Nothing is likely to change at the top, as South Dakota State returns a veteran squad that hoisted the Summit League Tournament trophy last season, led by the league's best player, Nate Wolters.
It won't be a cake-walk for the Jackrabbits however, with three teams looking to dethrone the defending champs. Oakland may have lost the nation's leading scorer in Reggie Hamilton, but with four consecutive 20-win seasons it certainly has the pedigree to be in the hunt again. North Dakota State was underwhelming last season, but it returns several key pieces and seems set for a late-season run. Western Illinois may not be as deep as Oakland or NDSU, but it can ride stars Ceola Clark III and Terell Parks a long way.
IUPUI returns most of its players from last season, so an improvement upon a 7-11 league record isn't out of the question, but with the loss of Alex Young (20.4 ppg), it just doesn't have the talent to keep up with the league's best. Fort Wayne has been up and down over the past few years, and the new-look starting five could give it a burst of energy this time around.
South Dakota and UMKC were disappointing in 2011-12, and neither appears to have the personnel to make a serious run at the Summit title, although they will be far from pushovers. Omaha is in its first season as a full-time member of Division I and is expected to bring up the rear.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: South Dakota State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. South Dakota State, 2. Oakland, 3. North Dakota State, 4. Western Illinois, 5. IUPUI, 6. Fort Wayne, 7. South Dakota, 8. Kansas City, 9. Omaha
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE: The Jackrabbits put together one of the best seasons in school history in 2011-12, finishing 15-3 in the Summit League and 27-8 overall. Although they finished second in the conference standings during the regular season, they won the Summit League Tournament and advanced to their first-ever NCAA Tournament where they gave third-seeded Baylor a run for its money, losing 68-60. With head coach Scott Nagy returning eight players from last year's squad, including four starters, South Dakota State should have the goods to make another run this season. A preseason poll of Summit League coaches agrees, as the Jackrabbits received 30 of a possible 31 first-place votes. After being named the 2012 Summit League Tournament MVP, Nate Wolters (21.2 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.1 rpg) comes in as the preseason conference player of the year. He was just the fifth player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points, five assists, and five rebounds per game in a season. Also returning is Jordan Dykstra (11.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Chad White (10.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg), and Brayden Carlson (7.3 ppg), all of whom contribute more than a 3-pointer per game at better than 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc. One of five true freshman joining the team this season is 6-10 forward Connor Devine, who is the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Alaska.
OAKLAND: Greg Kampe is a legend on the Oakland campus, and during his 28 years as head coach of the Golden Grizzlies he has built the program into one of the most respected in the country. With a 20-16 record (11-7 Summit) in 2011-12, Kampe's squad eclipsed the 20-win mark for the fourth year in a row, while also going to the postseason for the fourth straight season by making a run to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament Final Four. The Grizzlies will need to overcome the loss of Reggie Hamilton, who at 26.2 ppg was the nation's leading scorer a season ago. Replacing all that production with one guy isn't likely, but Travis Bader will do his best as he tries to improve upon last year's scoring average of 15.9 ppg. He's also one of the nation's deadliest 3-point shooters, nailing 3.4 treys per contest. Three others return to the starting lineup for Oakland, as Drew Valentine (11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Corey Petro (8.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) make up one of the most imposing forward combinations in the league, and Ryan Bass (7.3 ppg) is a spark plug at the guard position despite lacking ideal size (5-9, 170). After being redshirted last year, 6-11 center Korab Imami hopes to make an impact in the frontcourt in his first season.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE: In Saul Phillip's five seasons as head coach of the Bison, they have been one of the Summit League's most consistent teams as they have racked up a 84-67 record in that time and represented the league in the NCAA Tournament in 2009. While the 2011-12 campaign was largely a success (17-14 overall), NDSU finished in a tie for fourth in the league with a disappointing 9-9 record, although the squad did earn a bid to the College Basketball Invitational at year's end. The Bison appear to be a solid bet to improve this season as it returns eight players, including four starters, three of whom were named to the Preseason All-Summit League team in Taylor Braun, Lawrence Alexander and Marshall Bjorklund. Braun was named First Team All-Conference a year ago after leading the team in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg). Alexander (12.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) was outstanding as a freshman, winning the league's Newcomer of the Year award, and Bjorklund (11.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) has a great combination of size and skill. TraVonn Wright is no slouch either, as he averaged 7.7 ppg while starting 23 games last season.
