Jacks, Necks Battle For First
If South Dakota State is going to run its school and Summit League record home winning streak to a nice, round 30 games today, it won't be easy.
The second place Jackrabbits (11-3) host first place Western Illinois (11-2) and just a slim half-game separates them in the standings, with three weeks to go before the Summit League Tournament starts at the Sioux Falls Arena.
The road to the number one seed in that tournament will be paved with defense. Western Illinois plays it about as well as anyone in the country, the third stingiest in Division I, allowing just 52 points a game, about four points higher in conference play this season.
Anchoring things is the Leathernecks own 'Minister of Defense', senior guard Ceola Clark III, the only two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Summit League history. Just ask North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander how good Clark is. This season, Alexander is hitting 46 percent of his shots against the rest of the Summit League, but when Western Illinois' #23 is guarding him, the sophomore is just five-of-28 from the floor, for a frigid 18 percent shooting in two losses to the Leathernecks, including a 49-36 beat down in Fargo Thursday night. The 39 points were the lowest ever for an NDSU team in the 43-year history of the Bison Sports Arena.
Clark's assignment at Frost Arena this afternoon: try to contain South Dakota State senior guard Nate Wolters, the nation's fourth leading scorer, who will be playing in the final home game of his storied career in Brookings. Clark and Western Illinois have held Wolters in check over the last two seasons, holding him to 22 points or less in four games, including a season-low ten points on this very same floor last February. But Wolters has torched defenses for 107 points in his last three games, including a nation-high 53 points nine days ago in Fort Wayne.
While that battle rages on, two other players who figure to be keys in today's game are forwards. SDSU's Jordan Dykstra and WIU's Terell Parks provide the spark inside, both scoring and rebounding the basketball.
Dykstra comes in off a double-double (14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds) in Thursday's win over IUPUI. When he's successful, the Jacks are successful. In Dykstra's six double-doubles this season, SDSU is unbeaten. When the junior scores in double figures the Jacks are 16-2.
Clark is the leading rebounder in the Summit League, the only player to average double digit in boards this season. In his last two games against SDSU, he's pulled down 21. He's one of the main reasons the Leathernecks have outscored the Jacks in the paint in three of their last four meetings.
The Jackrabbits play a little defense themselves. SDSU is third in the Summit in points allowed (63 per game) and opponents field goal percentage (44%). When head coach Scott Nagy's team is playing well, it's the defense that triggers the second most potent offense in the league (76 points per game).
South Dakota State has had the upper hand in the series with Western Illinois lately, winning eight straight, but it hasn't been easy. In three of the last four games, the margin of victory was a combined nine points. One reason? They have scored, on average, 15 points fewer, in the last four meetings with the Leathernecks, who are limiting teams to a Summit League low 39 percent shooting this season.
Two things SDSU has done well against WIU the past two seasons: three point shooting and rebounding. The Jacks have outscored the Leathernecks by 33 points from long range and out rebounded them in the last four meetings.
To say games between these two are back-and-forth affairs is an understatement. The last two times they've gone head-to-head, the lead has changed 26 times and there have been 14 ties.
There won't be a tie in the standings after today, the winner grabs sole possession of first place. After today , SDSU has just one conference game left, WIU has two. Both teams are trying to snap regular season championship droughts. The Jacks haven't finished atop the standings since 2002 when they were a Division II school in the North Central Conference. The Leathernecks have to go all the way back to 1983, when they won the regular season crown in the first season of the Mid-Continent Conference, which became the Summit League in 2007.