Advertisement

Matt Zimmer: Welcome to another blue and yellow Tuesday at the Summit League tournament

Mar. 11—SIOUX FALLS — It's been a really good winter for South Dakota State.

Two months ago the football team put the finishing touches on a second consecutive national championship. Around the time Jackrabbit fans started making their way back north from Frisco, Texas, the basketball teams both got into the teeth of the Summit League schedule, embarking on a regular season that saw both the SDSU men and women finish as outright conference champions and No. 1 seeds in the conference tournament.

Which brings us to Monday, when both teams posted impressively hard-earned semifinal wins to reach the Summit League tournament finals.

The women held off a lively challenge from their rivals of South Dakota, and the men won a rockfight with St. Thomas, using their defense to advance to Tuesday.

This is the kind of result that fans in Brookings and throughout Jackrabbit nation dream of and, if we're being honest, kind of come to expect.

For the rest of the Summit League, particularly the old NCC schools in the Dakotas, seeing both SDSU teams playing in the championship, again, probably leaves them nauseous.

This is the seventh time both of the Jackrabbit teams have made the Summit League title game in the same season, and in four of those instances they both won, giving SDSU fans a double-dose of March Madness.

Can they do it again? Could we have two teams packing Cubbys for a Selection Sunday show on Sunday? Both teams are certainly the favorites on Tuesday, but that doesn't mean they're slam dunks to do so.

Here's a closer look at the championship matchups:

SDSU vs NDSU

The Jacks are a juggernaut, having won 20 games in a row, entering the final with a 26-5 record. They have gone two consecutive seasons without losing a game to a conference foe, and the last time someone other than USD beat them was when Denver got them in 2020 — four years ago.

North Dakota State, the Jacks opponent on Tuesday, hasn't beaten them since 2015. Though the Bison were once a powerhouse of women's basketball, in Division II, they've never sniffed the NCAA tournament in Division I. This is their first appearance even in the Summit League tournament championship.

Everything on paper suggests this will be a walk in the park for SDSU, but the Bison deserve to be taken seriously. The Bison are 21-10, and including their two wins so far in this tournament, they're 15-3 against the Summit League this year.

Two of those three losses came to the Jacks, but both were competitive. The Jacks won 65-58 in Fargo, then beat the Bison by 15 in Brookings in the regular-season finale, though NDSU was impressive in that game and right in it until the final minutes.

The Jacks, of course, are thinned out by injuries and battling fatigue from their small rotation. Four of their starters played more than 35 minutes on Monday.

Does that make them vulnerable? Maybe. The Jacks are a very good basketball team having an incredible season considering how shorthanded they are, but if the Bison play as well as they did in Brookings and the Jacks have an off night, an upset could happen.

Working in SDSU's favor, of course, will be a home-court crowd that the Jacks have proven over the years they know how to use to their advantage.

SDSU vs Denver

The parity within the Summit League this year led to some speculation that the conference tournament would be unpredictable, and that came to fruition, with the lower seed winning both the 2/7 matchup and the 3/6 game.

In Monday's late semifinal, the 6th-seeded Denver Pioneers outlasted 7th-seeded Omaha 65-62, getting 23 points from national scoring leader Tommy Bruner and overcoming another spectacular performance from Mavericks sharpshooter Frankie Fidler. Like the women, SDSU's men will be facing a team that's never played in the Summit League tournament championship game or played in the NCAA tournament.

On the one hand, not having to deal with Frankie feels like a break for the Jacks, but Denver (17-16) already beat the Jacks once this year, routing them 99-80 in Colorado back in January. When the teams reconvened in Brookings a month later, it went quite differently, with the Jacks walloping the Pioneers 97-70.

SDSU's defense is markedly better than it was two months ago, and it reached its zenith in Monday's semifinal when they held St. Thomas to 49 points. And Bruner has been battling injuries all week.

Also worth noting: We've seen Jackrabbit teams over the years wilt under the bright lights of the Premier Center, playing as though the home crowd puts pressure on them more than it galvanizes them. This year has been different. SDSU (21-12) hasn't been perfect in their two wins so far, but they've been very good. And from William Kyle's high-flying heroics to Charlie Easley's hustle plays, the Jacks have succeeded in bringing the fans into the action and feeding off that noise.