The Summit League became that place. Now, the major question becomes whether Denver has landed in the warm tropical waters of a conference where it can immediately earn its first-ever NCAA tournament bid or the cold arctic seas of also-ran status.
TBI will give you a small hint before the jump: the water's a bit chilly, but the Pioneers have built themselves one totally diesel raft.
More on the Pioneers' future--and the rest of their new leaguemates'--after the jump.
(All stats and rankings per StatSheet.com unless otherwise noted.)
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. North Dakota State
--The Bison return nine of the top 10 rotation players from a team that ranked a solid 73rd in last season's final Back Iron Index. While its tempo (61.4 poss/40) won't get anyone's heart rate up, NDSU plays a solid, efficient brand of ball that will make purists swoon at times this season.
All-conference selections Marshall Bjorklund, Taylor Braun and Lawrence Alexander return, but each will need to improve certain areas to hold off a hard-charging Denver outfit. Braun took a step back as a shooter in his junior year of eligibility, but part of that stemmed from a late slump as he returned from a broken bone in his foot. Still, he fell two boards short of a trip-dub against Western Michigan in a CBI first-round loss. Bjorklund was strong on the offensive glass (11.9%), but at 6'8" and 250, he should be hard enough to move that his 15.5% on the defensive end takes an uptick. (Yep, we're nitpicking. Just go with it.)
For Alexander, two words: shot selection. He took the second-most shots on the roster, and his three-point attempts ballooned as his free throw rate declined. There should be no reason the point guard takes more shots than Braun or Bjorklund, especially if said PG is going to be the only man on the roster with an eFG% below 50.
Senior forward TrayVonn Wright can guard nearly any position on the court defensively, but could be one of the Summit's top scorers if he diversified a bit more on offense. He sank 55% of his 2P shots, but almost half of his overall attempts were threes. He was also an 88% foul shooter, but took only 32 attempts. Sophomore swingman Kory Brown does just about everything except score.
The bench has shooting, with career 40% three-point sniper Mike Felt. There's size in senior Jordan Aaberg and redshirt freshman Dexter Werner. There's even the next versatile Summit League stud in true frosh A.J. Jacobson. The 6'6" Fargo product put up a sick 26/13/5/3/3 line as a senior, but coach Saul Phillips would love to be able to redshirt him.
--Had forward Royce O'Neale not transferred to Baylor, DU would be the pick in its new league this season. Coach Joe Scott's patient offense (60 poss/40, second-slowest in the nation) is like ND State's taken to the nth degree. The Pioneers take good shots (4th nationally in eFG%), move the ball around (69.8 team A%, second in the nation) and avoid turnovers (opponents' S% 16th-lowest in the country). In a nutshell, they don't beat themselves, and that's why they ranked 59th in the BII last season--only seven spots out of the Bracketometry tournament.
Forward Chris Udofia wants to rack up his third straight all-conference selection, and he'd likely be the first player in history to do it in three different leagues. His all-around game (13.3/4.5/3.3/1.5/2.3 last season) would give the mainstream analysts a collective chubby if he scored more points (see Wolters, Nate). As it is, this may as well be his theme song...
DU lives and dies by the three, and may miss departed 39% gunner Chase Hallam. Or, Scott may get more solid shooting from Brett Olson (43%), Jalen Love (37%) and Nate Engesser (41%) and not look back for a moment. At 6'5", Olson has superb size to take opposing guards to the rack and a 95% FT stroke to make them pay for a hack, but so far hasn't taken that tack. (Okay, leaving the rhyming to the pros now.)
Junior Cam Griffin finished second in the WAC (to Hallam) with a 4.5 S%. He'll ignite the break with a few thefts. (Seriously, it needs to be underscored. The fact that that tempo contains a handful of quick layups from a 15.0 team S% tells us exactly how patient that offense is in the halfcourt. It takes a hoop education to appreciate that attack, while Joe Casual Fan will flip the channel after three minutes. His loss.)
Xavier transfer Griffin McKenzie will lead Denver's contingent of big men, none of whom have a ton of game experience. McKenzie played 2.5 MPG over two seasons, sophomore Marcus Byrd played 8.2 MPG last year, Croatian sophomore Dom Samac played 20 minutes total and a pair of freshmen also join the mix.
DU's big weakness was on the glass, where it ranked fourth from the bottom in TR% and second-lowest in OR%. While the misses aren't common, they do come and someone needs to fight for a few extra possessions. Even a 27-28 OR% would make DU that much more likely to contend for that first NCAA bid.
3. South Dakota State
--The Jackrabbits won 71 games over the past three seasons, led by star point guard Nate Wolters. Now that he's gone, is there anyone for the analysts to get the vapors over? (Really, sometimes Matt Norlander's man-crush got a bit awkward the past two seasons.)