WESTERN ILLINOIS: The Leathernecks were one of the Summit League's most improved teams last year, making an incredible 11-game jump with its overall record -- 7-23 in 2010-11 to 18-15 in 2011-12. Jim Molinari's fourth year at the helm of WIU led it to a berth in the College Basketball Invitational tourney, which was the first Division I postseason appearance in program history. As the only team to have a pair of players named to the Preseason All-Summit League First Team, WIU has the potential to be even better this season. Ceola Clark III (13.3 ppg) led the team in scoring a year ago and was one of the best distributors in the league, handing out 4.7 apg. Entering his senior season, Terell Parks (11.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, .610 FG percentage) is perhaps the most polished big man in the conference. Jack Houpt (6.5 ppg) and Remy Roberts-Burnett (4.5 ppg) have experience, but no other returning player averaged more than three points per game last year. Of four incoming freshmen, John Schneider (6-7) appears most likely to garner immediate playing time considering his useful combination of size and shooting touch.
IUPUI: After winning 19 or more games in back-to-back seasons, the Jaguars were a disappointment in 2011-12, going just 7-11 in the Summit League and winning 14 games overall in Todd Howard's first season as head coach. They suffered a huge loss in the offseason with the graduation of one of the league's best players in Alex Young (20.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who finished his career fourth in Summit history in scoring with 2,286 points. Replacing Young's production will be no easy task, but the good news is that IUPUI has an experienced crew back this year with a total of 10 returnees. Ian Chiles averaged 10.5 ppg as a sophomore and he is expected to take over the role as the team's go-to guy. He has earned the respect of the coaches around the league, being named to the Preseason All-Summit Second Team. Sophomore Lyonell Gaines (6.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is expected to take on an increased workload as well. Headlining a batch of five newcomers is Purdue transfer John Hart, a 6-2 guard who appeared in 63 games for the Boilermakers over three seasons.
FORT WAYNE: Tony Jasick's first season as head coach of the Mastodons marked a step backward for the program. After finishing 18-12 in 2010-11, IPFW won just 11 of its 30 games a season ago, and posted a 5-13 record in conference play. This year's club boasts just one returning starter, but the turnover may be a good thing as only Trey McCorkle (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg) was an above-average contributor from last year's senior class. While the Mastodons will feature plenty of fresh faces in the starting lineup, they return their most important piece in 6-5 guard Frank Gaines (21.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who was named to the Preseason All-Summit League First Team. After playing significant roles off the bench last season, Justin Jordan (6.9 ppg), Mario Hines (7.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Michael Kibiloski (5.2 ppg) are all expected to make a jump to the starting lineup with the hope of sparking some life into a squad that played well under its potential last year.
SOUTH DAKOTA: The Coyotes were a dominant Division II squad for years before joining the higher ranks of competition for the 2008-09 season. After winning 18 games or more in one season as an Independent and two years as a member of the Great West Conference, South Dakota stumbled last season in its first year as a member of the Summit League, winning just 10 of 28 games while going 5-13 in conference play. Entering his 24th year as head coach, Dave Boots is certainly anticipating a big turnaround for his team, but he may not have the personnel to do so as leading scorers Charlie Westbrook (18.7 ppg) and Louie Krogman (16.8 ppg) have graduated. The top returning player for the Coyotes is 6-10 junior Trevor Gruis, who averaged 11.3 ppg while leading the team in rebounding (6.7 rpg) and field goal percentage (.528) in 2011-12. After serving as role players last season, Steve Tecker (5.6 ppg) and Jordan Boots (5.0 ppg) will need to step up in the backcourt to make up for the lost production of Westbrook and Krogman.
KANSAS CITY: The 2011-12 season was much of the same for a UMKC team that has won just 43 percent of its games since joining the Division I ranks back in 1987, finishing 10th in the league with a 4-14 record and winning just 10 of 31 games overall. Matt Brown enters his sixth season as the Kangaroos' head coach, and he is still looking for the team's first berth in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, this year isn't shaping up to be the team's year as the 'Roos will go into battle without former star Reggie Chamberlain (17.3 ppg). The good news for UMKC is that Chamberlain is the only starter missing from last season's squad, meaning if nothing else the team should retain some semblance of chemistry. Trinity Hall (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Thomas Hall (7.8 ppg) and Kirk Korver (7.6 ppg) bring plenty of scoring experience to the table, but all three will need to improve upon their outside shooting as none of them connected on more than 33 percent of their 3-point attempts. Estan Tyler (5.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) is also back after starting 20 games as a freshman.
OMAHA:The Mavericks make the switch from Division II's Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association to the Summit League full-time in 2011-12. Derrin Hansen's bunch had found success in the lower ranks of competition, winning conference championships in both 2008 and 2010, while winning more than 58 percent of their games over the past seven years, although the team went just 11-18 in last season's transitional campaign. Omaha brings with it plenty of experience to this new season however, as four of its five starters are back, including three players who averaged double figures in points in C.J. Carter (10.4 ppg), John Karhoff (12.9 ppg) and Alex Welhouse (10.4 ppg). As a freshman, Carter was impressive across the board, averaging 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg and 1.2 spg. Welhouse (6-7, 220) and Karhoff (6-8, 225) bring with them good size which will be helpful in matching up with more formidable opponents.