December 1, 2011
As we anxiously await the tipoff of the 2011-2012 Summit League hoops season, I'm somehow always reminded how this is the last season I will write about this amazing conference. I've enjoyed each team that has come into the Centrum Arena and am sad to see that go as SUU embarks into a new adventure into the Big Sky Conference.
The Summit League won't be the same next season — as Oral Roberts departs from the Summit League as well and Nebraska-Omaho takes SUU's spot in the conference. One thing's for sure, it will be different.
However, that's something to fuss about in July, but for now it's the perfect time to crack up an ice-cold adult beverage (or hot chocolate since it's snowing in Utah already) and enjoy what should be a crazy and wild season in the conference.
Currently two league teams find themselves in the Mid-Major Top 25 and Oakland — one of those two teams — is coming off a big 89-82 victory over Tennessee Monday night. In addition two other teams are receiving votes in the poll and the competition is stiff for the Summit League, which is currently No. 14 in the RPI ratings.
With that, it's time for me to release the Top 10 Summit League players to watch this season as we shift into that wonderful conference schedule time.
1. Nate Wolters, G, South Dakota State
I don't really have to say much here.
To me, this is a no-brainer and that's not easy in such a talented conference. Wolters broke out as a sophomore last season as a prolific threat offensively for a Jackrabbit team that turned nearly every game into a shootout. That's why I started dubbing him "Mid-Major Jimmer" last season.
Wolters has range and quickness — can drop 3's at any time, as well as penetrate the paint with ease. He's a 6-4 nightmare of a guard for any coach to guard. He enters conference play this season averaging a cool 20.4 points, 6.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game this season. This is after averaging 19.5 points all last season.
Wolters may not be the fastest player or best shooter in the league, but his awareness on the court makes him the most dangerous weapon anyone has in the Summit League.
2. Reggie Hamilton, G, Oakland
Hamilton has made the largest jump on my list from now since I did my league preseason vote nearly two months ago. He might be the best current pro prospect in the conference at the moment and is coming off an unreal 35-point performance in the Golden Grizzlies' win over Tennessee.
Last year Hamilton had the easiest job in the world, which was make sure Keith Benson was getting the ball, but now it's Reggie's team and he's taking advantage.
Hamilton has jumped in scoring from 17 points last season, to just a little under 21 points this season — largely because he's scored 69 points in his last two games. His assists have dropped to 3 per game, but that hasn't stopped his shooting.
Hamilton isn't as productive as a point guard as Wolters with an assist to turnover ratio at around a perfect 1:1, while Wolters is hovering around the 3:1 range. But Hamilton's speed makes him a big threat at any point; he's got 2.2 steals per game thus far in the this season.
What Hamilton needs to do in conference play is elevate his 26 percent 3-point shooting and those assist numbers and he'll become a strong contender for conference Player of the Year. Either way, he's one of the league's most electrifying players.
3. Alex Young, G/F, IUPUI
I think Alex Young is probably the best scorer in the Summit League right now. This 6-6 guard/forward combo can drop points on anybody guarding him — often scoring in bunches.
Young was picked Preseason Summit League Player of the Year and rightfully so because he's challenged former Oakland center Keith Benson the past two seasons for conference player of year bragging rights.
He's scoring 17.1 points per game heading into league play this season, which isn't far off his 19.7 point average last season.
However, Young's stock has dropped dramatically because he simply just doesn't play defense the best defense (as witnessed in the Nate Wolters video above) and he's been horribly inconsistent at times.
AY — as he's often referred to as — had four fouls before halftime in a game against Milwaukee, which was heavily watched by scouts. He ended up with just 5 points in a 62-49 loss to the Panthers that night. He also struggled in a loss to Ball State on Nov. 23, scoring 9 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
However, he's shown improvement lately, scoring 30 points in an uncontested win over Texas Southern, as well as 16 points and eight rebounds in a recent loss to Georgetown.
I'll give Young the definite benefit of the doubt heading into conference play because he has a history of putting up big numbers by then.
4. Dominique Morrison, F, Oral Roberts
Like Young, Morrison is a 6-6 pure scorer and a deadly threat with the ball.
Morrison has grown into a powerful threat, averaging 19.5 points a night for the Golden Eagles — doubling his points production during his junior year from his freshman year.
ORU has multiple threats in the conference, but none have quite the impact offensively as Morrison, who is shooting a robust 47 percent from the floor this season.
But what makes Morrison great is he puts up good rebounding numbers for a team that has threat extremely good rebounders on it. He averaged 5 rebounds last season and is at 4.2 rebounds per game right now.
But, one has to wonder if this is the peak of Morrison's growth. He put up 9 points as a freshman, 15 as a sophomore and 19 last season as a junior. Those numbers are good, but if ORU is going to finish first like projected, he might have to up his game further.
5. Frank Gaines, G, IPFW
IPFW is 2-2 after four games — a little less game play than the other conference teams — but Frank Gaines has put up some big numbers in those. Sure, we're talking about Nebraska-Omaha and Judson College for the wins and a thrashing from Xavier, but one thing has been the constant: Gaines will score.
