With four starters back from the team that finished second in the Summit League in the regular season and won the conference tournament, South Dakota State enters the new season as a clear-cut favorite. No other Summit League program has as much proven talent returning as the Jackrabbits, especially with perennial contender Oral Roberts moving to the Southland Conference.
The primary reason for optimism at South Dakota State is the return of senior point guard Nate Wolters, an NBA prospect who averaged 21.2 points and 5.9 assists per game last season. Wolters could be even more lethal as a senior if an offseason tweak to the mechanics of his jump shot helps him do better than the meager 24.1 percent he shot from behind the arc last season.
Besides Wolters, South Dakota State has a bevy of 3-point shooters including 6-foot-8 forward Jordan Dykstra. The sophomore sank 47.3 percent of his attempts from behind the arc and hit 11 in a row during one three-game stretch.
It would be a surprise if any other team overtook South Dakota State in the league race, but Oakland and North Dakota State are the biggest threats.
Sharpshooter Travis Bader, swingman Drew Valentine and Providence transfer Duke Mondy will help Oakland fill the void left by the graduation of guard Reggie Hamilton, the nation's leading scorer last season. North Dakota State will be looking to return to league title contention behind a junior class lured to the school by the success of the Ben Woodside-led 2008-09 NCAA tournament team.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Ceola Clark III, Western Illinois
Best playmaker: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
Best defender: Terrell Parks, Western Illinois
Coach on the rise: Saul Phillips, North Dakota State
Coach on the hot seat: Matt Brown, Missouri Kansas City
Three must-see games: 1. South Dakota State at Montana, Dec. 15 (The Nate Wolters-Will Cherry matchup will be worth the price of admission); 2. North Dakota State at South Dakota State, Dec. 29 (This has the makings of a fun league rivalry); 3. Oakland at Tennessee, Nov. 26 (The Grizzlies upset the Vols last season. Tennessee will be out for revenge.)
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Oral Roberts
Tourney winner last season: South Dakota State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 16th, 2010-11: 21st, 2009-10: 23rd
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2005, Oakland in the play-in game
More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:
Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league
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