Summit League basketball adjusting schedules, working to improve status in national rankings
Conference pulling back on mirror scheduling but finding games still a big challenge for men's teams
SIOUX FALLS — Western Illinois' sudden departure to the Ohio Valley Conference will affect the Summit League in multiple ways, but for basketball — men's basketball in particular — it was kind of a kick in the pants on the way out the door.
"The timing sucks," said SDSU coach Eric Henderson. "To have to be able to find two more games at this time of year is really challenging."
Echoed USD coach Eric Peterson: "We may not end up playing all the games. I understand (WIU) leaving, but it's bad timing for us."
The women's teams have to find two more games, too, and those coaches may not be thrilled about having to find new opponents, either. But men's teams in the Summit League and other mid-major conferences have found it harder and harder to schedule non-conference opponents.
That's the bad news. The good news is the league is backing away from the 'mirror scheduling' format it's been using for the last few seasons, in which the same schools have their men's and women's teams play each other on the same day in opposite locations (i.e. - SDSU's men travel to Vermillion when their women host USD in Brookings, etc.).
More on that and the future of Summit League basketball:
Summit League men's and women's basketball coaches were in Sioux Falls last week for annual meetings, and commissioner Josh Fenton said scheduling was a primary discussion, both in light of WIU's departure and what to do about conference scheduling. The mirror format has been seen in some corners as a logistically smooth way to put together a schedule and staff home events. But other schools, and in particular the ones in the Dakotas who had a history of playing men's and women's double headers in their Division II era, opposed mirror scheduling.
Those schools don't necessarily want to go to only double headers for league games, however, so the league is looking at models that can potentially keep everyone relatively happy.
"There's a little bit that still remains to be seen but I think you'll see a hybrid-ish aspect to it," Fenton said. "I don't know that it would go away in total, but we did talk about it separate from the news about (WIU). Some people appreciate (mirror scheduling) and some would like to see us do something different. If you're a coach or an administrator you might have a different opinion. Sometimes you even have a difference of opinion within the same school. That makes things challenging."
That would likely mean more double headers in South Dakota, though the rivalry games between USD and SDSU might still be held on separate days to maximize ticket revenue. Double headers are easier for TV and radio broadcasts, and Henderson even joked that with beer sales now allowed at games, fans could be nice and rowdy by the second half of a men's game.
"A few more double headers, to me, would be a good thing," Henderson said. "We're fortunate to be at a school where people support the women's program just as much as our men. For them to be able to have a few weekends where they can be at Frost Arena for a whole day of basketball is exciting."
The Summit League tournament format has not yet been decided, though Fenton said he anticipates keeping all nine teams in the fold.
Non-con men's games still a challenge
To illustrate the difference in the difficulty of scheduling men's and women's non-conference games one need only glance at the South Dakota schools. In recent years, women's teams from Oklahoma, Creighton, Mississippi State, Kansas State, Wichita State, Gonzaga, Iowa State and Missouri, to name a few, have visited SDSU, USD or both.
What's the best men's team to visit Brookings or Vermillion? Florida Gulf Coast? Summit League teams can't even get a Missouri Valley football rival like Northern Iowa or Missouri State to come to South Dakota. That makes the Western Illinois thing even more impactful, but Peterson and Henderson both note that filling those dates wasn't getting any easier before the Leathernecks left. The Summit League and Big Sky have expanded their agreement to play more games against each other, and that arrangement has been imperative for the Summit, as it ensures at least something for home non-conference.
"It's challenging every year," Peterson said. "It's been a little easier for us based on this past year (USD went 12-19) but scheduling has changed a little bit. I think the higher levels, those leagues are going after a 3-year NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool ranking) or 5-year NET and trying to put together a formula to make the NCAA tournament if they don't win their league. When I was at Utah State we were always trying to fill out a schedule to give us a chance to make the NCAA tournament if we didn't win our conference tournament.
"There's more scheduling companies out there that help those higher level teams and that's a big part of it, too," Peterson added. "Instead of a team saying, 'Hey, yeah, we'll play ya,' it's, 'well, we need your NET to be so-and-so to fit you into our schedule'. That's a challenge, and our location is a big challenge, too."
That can go both ways. Most mid-majors, even the good ones, may not have a sufficient NET for a power school to want to play them. And if that's the case, most major programs will either pass entirely or take an easier win. So not only is it difficult to get non-conference home games, but the option of taking an upper-five-figure check to play a road game against a power conference team isn't as easy to line up as it used to be. Minnesota, for example, has not welcomed USD or SDSU back to Williams Arena since losing to them both in 2015.
"All the mid-majors are out there looking for non-conference games," SDSU's Henderson said. "And if you're a Power 5, who would you rather play? A mid-major coming off a winning season with a bunch of good players coming back, or a team that's coming off a bad year or is rebuilding?"
Can Summit basketball rebound?
At one point, less than a decade ago, the Summit League was becoming, if not one of the better mid-major leagues in the country, then certainly the best version of itself that it had ever been when it comes to men's basketball. The conference was well-stocked with strong upperclassmen that increased the parity and overall strength of the league. SDSU and NDSU were both seeded as high as 12th in the NCAA tournament, and the league's conference RPI got as high as 12th, with hopes the league could eventually crack the Division I top 10.
Then the transfer portal became a thing. Then NIL. And suddenly it was a lot harder for the Summit's mid-major schools to keep their best players. Matt Mooney, Tre'Shawn Thurman, Stanley Umude, Filip Rebraca, Baylor Scheierman and many more elite Summit League players left to play for a big time school. Mooney went on to play in the national championship game with Texas Tech and got a taste of the NBA. Most of the others found success at the higher level. And now that NIL gives those players opportunities to make serious money, the chances of a Mike Daum or John Konchar staying loyal to their original school are much slimmer. It's no doubt chipped away at the talent level within the league. In 2023, the Summit ranked 18th in conference RPI.
"It's not unique to just the Summit League," Fenton said. "The confluence of the portal, NIL and maybe a little spillover from COVID and the extra year of eligibility that brought are relating to the circumstances we have. I and other commissioners are looking to find ways to create better balance and, fairness, if you will, in and around recruiting and the transfer process."
Fenton made clear he supports NIL, and most of the league's teams are looking for ways to embrace the new Name/Image/Likeness standards and give their athletes opportunities to take advantage. But there's a difference between capitalizing on their NIL and taking straight pay-for-play, an issue the NCAA is still trying to get its arms around. Until that's addressed, though, the blue bloods have little choice but to keep throwing money at players, leaving the rest of college basketball, to at least some degree, waiting for scraps.
But Fenton knows the Summit can't simply sit around and wait for legislation (that may never come) to make things easier for them.
Finding ways to get Summit League basketball back on higher ground, he says, is a top priority within the conference.
"We had our coaches here (for annual meetings) and we spent a tremendous amount of time understanding what do we need to do as a league and what can teams do on their campuses to elevate basketball," Fenton said. "We want that to be a priority. We're going through the process for an overall strategic plan and a very specific part of that will address basketball and things like institutional investment, scheduling strategies, tournament experiences, marketing and promotional media plans. All of that will be connected and we believe will enhance the profile of Summit League basketball on both the men's and women's side. We think we'll be a much more competitive league down the road."