It’s finally here – Summit League conference play. This is Rodney Billups’ first year at the helm for Denver and he has a solid staff with veteran assistants Ricardo Patton and Steve Snell along with young gun Dan Ficke. The remainder of the season is bound to be an exciting conference fight with good balance across the league – with the exception of Fort Wayne, which appears to be a level above the rest of the conference members.
The good news is the Pios can beat every team in the conference. The bad news? Nearly every team can also beat DU (8-5).
The Summit League
The Summit hasn’t enjoyed as much non-conference success as it did last season and at the moment, the conference ranks 17th out of 32 according to CBS Sports Real Time RPI.
As of December 26th, Summit League teams have played 23 games against power conferences/independents and have won only won two of those games. They were also blasted by an average of 19.2 points. Outside of a dominant Fort Wayne program, the conference’s teams are playing at the same level heading into conference play. However, DU is on a nice 5-game winning streak heading into their conference season opener against Oral Roberts on December 28th at 7:00 PM MT at Magness Arena. So this year, it’s difficult to confidently predict league finishes, especially slots 2 thru 6, in the 9-team conference.
The Summit League will likely only be a 1-bid league this year.
The Pioneers – 5 Big Questions
- How much more improvement can Billups get out of this squad? With only one senior (walk-on Josiah Dunn) and a host of Joe Scott’s carry-over ‘Princeton players’ can Billups continue the team’s improvement during league play? He says there is a big upside with this year’s squad – is he right?
- Can a freshman or two emerge and make a consistent impact during league play, either as a starter or off the bench? Jake Krafka and Ade Murkey have shown flashes over the course of the nonconference portion of the schedule but can they become every-game impact players in their first year?
- Can Joe Rosga get the right amount of minutes per game (currently 33.8 mpg.) so he can be fresh, healthy, and ready to go come the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.? He is playing the one spot and handling the ball along with scoring and defending – a lot to expect from the teams best player.
- Can a greatly improved Daniel Amigo hold off many of the underrated big men in the Summit League and continue to improve?
- Can Denver start to establish a home-court advantage which will allow them to exceed expectations and finish higher in the league standings for better tournament seeding? This is one of Rodney Billups’ expressed goals…will it happen?
The Starting Core
Expect to see a starting five on most nights to include Daniel Amigo, Joe Rosga, Thomas Neff, Jake Pemberton, and C.J. Bobbitt.
Expect Abiola Akintola and freshman Jake Krafka to be coming in relief at forward and Christian Mackey to back up Amigo. Look for Duke Douglas, Bradley George, and freshman Ade Murkey to spell the starting guards. The Pioneers have been playing 11-deep throughout nonconference play so we will look to see if they shorten the rotation in league play.
Don’t be surprised to see either Murkey or Krafka even start some games as the season progresses. Both players are gaining increased playing time in nonconference play and that just might continue.
Billups keeps emphasizing that the current squad has significant room for improvement – and they have continued to improve – albeit against some weak programs. Rebounding has been the team’s greatest area for improvement with a +3.9 rpg. advantage after being one of the worst rebounding teams in the country last season.
But turnovers have proven to be their Achilles heel with 43 more turnovers than their opponents in pre-conference play. This is one stat that must improve during Summit League play when games will be much tighter, especially on the road.
The Summit League Finish
Based on nonconference play, this is how I predict the Summit will finish:
#1. Fort Wayne (#92 RPI) is the class of the league. They are 10-3 with a signature win in OT vs. Indiana 71-68 in Fort Wayne. They are leading the league in scoring with 88.8 ppg. with an average winning margin of 14.6 points per game. Denver will get a taste of the Mastadons on February 4th in Denver. Mark your calendar now for that game. So far, Fort Wayne is the class of the conference.
#2. North Dakota State (#148) has a solid 8-4 record. They took down rival North Dakota in Grand Forks in a home-and-away series. The Bison are winning by an average of 5.9 points per game. Their scoring is balanced with sharp-shooting 6’5″ guard Paul Miller scoring 12.6 points per game. Miller led the team in scoring, 15.3 ppg., as a sophomore.