While there's no 25-PPG man on the new roster, don't be surprised if coach Scott Nagy has three guys dropping 12-15 every night. Seniors Jordan Dykstra, Brayden Carlson and Chad White have spent their whole careers playing Maroon 5 to Nate the Great's Adam Levine. (Seriously, name another dude in that group without using Google.) The trio combined for 31 points and almost 16 rebounds last season, so don't think they can't play. Any of the bunch can become an all-league performer, and the 6'8", 235-pound Dykstra could be a POY dark horse if he can perform up to his size inside.
Junior Cody Larson, a transfer from Florida, is eligible and could immediately lead the team in rebounding if he finds enough minutes and stays out of trouble.
The key position is the point, where Carlson can find occasional minutes if 6'4" sophomore Jake Bittle can't handle the role. Having to guard Wolters in practice every day had to either make Bittle a vicious defender or reduce him to a quivering puddle of jelly. If it was the latter, Nagy wouldn't still be talking about starting him.
Freshmen Anders Broman and Lane Severyn could see some backcourt time. Broman dropped 5K in his high school career, averaging 40 per game in each of his last two seasons. Severyn is 6'5"/200 and can provide some tremendous versatility from the wing.
4. South Dakota
--Beyond that top three, Summit League projections are best done with a dartboard. South Dakota's largest issues last season centered around perimeter defense, as the Coyotes ranked in the bottom 40 nationally in opponent 3P% and 10th from last in oTO%. The hope is that a little more size in the backcourt can help those lines, as well as a bottom-10 OR%.
North Texas transfer Trey Norris (6'0", 170) won't help size-wise, but he should be an active PG. His speed will let new coach Joey James unleash the hounds in transition. 6'1" returnees Brandon Bos and Casey Kasperbauer provide shooting, as both were around 42% from the arc. The perimeter size comes from 6'5" Utah State transfer Adam Thoseby and 6'3" juco Tyler Larson. Larson can play multiple positions, including the point if needed, and Thoseby is a solid athlete who chose to spend much of his time camped out for threes.
The boss up front is 6'10" senior Trevor Gruis, and he needs to play as such to drag the Yotes this far up the table. He's barely improved since a strong freshman season, and has even regressed on the glass. The Coyotes need all the steel they can get in the rebounding game, especially pulling extra possessions on the offensive end. Sophomore Tyler Flack led the team in blocks and pulled better rebounding percentages than Gruis, so look for him to get substantial caddy minutes. Senior Karim Rowson can be another solid rebounder and make the occasional big play on defense.
5. Western Illinois
--The Leathernecks lose two All-Summit performers, but coming off 40 wins in the past two seasons, life is still okay in Macomb. Starting forward Adam Link and part-time guard Remy Roberts-Burnett return, along with reserve center Michael Ochereobia. All three need to play major roles for WIU to contend.
Departed stars Terell Parks and Ceola Clark were already gone when WIU tipped off against Purdue in the CBI, leaving Roberts-Burnett and Ochereobia to pick up the slack. Both responded well, combining for 27 points, five rebounds, five assists and no turnovers. Roberts-Burnett does a little bit of everything well except hit his threes. Ochereobia crunched glass to the tune of 12.5/25.7 splits last season. Link should fill Parks' role as top scorer after putting up 9.9 per game in his first year after a juco transfer.
WIU's deliberate offense has been the butt of jokes, occasionally from its own coach. Jim Molinari, however, is beginning to make some noise about moving faster with sophomore Jordan Foster or freshman Jabari Sandifer in charge. Foster struggled as both a shooter and a playmaker last season, but being a true point guard was still alien to him. Sandifer has no such problems, but Foster may still clinch the starting spot with aggressive defense.
Jucos Tate Stensgaard and Mohamed Conde should be the candidates to play alongside Link and Ochereobia up front. Sophomore guard Jason Hawthorne provides a needed shooter off the bench.
--Lose a 20-PPG scorer at Kentucky or Kansas and you recruit two or three more. Lose one at Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne and you hold a wake. The Mastodons won't have any one man on the roster who can replace all-time scoring leader Frank Gaines, but a group effort could make them at least competitive.
Forward Luis Jacobo, a 52% effective shooter in his first year after a juco transfer, should inherit the scoring load. He cracked double figures in eight of his final 11 games. He should get some support from sophomore swingman Joe Edwards, who scored at least seven points in 17 of Fort Wayne's 20 games after Christmas. He was a 56% effective shooter.
Point guard candidates Pierre Bland and Isaiah McCray may frequently play together. Bland is a bit more secure with the ball, while McCray tries harder to make the big play on either end. Guard Kevin Harden is still fighting his way back from a torn ACL suffered last season against Notre Dame. He was averaging six points and five boards per game before the injury, and he'll provide some grit on the wing if healthy.
