SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- It’s been a long time since North Dakota basketball fans have enjoyed a postseason tournament atmosphere.
Long gone are the days of the North Central Conference postseason tournament, the Division II North Central Regional and the Elite Eight. Those events were on the must-see list for many University of North Dakota men’s and women’s basketball fans for a number of years.
But in the Division I era of North Dakota basketball, Fighting Hawks fans have had to travel far and wide to see their team compete in the postseason. Their destinations -- for the few that did travel -- were Orem, Utah, Missoula, Mont., Weber State and Reno, Nev. On short notice, those trips were costly and difficult to make.
UND fans, however, now must get reacquainted with Sioux Falls -- a city on the move that has tapped into the synergy provided by the Summit League and a hotbed for basketball.
On Saturday, March 9, the Summit postseason tipped off at the Denny Sanford Premier Center -- a 12,000-seat arena that has basketball written all over it. It’s the perfect venue -- not too big, not too small and easily accessible on the north end of the city.
The tournament opener was the expected 88-50 hammer South Dakota State placed on Purdue Fort Wayne in a women’s quarterfinal. South Dakota did the same to North Dakota State, 74-51, in the second game as both South Dakota powers are on another collision course that will no doubt draw a full house for Tuesday’s title game.
The fact that the attendance for two lopsided games early in the tournament produced thousands of fans speaks volumes of what this tournament means to South Dakotans.
It’s the premier basketball event in the state and if North Dakota and the other six league members have aspirations of winning the Summit, they face an uphill battle.
The Summit tournament is booked in the Sanford Premier Center through 2022. And it would be surprising if it moves to another location after that.
Sioux Falls is centrally located in the Summit footprint. With the possibility of Sioux Falls-based Augustana joining the Summit in a year or two, the tournament’s foothold here will only grow stronger.
North Dakota basketball -- both the men’s and women’s programs -- have had their share of success since making the move to Division I. Both have reached the NCAA Tournament.
But there is a bigger challenge ahead for both programs. Somehow, they’ll have to win their way to the NCAA Tournament on anything but a neutral court.
The Summit tournament could be called the South Dakota Invitational.
For UND, however, that shouldn’t become a barrier.
It should become a point of emphasis that both the men’s and women’s programs at UND need to up their game. That’s a good thing.
UND has been in three leagues since moving to Division I in 2008 -- the Great West, the Big Sky Conference and now the Summit. That doesn’t provide a lot of continuity for the UND fan base. There were a few green-clad UND fans that made the trip to Sioux Falls -- those brave enough to take on the weekend winter storm and navigate their way through perhaps to worst stretch of I-29 that exits -- the 30-mile white-knuckle ride near Summit, S.D.
But the future for UND basketball and its fans will be better in the Summit League. The league is stable and if it grows to 10 members (Augustana, we’re waiting on your announcement) even better times are ahead.
It’s been roughly a decade since UND basketball had a connection with Sioux Falls and the old NCC days.
It’s good that the connection has been restored.