#3. Omaha (#88) is 7-6 and defeated Iowa in Iowa City and led USC at the half before falling on the road. They score lots of points, 82.5 ppg., but their defense gives up a lot of points – 83.9. The Mavs have four double-digit scorers with Tre-Shawn Thurman’s 14.3 ppg. leading the pack. They play fast and create havoc – but are historically inconsistent. DU knocked them out of the conference tournament last season so there may be a little bit of revenge when the Pioneers travel to Omaha January 18th. Is this the year the Mavericks hold it together for the season and contend for a regular season title?
#4 IUPUI (#188) is 2-8. The Jaguars played Illinois close and led at the half before falling 85-77. They score 73.6 and have a -6.6 scoring margin on their opponents. Darrell Combs, a redshirt transfer guard from Eastern Michigan, scores 16.9 ppg and is the leader on the floor for the Jags. They are young like the Pioneers with 6 freshmen and 5 sophomores. While they are rebuilding, they have a fertile recruiting area – 13 of their current players are from Indiana.
#5 Denver (#186) is 8-5 and playing in a new system. The Pioneers are scoring 72.4 ppg. with a +2.8 margin. They seem to be playing better recently, a 5 game winning streak, and have shown the ability to win on the road. If they can hold their home court and split on the road, the Pioneers could surprise. Joe Rosga is the scoring leader with 15.2 ppg. but Daniel Amigo is the big surprise with 14.2 ppg. and 7.6 rebounds per game. Who wants to see how he does against Mike Daum from SDSU, the conference’s super big man?
#6. South Dakota State (#260) is 7-8 and undefeated at home (5-0). The Jackrabbits have no signature wins and are scoring 72.1 ppg. with a -3.2 scoring differential to their opponents. It basically is all-everything conference center Mike Daum (22.9 ppg., 8.1 rebounds) and everyone else. DU is a bit deeper and should slip by the Jackrabbits with both teams being led by new coaches. On January 25th, we will get to watch the Daum-Amigo showdown at Magness Arena. The Jackrabbits have a rich history and love their basketball. Will they play over their head in conference play? I don’t think so.
#7 South Dakota (#176) The Coyotes sit at 9-6 and 6-0 at home but they haven’t exactly played a tough schedule. They’re scoring 74.6 points per game with a +3.2 margin. They are getting balanced scoring with five players in double figures, led by Matt Mooney with 14.6 ppg. Wait a minute – we know him – he is a redshirt transfer from Air Force. The Coyotes are situated 1 hour from Sioux Falls, SD – the site of the Summit League Tournament, so they are always a threat – especially if they secure a high seed.
#8 Oral Roberts (#183) ORU is 3-10 with all their wins at home. No signature wins. They are scoring 69.7 with a -7.1 margin. They have no signature wins but came within 1 point of Creighton – all the Bluejays must have been playing left-handed. Albert Owens is their leading scorer with 14.0 ppg. joined by three other teammates in double figures. It must seem like a million years ago when the Golden Eagles went to the NCAA tournament twice (2005-2006).
#9 Western Illinois (#342) Western Illinois is 3-8. Poor Garret Covington. The skilled All-Summit League super-guard scores 19.1 ppg. and gets 4.5 rebounds with no support. The Leathernecks are scoring 68.0 ppg. and trail their opponents in scoring -.6 ppg. It is going to be a long season in Macomb, Illinois.
With a 16-game conference schedule, the Pioneers will probably go 9-7 and finish the regular season with a 17-12 overall record heading into the Summit League Tournament as a 5-seed. Then, it is up to the Pioneers from March 5th-8th when they can control their own destiny at the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.
In the Summit League, the Denver Pioneers, IPFW Mastodons, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, South Dakota Coyotes, and Western Illinois Leathernecks have never made the Division I NCAA Tournament. Look for Fort Wayne to break their streak and DU’s NCAA futility to continue. But DU will continue inching closer to a conference championship over the next few years.