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The race for the Summit is as close as ever

Omaha, Denver and St. Thomas each making a case to chase Zeke Mayo and South Dakota State for the league crown

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

It was right there until it wasn’t for Omaha on Thursday night in Frost Arena.

The Mavericks had chipped away at a 14-point second half South Dakota State lead, whittling it down to just two as a Zeke Mayo missed shot momentarily fell into the hands of Frankie Fidler with 23 seconds left. Fidler had the ball, and a chance for the Mavericks to take the lead and put a jolt in the Summit League race — until he didn’t.

Jackrabbit senior Charlie Easley swiped the ball out of Fidler’s hands for his career-high ninth rebound, was intentionally fouled and proceeded to knock down two free throws. Omaha still worked its way into a game-tying 3-point try as time expired, but the sequence summed up where the Summit is so far this season.

The league is wide open with early cases being made by Omaha (3-2), Denver (3-1) and St. Thomas (3-2) that each could be a factor throughout the year. But, like with Easley’s rebound, the Jackrabbits (3-1) are there lurking.

That Easley, patched up with shoulder tape, corralled that key offensive rebound is no surprise. The Lincoln, Nebraska, native is not the program’s star (that’s Mayo) or its most exciting talent (that’s explosive sophomore forward William Kyle III), but he’s a constant source of production for the preseason league favorite.

“We talk in practice that 50-50 balls aren’t 50-50 balls when Charlie is involved. He’s going to come up with it, and that’s how he plays,” SDSU coach Eric Henderson said earlier this year.

Easley’s fellow senior Matt Mims had a similar view on that final rebound.

“I ran up to him and I was like, ‘you’re incredible,” Mims said. “I’m surprised every time but he shows it every time, day in and day out.”

SDSU, even after an inconsistent non-conference, arguably remains the Summit team packed with the most potential. Much of that is tied to Mayo, who is averaging 22.5 points per game in league play, as well as the experience of Easley and Mims and ceiling of Kyle III. The Jackrabbits, who are used to winning under Henderson, have proven they can play closer and rip the hearts out of the opposition this league season.

Easley’s rebound to stifle the Maverick comeback is one example as is, more dramatically, Mayo’s game winner at St. Thomas last week to snatch away a huge win from the Tommies in a game they were oh-so-close to closing out. Yet those moments show precisely why the Summit race is exciting: SDSU is being pushed, and by unfamiliar foes.

To be sure, the Jackrabbits are not currently atop the league standings.

That’s Jeff Wulbrun’s Denver, which just blitzed SDSU for 99 points last weekend, only the second time they’ve scored that many points against a Division I opponent since 2010. Impressive as that win was, so was going to North Dakota State on Thursday and snapping an 11-game losing streak to the Bison.

This has not been a vintage NDSU team to this point, but the Pioneers were able to make plays down the stretch to win a close game in which their best player – the nation’s leading scorer, Tommy Bruner – did not have his best offensive showing. We made the case in early December for Denver making its last place preseason projection look silly, and they’ve done nothing but reinforce that argument over the last month and a half.

Between Bruner, Touko Tainamo (17.5 ppg) and Jaxon Brenchley, the Pioneers have an offense that will give them a shot in any league game, and are the lone visiting team to have won at Baxter Arena this year, where they put up 95 points against the Mavericks.

“We’re creating an identity for ourselves,” Bruner said in December. “We’re going to be a 40-minute team, no matter what the game throws at us, we’re going to play hard for 40 minutes.”

That was precisely what happened in Fargo, where they were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and ineffective from long range, but still found a way to win.

For their part, the Mavericks – led by their own offensive star in Fidler – were not able to ultimately make the plays they needed to pull off the upset in Frost Arena. But that they were in that game, and weathered a second half SDSU run, shows the upward trend for Chris Crutchfield in his second year.

The Mavericks offense, fueled by Fidler and his league-leading 28.4 points per game in Summit play, has been dangerous.

“He’s got a great feeling for scoring, he can score at all three levels and worked very hard this summer being consistent from the 3-point line,” Crutchfield said before the season. “You can use him in so many different ways and his leadership has grown over the past four or five months.”

The team has the second highest continuity rate among league teams per KenPom, and while much of this roster finished 4-14 a year ago, the story has been very different as Omaha has nearly reached that conference win total already. Marquel Sutton and JJ White, two key contributors alongside Fidler, have a year of Division I experience under their belts after coming in from junior college a year ago, something Crutchfield mentioned at Summit League media day.

In total, that continuity has been an asset.

“Knowing where each other will be on the floor and already having that chemistry will help us a lot,” Fidler said in October.

This all goes without mentioning the Tommies, who we wrote about extensively recently, and who look every bit a legitimate contender in the Summit race. They were tripped up Thursday at a sagging South Dakota team, which may just further illustrate the point.

Anyone can win in the league on any given night, and that’s not just a hollow cliche this season. That’s a big change from a conference that has had an undefeated behemoth leading the way the past two seasons, first with Baylor Scheierman’s SDSU in 2021-22 and Max Abmas’ Oral Roberts a year ago.

Count out Dave Richman and the Bison in March? Do so at your own risk. Discount Isaac McBride and the rest of the Golden Eagles’ winning DNA? I wouldn’t do it.

The Jackrabbits may still look capable of matching their preseason projection, but there are plenty of programs pushing them this year, and that should make for an exciting few months in the Summit.