By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FARGO, ND. — In years past, the Summit League basketball conference has been seen as a “gateway conference” to better places in Division-I hoops.
The University of Akron, for example, was a member for two years from 1990-92 before establishing its current home in the Mid-American Conference.
It’s a similar story for the University at Buffalo, Central Connecticut State, Northern Illinois, Troy, Wright State, Youngstown State, and a dozen other notables that have since used the Summit as a stepping stone into the greater basketball world.
Conference member Oral Roberts is performing this routine currently, bound as they are for the Southland Conference after this season following a 14-year stint with the Summit.
That the conference continually looks to add transitioning teams like North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota, and now Nebraska-Omaha only affirms this “transitory” status, yet for all these signs pointing to a conference that should just be happy to be included, the Summit has asserted itself as one of the top-performing mid-major conferences in the country in 2011-12.
Starting with the early non-conference season, a handful of teams have struck into the higher echelons of the nation’s teams to score some very eye-catching victories, starting with ORU’s stunning resume of wins over Texas Tech, #8 Xavier, and Missouri State.
Two-time defending league champion Oakland notched a win over Tennessee for the second year in a row.
South Dakota State claimed a 19-point drubbing of Washington, and North Dakota State slammed Fresno State early in the season.
All the while, those four teams are beginning to establish themselves as the top half of the Summit, in addition to a surprising Western Illinois team. Those four also went 29-17 in non-conference play, helping to jettison the Summit to the #12-spot in the national RPI rankings by conference.
In addition, ORU, NDSU, and SDSU are sittting in the top-120 in the national RPI by team, and things are looking up for the little conference that could.
A number of star players have brought their teams to this level so far. As the conference currently sits, three players have begun to set themselves apart as the legitimate contenders for the Conference Player of the Year Award. Those players are SDSU guard Nate Wolters (currently averaging 21.1 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game), Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton (23.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game), and current odds-on favorite Oral Roberts forward Dominique Morrison (20.3 points, 1.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds per game).
Those three players, along with Indiana-University Purdue-University at Indianapolis (or IUPUI, as it’s known in the league) guard Alex Young, who averages 19.2 points per game over his last three seasons, make up what could be a viable pool of future NBA players to come from the Summit.
The conference race itself has been an interesting one, as a few new players have risen to join the ranks of the “top brass” of the conference that has been Oakland, Oral Roberts, and IUPUI for the last two years. North Dakota State has utilized a starting lineup of four sophomores and a freshman to reach 6-3 in conference play so far, and South Dakota State has gotten behind Wolters’ stunning play to sit a game behind league-leading ORU at 8-1. Western Illinois has also been something of a surprise, as freshman guard Obi Emegano has lead the team in scoring for most of the season and has received accolades nationally as a legitimate Freshman of the Year candidate.
Of all this accomplishment so far this season, Oral Roberts was the preseason favorite to win the conference title and advance to the NCAA tournament in March. While that remains accurate, as the Golden Eagles are currently 10-0 in conference play, the final conference tournament in late February, held annually in Sioux Falls, S.D., is a place where anything can happen, and those top five schools have shown that they will be ready to compete in March.