by Michael Hadley
There are plenty of opinions about just how the Summit League will shake out on the hardwood this year, and I'm here with my Student on Sports Predictions for the men heading into the winter months. Check it out!
Men's Basketball Predictions
"Student On Sports" Power Rankings
1. Oral Roberts
-- ORU returns all five starters from last year's second place squad, and they certainly have a coach (Scott Sutton) who knows how to win big games. The Golden Eagles have a few potential out of conference games that are winnable: Oklahoma (they hung in the game in Norman last year), Texas Tech (who they play at home), West Virginia, Xavier, and Gonzaga. Even if Oral Roberts comes out of the early schedule battered and bruised, we learned from Oakland's 2010-11 team that a tough OOC schedule isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'd be more surprised if ORU didn't run the table than if they did. Oh, and just for the record, the entire starting group for ORU is on either the preseason first or second team. I can't say I've ever seen that before. Goodness, lookout for the Golden Eagles.
-- I know, call me a homer, but I really feel the Jaguars are the best team outside of Oklahoma. Three of five starters return, and I really think the freshman this year are going to make a bigger impact than the current sophomores did last year. That said, current sophomore Donovan Gibbs should step up huge, gaining confidence from seeing plenty of open looks as teams gang up on the league's best player, Alex Young. Steve Thomas has a impressive season in his second year at the point, and Christian Siakam impresses in the paint. Jags have an easier - and more home-heavy - schedule than last year, which should provide plenty of early confidence.
T-3. South Dakota State // Oakland
-- It's impossible for me to decide who will have the better season: Nate Wolters or Reggie Hamilton. Both are explosive, both are sharp shooters, both are quick, both are...well...everything a point guard should be and plenty more. Both teams have loads of talent, but each have a nagging issue that keeps me from being able to decide either way.
--South Dakota State, with Wolters in the backcourt and Jordan Dykstra in the front, are just too short-benched for my liking. With the talent drop off from the starting five to the bench, I just can't see Wolters and Co. holding up for a complete season. They have a fairly easy OOC schedule (they'll stay close in games against Georgia and Nebraska), but there's just not enough firepower for me to say they'll be third-best.
--As for Oakland, Hamilton is absolutely one of the top players in The League, and Travis Bader will duke it out with IUPUI's Sean Esposito for the top sharpshooter title...but...there's just no size. All three interior players for OU graduated last year, leaving the Golden Grizzlies with three freshman (Corey Petros, Kyle Sikora, and Korab Imami) to deal with the bigs on the Summit League, and I just can't think they'll be able to handle the likes of Alex Young coming at them. I'm interested to see if OU head coach Greg Kampe does the smart thing and try for a speedy line up (four guards, including Michigan transfer Laval Lucas-Perry), or if he throws two bigs out to the lions. Games against Alabama and Arkansas early will pale in comparison to Michigan and Tennessee later, but the latter games being at home (Michigan at The Palace, Tennessee in the O'rena) could be season-changers for the young Grizzlies.
5. North Dakota State
-- Here is the major drop off. I've always said there are tiers to this conference, and North Dakota State certainly is not on the same level as the first four teams. Losing twelve-year (I kid...) starter Michael Tveidt is huge for NDSU, leaving leadership in the hands of senior Eric Carlson who didn't seem up to it last season. Tveidt was the only Bison to average over 24 minutes per game in 2010-11, and I expect the same to continue with nine of the 15 players being underclassmen. As Marshall Bjorkland goes, I believe, so will NDSU, but I can't see him producing as consistently and as impressively as Tveidt did. Their advantage, as always, is the difficult travel teams encounter heading north. An average team of average-sized guys will be exactly that: Average.
