Matt Zimmer: A big final week for the Summit League's Dakota schools

Feb. 28—BROOKINGS — The regular season Summit League men's basketball title will be decided along Interstate 29.

Heading into the final weekend, South Dakota State is in first place, with North Dakota and North Dakota State close behind. And while the fourth Dakota school, USD, currently takes up residence in the cellar, they, too, have plenty to play for as the four former NCC rivals all square off to wrap up the campaign.

Here are the standings:

SDSU: 10-4

UND: 9-5

NDSU: 8-6

UMKC: 8-6

UST: 7-7

UNO: 7-8

DU: 6-8

ORU: 5-10

USD: 4-10

SDSU is at UND on Thursday and NDSU on Saturday

UND hosts SDSU Thursday and USD Saturday

NDSU visits USD Thursday and hosts SDSU Saturday

USD hosts NDSU Thursday and visits UND Saturday

In the big picture, there isn't a whole lot at stake, here. The regular season title does not guarantee an NCAA tournament berth and starting this year it no longer provides an automatic bid to the NIT, either. And all nine teams make the conference tournament, so no one is facing elimination.

That said, the standings aren't totally meaningless. For one, a regular season conference title is a worthwhile bragging right. Those banners look good hanging from the ceiling in a gym.

And secondly, St. Thomas, while participating in the conference tournament for the second time, is still not eligible for the NCAA tournament. So if they win in Sioux Falls, they'll hoist the tournament trophy, but the regular season champ gets the auto bid to the Big Dance.

The bottom two teams in the race open the conference tournament with what is essentially a play-in game, but USD appears to be stuck in an 8-9 slot (yes, they could theoretically finish tied with Denver but we'll worry about those complicated tiebreakers when the Yotes actually go 2-0 this week).

And lastly, the top two seeds still have a slight advantage in that they get Sunday off in the conference tournament if they win their opening game on Saturday.

But beyond all that minutiae, the biggest motivator for all nine teams this weekend is to build some momentum going into the tournament. Yes, the concept of a team needing to be playing its best basketball of the season when playoffs begin is certainly a cliche. There are no doubt plenty of teams that limped into the postseason only to turn it around and go on a run, and just as many that were on fire when the regular season ended only to see their momentum stifled in a tournament upset.

But in a conference with as much parity as we've seen this year in the Summit League, it isn't going to take a miracle for any team to win the tournament, let alone a single game. Simply arriving in Sioux Falls with some added confidence could make a difference.

SDSU still feels like the best team in the conference. NDSU's late-season run to threaten for first place is no surprise. They always find a way.

And UND's rise to the top of the league after losing 45 games over the previous two seasons is one of the best stories in college hoops this year. Paul Sather should be a shoo-in for coach of the year.

So this last weekend should be fun and intense, setting the stage for a tournament that will likely be the same.

The Jackrabbit women (22-5) have clinched at least a share of the league title with a 14-0 record in league play. That has extended their Summit League winning streak to 45 games.

They haven't faced much resistance in their conference this year, but SDSU's domination has overshadowed that the Bison are having their best season in years. NDSU has won seven in a row, running their record to 18-9 and 12-2 in Summit League action. They lost on the road to Oral Roberts and at home to the Jacks.

Now the Bison get their second shot at SDSU in what will be the last basketball game played at Frost Arena before it becomes the fully renovated First Bank & Trust Arena next year.

The Jacks look poised to cruise to another NCAA tournament this year, but if the Bison can stand up to them on Saturday — not even beat them, necessarily, just play them tough — it could open the door for a more competitive conference tournament than most are expecting.

Ravaged by injuries this year, the Jacks' one glaring weakness is depth, and playing three games in four days in Sioux Falls will be one of their toughest challenges of the season. NDSU has to do the same thing, of course. We'll probably find out on Saturday if they have any real chance of pulling it off.