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Summit League tournament: Wide open men's field should be as entertaining as ever

Mar. 6—SIOUX FALLS — Get ready for an unpredictable Summit League tournament.

After consecutive seasons with an undefeated No. 1 seed at the top, parity has ruled throughout this year's regular season.

South Dakota State closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak to claim the No. 1 seed, and that, coupled with the home-state advantage makes them the favorite.

But the Jacks also lost games to 7th-seeded Denver and 8th-seeded Oral Roberts. North Dakota, St. Thomas and North Dakota State have all had moments when they looked like perhaps the conference's best team. And unlike in many years prior, there are no doormats. (St. Thomas is not playoff eligible yet, so if they win the tournament SDSU gets the autobid to the NCAA tournament as the regular season champ).

Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, this is the first time since 2006 that there isn't a men's team with 20 wins entering the tournament, and USD's 5-11 record in league games is the best by a last-place team in at least as long.

In other words, the gap between the top and bottom of the conference is smaller than it's ever been.

Are all nine teams truly capable of stringing together three wins to hoist the trophy? Perhaps not. But there's no question that all nine teams are definitely capable of playing well enough for one night too beat any other team they might face, which will make for a tense tournament.

"It's exciting," said USD coach Eric Peterson. "Because you look at the bracket and I guess South Dakota State and maybe Kansas City and UND are favored, but you look at the league as a whole and throughout the whole second half anybody could beat anybody. I think it's gonna be pretty crazy. It's March. It's exciting."

With no team in the hunt for an at-large bid or in any real position to play for a higher NCAA tournament seed, all nine have had the luxury of putting an emphasis on season-long improvement over wins and losses, in hopes of entering the tournament with momentum. While finishing the regular season strong isn't always an actual predictor of postseason success, it can't hurt, and no team is coming in hotter than the Jackrabbits.

They lost at Kansas City on Feb. 15, rallied for an overtime win at Omaha two days later, and haven't lost since. Sophomore center William Kyle said the win at Omaha was the turning point.

"That told us, OK, we can turn it on and we can do this thing as a group," Kyle said. "Ever since then we've been very connected on the floor, moving the ball well and playing connected on the defensive end."

The Jacks also have the best roster in the league, led by guard Zeke Mayo (19.3 points per game) and with Kyle (13.1 points, 6.5 rebounds), Charlie Easley (12.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 steals), and Luke Appel (11.5 points) all having carried the team at times.

"We just can't look too far ahead," said SDSU coach Eric Henderson, whose team faces the winner of Friday's 8-9 "play-in" game between ORU and USD on Saturday. "Let's make sure we see what's right in front of us and enjoy that. Every opportunity that we get is gonna be a challenge and we understand that."

UMKC continued its ascent under coach Marvin Menzies and guard Jamar Brown's 15.3 points per game, while UND bounced back from consecutive 20-loss seasons to threaten the conference title, led by BJ Omot's 16.8 scoring average.

North Dakota State was routed at home in the regular season finale by the Jacks, but they also beat them in Brookings, and have shown an ability to win in Sioux Falls — they're five-time tournament champions, including four since 2014.

"I'm not gonna sit here and tell you we're pleased with where we're at," Bison coach Dave Richman said of his 15-16 team. "But everything we want is right in front of us. We've got to make sure to lock in this week and get better."

USD's Peterson pointed out this week that the Summit has been one of the nation's better offensive conferences this year, ranking among the Division I leaders in shooting, efficiency and limiting turnovers. Denver's Tommy Bruner is the leading scorer in the nation at 24.5 points per game, while Isaac McBride (19.7 for ORU), Frankie Fidler (19.3 for Omaha) and Kaleb Stewart for USD (15.5) are all elite scorers who can swing a game by themselves. Perhaps that means the team that brings the best defensive effort will be the one to string three wins together (USD or ORU would have to win four). Or maybe it means it'll come down to which team sees its leading playmaker deliver the most March magic.

"You go into it like this every year, but this year it's definitely fresh on your mind because everybody is beating everybody in the conference," SDSU's Easley said of preparing for parity. "You can't overlook anyone. You have to be ready to go right from the get."

Summit League Tournament

Men

Friday

ORU vs. USD, 7 p.m.

Saturday

SDSU vs. ORU/USD, 6 p.m.

UMKC vs. DU, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

UND vs. Omaha, 6 p.m.

UST vs. NDSU, 8:30 p.m.

Monday

Semifinal 1, 6 p.m.

Semifinal 2, 8:30 p.m.

Tuesday

Championship, 8:30 p.m.