-- The Dons have a new head coach, but don't expect that to be the reason they struggle. Ben Botts and Zach Plackemeier both graduating might be the second biggest loss to any team this season, behind only Oakland's entire front court graduating. Providing 18.4% and 13.6% of the points respectively, and over 47% of the three-point attempts combined, a serious amount of the offense was lost. Both Botts and Plackemeier had an uncanny ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor, including over the top of guys nearly a foot taller than they were. That said, Frank Gaines will struggle to carry this offense, and I just can't imagine everyone's favorite red head Trey McCorkle holding things down enough in the front court. They'll scrap and compete in the middle, but tall, fast teams like ORU and IUPUI will tear them to shreds. The IPFW-Oakland games will be some of the most interesting, as they are the best matched pair in the league; both have great backcourts and are rebuilding in the front.
-- Be default, the 'Roos fall into the seventh spot. Jay Couisnard kept UMKC in games last season, recording a quarter of the blocks and points, and almost 50% of the points graduated with his class. The level of talent left behind isn't stellar, but there could be one bright spot. Reggie Chamberlain will have to do much more than his 2.6 assists. Look for sophomores Trinity Hall and Max Rockmann to add moments of brilliance to an otherwise unimpressive squad.
8. Southern Utah
-- SUU enters their last season with the Summit League as a semi-improved squad from a year ago. A team that rallied to beat IUPUI in Indianapolis and play Oakland well in two consecutive games also lost twice to UMKC, and struggled to find a way to beat Western Illinois. Their up and down 2010-11 will continue into 2011-12 when they take on a very light (and surprisingly local) OOC schedule, set up to help seniors Matt Massey and Ray Jones, Jr. gel with the rest of the young Thunderbirds early on. Is the talent there? Possibly. But much like UMKC, the drop off from the contributors to the rest is just too great. Kyle Davis should have a break out season, but there's no one that scares me, or even worries me, offensively in Cedar City.
9. Western Illinois
-- Lowly, lowly Leathernecks. Their biggest problem last year was an untimely injury to Ceola Clark, III, cutting his season unfortunately short. When he's on the court, Clark is always one of the best players...but there's not much else exciting to see. Tommie Tyler did his best to prop up the battered Leathernecks, and Jack Haupt (a high school friend of mine) did his best in a mixed winger role, but they're definitely at the bottom of The League. If Clark can stay healthy, WIU will compete with Southern Utah for the eighth and final transfer spot (only eight teams qualify for the Summit League Tournament in South Dakota), but if he has any lingering - or new - ailments, WIU is going to be in a lot of trouble.
10. South Dakota
-- USD comes into the Summit League from the Great West in their final transitional (between Division-II and Division-I) season, and they will be ineligible for the Summit League Tournament. While Coyotes did well to compete with the likes of New Jersey Institute of Technology, they'll soon see The League is a bit different than they've ever experienced. The 'Yotes, as they're called, struggle with a serious size disadvantage (only one returning contributor over 6-4), and the jump in competition will be rough. Their nothing-to-lose mentality could lead to some interesting games at SDSU and NDSU, as well as on the road late in the season with IUPUI. Time will tell, but don't expect many big wins from USD.
"Student on Sports" Preseason Player of the Year
Alex Young, IUPUI
-- Alex is definitely the best player in the Summit League, and probably one of the best in the nation. He could absolutely average over 25 points and eight rebounds, adding something like two blocks and four assists per game. Unlike players like Nate Wolters and Dominique Morrison, Young is about as well-rounded as a player can be in college. He can score from the perimeter, slash to the hoop, battle in the paint, find an open teammate, and his speed and length are difficult to match. The only player I see guarding him well is Dominique Morrison, but that is only because Morrison's teammates are able to shut down the rest of the Jaguars well enough to force Alex to do what he can to win alone, one of Young's only faults. Keeping turnovers to a minimum will be absolutely key for Alex, and if he can do that his confidence will quickly grow. Alex Young "in the zone" is one of the scariest things any opponent can see, something Ohio State found out the hard way in Columbus last season.
Stay tuned throughout the men's basketball season for weekly power ranking updates, as well as the "Student On Sports Player of the Week" award.