Gaines is averaging 23 points thus far and has dropped at least 20 points in three of the Mastodons' four games.
He didn't shoot well in the loss against Xavier (22 percent), but is shooting 42 percent from the floor this year. He's even up to 35 percent shooting from downtown. If he can replicate his scoring numbers, he'll make a run for the league's top scoring threat this season.
But the question will remain, how much will IPFW compete this season? We'll see what happens for the Mastodons.
6. Marshall Bjorklund, F, North Dakota State
Now we're starting to get into the surprise Summit League party crashers, starting with 6-8, 230-pound Marshall Bjorkland, who is coming off a monster game in a win over Fresno State. The Bison haven't faced teams like Tennessee, Arkansas or West Virginia, like some of the other conference teams, but nevertheless NDSU is in the Mid-Major Top 25 at No. 24 and heads into conference play undefeated this season.
One reason for this is Bjorklund, who is coming off a solid freshman season.
The Arlington, Minn. native is averaging 13.3 points and 8 rebounds in 26 minutes for the Bison right now, but those numbers are anticipated to rise in conference play. Bjorklund has size, which is key in the Summit League and he's no slouch fending off guys a bit quicker than him.
NDSU fans have to be excited this guy just had a 27-point, 14-rebound performance at Fresno State, but more importantly, he's begun to trim his fouls per game and he doesn't turn the ball over much in the paint.
I truly believe this guy can be a force in the Summit League beginning this season.
7. Michael Craion, F, Oral Roberts
ORU's big loss last season is probably their biggest gain this season.
First, it gave the next guy on my list some experience (ooo foreshadowing) and, second, it allows Michael Craion to play for the Golden Eagles this season.
Craion has 12 points and eight rebounds per game thus far for the Golden Eagles, which could rise if he saw more touches coming off a big foot injury that took his 2010-2011 season away. But Craion, who isn't that tall at all, uses his wide body really well and it allows him to score and grab rebounds in the paint.
I anticipate he'll get more looks down the stretch, which will allow him to increase his scoring production — mainly because he's shooting 58 percent from the field right now.
8. Steven Roundtree, F, Oral Roberts
It really shows you how talented ORU is this season when I decide to put three players on its team in the Top 10 to watch throughout the Summit League, but that's how good the Golden Eagles can be.
Roundtree was last year's Newcomer of the Year and pretty much ran away with that title despite the general theory he wouldn't have seen that much time had Craion not gotten injured.
Roundtree is a legitimately good player too. He's averaging 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds right now to begin his sophomore season. Both of those stats are an improvement from last season and his turnovers are slightly down too. That's a definite positive start to ORU.
All this experience is great for ORU, too. It'll be Roundtree's team next year with Craion and Morrison graduating. That's probably a good thing for the other Summit schools because with ORU leaving, they won't have to deal with Roundtree anymore.
9. Ceola Clark, G, Western Illinois
Clark's not improving the average from his breakout sophomore season, but he's arguably the most important player in the conference.
Although he's only dropping 12 per game right now, WIU is 2-2 and threatened No. 15 Michigan in a 59-55 loss to the Wolverines — a game where Clark netted a team-high 21 points. Clark means the entire world to the Leathernecks, which is why I added him to this list.
When Clark went down last season to injury, WIU was a team that was threatening ranked teams. After the injury, the Leathernecks were so bad that they were the only team all year to lose to Centenary (a team preparing for Division III).
If Clark stays healthy, I believe WIU will be one of the teams in the tournament looking to upset the higher seeds. If he doesn't, the Leathernecks will likely watch the Summit League championships from their coach again.
10. Damon Heuir, G, Southern Utah
SUU hoops has gotten better this season — heading into conference play with a 4-3 record.
There's really no clear guy stepping up to be the big difference on the stat sheet, but Damon Heuir has the potential to drop 33 points down at any moment — like he did against Bryant.
I'm picking Heuir over Ray Jones, Matt Massey, Jackson Stevenett and Ramell Taylor, which might surprise some people.
But, what makes "Damo" really good isn't his mustache, it's his ability to head into the paint and he can shoot from the floor too. Those wondering why it's taken this long for Heuir to flourish, it's probably because he was made a point guard right away and he isn't that type of player.
Heuir's a straight up scorer at heart and the T-Bird coaches are finally giving him that roll. He's averaging 11.9 points, but that will surely rise as the season rolls on because nobody has shown they want to take the lead at SUU — except for Heuir in a few games.
I know there's a lot more players I left off this list and that's not a diss to anyone. There's just too much talent in the Summit League, which will keep things fun this season.
Honorable Mention: Reggie Chamberlain (UMKC), Charlie Westbrook (USD), Trey McCorkle (IPFW), Travis Bader (OAK), Christian Siakam (IUPUI), Michael Felt (NDSU), Ramell Taylor (SUU), Griffan Callahan (SDSU), Ray Jones (SUU), Corey Petros (OAK), Terell Parks (WIU), Jackson Stevenett (SUU), Matt Massey (SUU).