Has anyone been so loved since Forrest Gump?
Aside from a lazy comparison by ESPN’s Seth Greenberg to being a “poor man’s Jimmer Fredette,” Nate Wolters had Matt Nortlander applying the lipstick and the love of nearly every other name on the national college basketball scene within the Twitterverse Tuesday night.
It’s easy to forget that in the lore of last season, where Scott Nagy’s team went and upset Washington and then ran the table in Sioux Falls, Wolters was still on the fringes of the national consciousness, only getting scattered respect heading into their eventual loss to Baylor in the field of 64. The narrative of this year’s college basketball season is now a well-known one: Every top contender has a dark passenger Dexter-style. For Louisville, it’s been an Russ Smith and his monopoly on Louisville’s offense. In Lawrence, point guard has been a love-hate relationship, though more love lately. Gonzaga swept St. Mary’s within its conference, but hasn’t dominated top competition like a top team in year’s past. It’s easy to see why, with the right matchup, they may be much trendier as an upset pick next Sunday and beyond.
While it was a great day to be wearing blue and yellow – both South Dakota State’s men’s and women’s teams are dancing – no one else will be happy leaving the Falls. Oakland has built high expectations for itself with multiple NCAA births recently, so a quarterfinal exit was bound to be disappointing. Already without Terell Parks, losing Ceola Clark III meant Western Illinois finished its semifinal loss to North Dakota State without its three best players (Obi Emegano) from last year’s Summit League Championship game.
And it was NDSU that avoided a similar fate. Head coach Saul Phillips said when Taylor Braun injured his foot he believed it could be an injury of the season-ending variety. No doubt Bison fans will be will be disappointed by falling short, but this is a nucleus that has been feared ever since point guard Lawrence Alexander was confirmed to be worthy of mentioning in the upper echelon of the league’s floor leaders. It returns in its current form for next season, where you’d have to assume Phillips’ team is to be the favorite, no?
No matter how things look with hindsight, Oakland was included in a four-team tier of potential squads that could cut the nets down in Sioux Falls Arena this season. Despite the misfortunes against Fort Wayne to conclude this year’s campaign, Oakland will be firmly entrenched in the field of favorites when March of next year comes knocking. All major contributors but small forward and glue guy Drew Valentine return. Losing great programs to higher-profile leagues has been a trend since the Mid-Continent days, but next year sees the league add Denver, a team that just clinched a share of the Western Athletic Conference regular-season championship. They lose just one senior, 6-foot-5 guard Chase Hallam (10 ppg) and boast a balanced group of scorers. Nebraska-Omaha (my personal favorite for sleeper next season) and South Dakota graduate just a combined three seniors, and that’s not to speak of Western Illinois or South Dakota State.
Assuming no one jumps ship – that would be foolish to do considering teams ditch their current leagues these days faster than Taylor Swift can write songs about ex-boyfriends – what this all means is the Summit League should wield a favorable handful of teams again next season. Perhaps it never becomes the Atlantic 10, a league where not just the top layer are delectable to the nation’s pundits or the RPI, but the landscape seems rich for another great season, doesn’t it?
A few other parting thoughts:
- I believe it was mentioned at some point on a broadcast this week, but there’s a good chance Oakland guard Travis Bader surpasses J.J. Redick next season as the all-time leading 3-point shooter in NCAA D-I. Considering OU’s style, it’s not hard to see why guys like Reggie Hamilton and Jonathan Jones have had eye-popping numbers. There was another pretty good 3-pointer assassin named Erik Kangas for the Golden Grizzlies not long ago, but another off-season should mean a stronger and more versatile Bader on offense. It’s hard to imagine anyone else outscoring him with Wolters and Gaines both gone.
- That aside, if anyone has the potential to get buckets for another team like Bader, it could be UNO guard Justin Simmons. Still raw, but it’s hard not to be impressed by his athleticism. Simmons had 11 20-point outings this season, and I think next year he plays smarter and gets harder to stop.
- As good as television coverage of the tournament gets, there’s always a bugaboo that plagues the exposure. It was far less egregious this year – a bungled graphic on ESPN listing the starting lineups had Taylor Braun as a freshman was one – but it would be nice to see things go smoothly. On the other hand, Midco Sports Network did a nice job otherwise. Smart questions were asked by sideline reporters, and hey, someone knew that SDSU wasn’t San Diego State, so that’s a plus. Here’s hoping were past those days, but in all seriousness, the coverage was enjoyable.
- Time to make the yearly shout out to all the fans who supported the women’s sessions. Though I’m worried how filled the stands might be without a home team judging by the emptiness of Monday evening’s men’s tilt lacking an SDSU team (we’ll forgive the fans based on the extinction of offense), that hasn’t been the case and the record-setting attendance numbers have continued. As for the static location of Sioux Falls as the host, don’t be fooled: The home-court advantage matters. Moving the tournament around would be infinitely better in the aspect of fairness to non-Dakota schools. But it’s a great town with great hosts, which makes it awful hard to complain otherwise. I’d challenge fans to travel if at all possible, make the trek, then weigh an opinion.
Thanks to all the media, players, and coaches who made it another memorable conference season. Let the real run begin.