SDSU women roll into the Summit League basketball tournament as the clear favorite
The Jackrabbits are 18-0 in conference games this season and are making a run at their 11th appearance in the NCAA tourney.
BROOKINGS — For the second time in three years, South Dakota State raced through the Summit League schedule without a loss — 18-0. They've won 49 of 50 conference games in the last three seasons.
And unlike in past years, they didn't have rival USD nipping at their heels all year long. Second place North Dakota State went 12-6. This was a one-team race pretty much from the jump.
Does that mean it's basically a one-team tournament?
The numbers say yes. The Jackrabbits say no.
"It just never works out that way," said SDSU coach Aaron Johnston. "Conference tournaments just never play out the way the regular season does. It's a whole different event, it's a whole different pressure and a whole different expectation. Everybody's playing for their last opportunity to extend their seasons and do something special. So we don't really link them together or look at it that way."
OK. That's what Johnston is supposed to say, and SDSU has likely had so much success (10 NCAA tournament berths since 2009) because they haven't overlooked opponents even when heavily favored.
But the Jacks took Summit League domination to another level this year, and specifically in the second half of the season. Still dealing with backcourt injuries at the start of conference play, SDSU beat Oral Roberts 83-80 at home in the Summit opener. Last weekend in the rematch in Tulsa, the Jacks won by 25. Their average margin of victory over their last nine games has been 31.3 points. They beat USD by 59 at home and by 31 in Vermillion.
Who's going to beat them?
"At this point, we don't have to talk about that, so we won't," said USD coach Kayla Karius, whose fourth-seeded team faces No. 5 seed Oral Roberts on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. "We have a different opponent in front of us. Our players, especially because of our proximity and familiarity with that program — they know. They've been watching. Everybody is well aware (of SDSU). But I don't think we approach that or talk about our mindset until Sunday evening, if it goes our way on Sunday afternoon."
The Jacks will play the early game on Saturday, against the winner of Friday's 8/9 matchup between St. Thomas and Western Illinois. The Jacks won both games against WIU by at least 20. They routed St. Thomas at Frost Arena but the Tommies hung in there in St. Paul, falling by 10 points.
Who's the biggest threat to the Jacks?
NDSU has won four in a row, but they were clobbered by SDSU in both meetings. Third-place UND didn't play the Jacks particularly close, either. Oral Roberts is the only team that truly threatened to beat them, and they come in on a six-game losing skid.
Whoever the Jacks play, though, their approach will be the same. Not because they're worried about overconfidence or a potential letdown, but because while they went 31-1 in league play the prior two seasons, they didn't win the conference tournament in either. Last year, they were defeated by USD (who went on to the Sweet 16, while SDSU settled for a WNIT title), and the year before that they followed up their 14-0 regular season with a first-round loss to 8th-seeded Omaha. The Jacks had just lost Myah Selland to a major injury and that tournament was played without fans at the Pentagon, but it still lingers.
"I think we've had a few reminders the past couple years that things can happen and it doesn't always go the way you want it to," Selland said. "We have that mindset that every game matters. We kind of feel like we have some unfinished business and something to prove. We're in a good place heading into the weekend and are all excited to make the most of it."
For all of SDSU's success, Selland and Paiton Burckhard are the only players on the current roster who have ever celebrated winning a Summit League tournament title. That was back in 2019, when the Jacks ended up reaching the Sweet 16.
"It has been a few years," Burckhard said. "With this being my last year, especially, we want to go out with a bang. We want to go and win that tournament. It's a big stage, it's fun to play in, so coming out on top is our goal."