Senior forward Mike Kibiloski provides some shooting (36% from deep), while sophomore Joe Reed needs to prove he can do the same (71% of his shots at the rim). Buffet-crushers Steve Forbes (300 pounds) and Brent Calhoun (280) should provide a lot of bulk on the glass. Calhoun's a rim protector, while Forbes is better known for his offense.
--UNO's offense proved able to compete, but its defense was regularly crushed like a styrofoam cup under a truck tire. Five of the top six scorers return, so coach Derrin Hansen may need to up the ante to get the defensive message through.
Senior guard Justin Simmons is the league's top returning scorer after carding a 55% true shooting mark last year, but he's taking more interest in cutting down his 19.2 TO%. His fellow guards C.J. Carter, Alex Phillips, Marcus Tyus and Caleb Steffensmeier combined for about 27 points, 10 boards and seven assists per game, all carding eFG%'s better than 48. As a group, this is a very solid offensive backcourt.
Again, though, who plays defense? The Mavericks averaged 250 threes, 10th-most in America, and a 39% success rate that ranked similarly. Redshirt freshman Jalen Bradley, a two-time Nebraska state scoring champion, could see some time if he can become a defensive pest.
Lest we think the frontcourt escapes blame, rebounding was also weak. Both ends ranked near the bottom 10 nationally. Senior forward Matt Hagerbaumer (9.6/20.6) was the only Mav to record decent rebounding splits. He should start next to 12-PPG center John Karhoff. Look for juco forward Mike Rostampour to fight tooth and nail for boards whenever he's on the court, but foul trouble may follow him around, too.
--The Jaguars were every bit as bad as Omaha defensively, minus the competitive offense. Injuries took a major bite, but can IUPUI compete even with everyone back?
Guard Ian Chiles was an all-conference player two years ago, but foot injuries crushed him last season. He should be much closer to the 52% effective shooter of 2011-12 than the 29% shooter of last year. 6'5" sophomore Marcellus Barksdale can play four positions, and may even see time at the point. Redshirt freshman Cortell Busby, a lockdown defender, should have something to say about that PG spot, however.
Among guys who actually played last season, either one of forwards Mitchell Patton and Donovan Gibbs could push for all-conference honors. Asking for both is just greedy, Jag fans. Patton converted 58% from the floor as a junior, mostly in the paint. Gibbs can step out past the arc on occasion, but makes most of his bones in the mid-range.
More outside shooting may come from senior P.J. Hubert (40% career from deep) and Milwaukee transfer Ja'Rob McCallum (37% career). Coach Todd Howard is banking on juco transfer Khufu Najee to force some turnovers and freshmen Josh James and Justus Stanback to help on the glass.
|Dude, seriously, he looks hungry.|
Denver: Nov. 17 vs. Stanford
--The Cardinal have a size advantage, but DU has the altitude. Potential resume game for the Pioneers.
IPFW: Dec. 29 vs. Eastern Kentucky
--EKU is the team to beat in the OVC this season. Yes, the Hairy Prehistoric Elephants play at Illinois, but control the optimism. EKU = much more realistic win.
IUPUI: Dec. 14 at Marquette
--Fox Sports 1 in the house. Enjoy Wisconsin in December, lads. And try not to get eaten alive by Davante Gardner.
Nebraska-Omaha: Nov. 10 at Iowa
--Only nationally televised game announced thus far. It's either this or a trip to Vegas.
North Dakota State: Dec. 14 at Ohio State
--Bjorklund should be able to make Amir "No, Seriously, I Was a McDonald's All-American...Hey, Why Are You Guys Laughing?" Williams look sorry, but will Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott do the same to Alexander?
South Dakota: Dec. 14 vs. Green Bay
--Trevor Gruis vs. Alec Brown makes a good battle of the cattle.
South Dakota State: Dec. 14 vs. Belmont
--Two mid-major darlings who have to reconfigure following major departures. Should give us a good indication of where both are at.
Western Illinois: Nov. 12 at Nebraska
--This schedule is a bit of a yawnfest, aside from tournaments in El Paso and Logan, Utah. Maybe Nebraska fans will still be turnt up for their new arena.
|Occasionally, he becomes UFOdofia.|
ALL-SUMMIT FIRST TEAM:
Taylor Braun, ND State
Jordan Dykstra, SD State
Brett Olson, Denver
Justin Simmons, Nebraska-Omaha
Chris Udofia, Denver
ALL-SUMMIT SECOND TEAM:
Marshall Bjorklund, ND State
Trevor Gruis, South Dakota
Mitchell Patton, IUPUI
Chad White, SD State
TrayVonn Wright, ND State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Udofia, Denver
--If there's a man in this conference likely to bust a trip-dub on some fools' heads, it's Udofia.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Joey James, South Dakota
--Take over a team in September and don't slump to last place. Harder than it sounds.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Ja'Rob McCallum, IUPUI
--Most of the good teams have veterans returning. IUPUI also has veterans, but some of them are not good. Hence, McCallum gets hardware.