18. They both score and surrender a lot of points.

Denver and Omaha have been statistically pretty bad all year, particularly Omaha, which will make for a nice tune-up meal for South Dakota State. A single win for either would be a huge surprise.

Prediction

The Jackrabbits fall behind in the final to a game Oral Roberts team, but some clutch 3-point shooting late in the second half vaults South Dakota State to a three-point win.