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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 29 2012

Summit League has new look

FARGO – Summit League basketball teams open this week with exhibition games, including both the North Dakota State men and women. If the conference can come close to its power ranking of a year ago, call it a good season.

It won’t be easy with the departure of Oral Roberts to the Southland Conference. The Summit reached a men’s RPI rating of 11th out of 33 Division I leagues as late as mid-season. Five teams were invited to some sort of postseason tournament

The league also boasted its first NCAA individual scoring champion in Oakland’s Reggie Hamilton. Like ORU, Hamilton has moved on.

“When you take a team that did what they did and lose them, their RPI, absolutely that is a gut shot to your league,” said Oakland men’s head coach Greg Kampe. “Maybe people don’t want to hear that but it’s true.”

Kampe likens it to the time Valparaiso left the conference after the 2007 season, still soaking with memories of it reaching the NCAA Sweet 16. The league immediately expanded with NDSU and South Dakota State, and the Summit did rebound.

It will be difficult to match last year’s success this season, with the University of South Dakota still new to Division I and building its program. Nebraska-Omaha is the league newcomer, but the Mavericks are just in the beginning stages of their Division I transition and won’t be tournament eligible until 2015-16.

“Give Omaha time,” said NDSU head men’s coach Saul Phillips. “Given their location and resources, they’re going to be very, very good.”

The Bison host an exhibition doubleheader Thursday with the Minnesota-Crookston women at 5 p.m. and the Concordia men at 7 p.m. at the Bison Sports Arena. The Bison men return a veteran team led by junior forward Taylor Braun, an all-Summit preseason first team pick. Guard Lawrence Alexander and center Marshall Bjorklund were second team selections.

The Bison women have their guard tandem back in Katie Birkel and Jamie Van Kirk, who both suffered knee injuries last season. Birkel was a first team Summit preseason selection and center Janae Burich a second team pick.

“The first thing is we need to stay healthy,” said head coach Carolyn DeHoff.

SDSU has dominated the Summit’s women’s division, winning the NCAA automatic bid every year it’s been tourney eligible, which is four straight.

The Jackrabbit men earned their first NCAA berth last year and are favored for the repeat, especially with senior guard and scoring leader Nate Wolters.

“This is probably the most veteran team I’ve coached,” said head coach Scott Nagy. “It will be interesting to see how our team handles the pressure.”

Phillips said the departure of ORU opens a spot for a league “power position.”

“In the short term, yeah, I see a little bit of a void,” he said. “Oral Roberts brought a lot but they’re gone and it’s time to turn the page.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia