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Can the Summit League be a two-bid conference once again?

For the first time in Summit League history, two teams from the conference went to the NCAA Tournament in 2019: South Dakota and South Dakota State. Here’s how their non-conference schedules can play a role in repeating that feat in 2020.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Syracuse
South Dakota State won the 2019 Summit League Tournament and rode that momentum to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

In a mid-major conference that sometimes ends up being a two-team race — South Dakota vs. South Dakota State in the Summit, Drake vs. Missouri State in the Missouri Valley, Gonzaga vs. BYU in the West Coast, and so on — it’s not the conference season that determines postseason seeding. Not really.

Even when one of those teams has to beat the other in the conference final to win the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the selection committee isn’t usually so heartless as to deny the second-place team — especially one that’s been in or near the AP Poll all season — a spot in the field of 64.

Why? Non-conference play. And between South Dakota and South Dakota State, projected to go 1-2 in the Summit League this season, some timely wins — or losses — against quality opponents before conference play begins could seal their postseason fates.

The Yotes (28-6) and the Jackrabbits (28-7) each beat the other at home in overtime last season, setting up a collision course for a Summit title game ... that top-seeded South Dakota State ended up winning pretty unceremoniously. Of course, the Jacks were also the team that extended their non-conference prowess by ascending to the Sweet Sixteen, so perhaps that win was just what they needed to ascend from the confines of the conference, so to say.

With two exciting non-conference slates ahead between the two schools, here’s how the two Mount Rushmore State teams stack up — at least, until they start playing each other again:

South Dakota Coyotes

Key non-conference rematches from 2018-19: Green Bay (W), Drake (L), Mizzou (W), Missouri State (W)

Other notable non-conference games: Ohio State, Utah, South Carolina

The Yotes had just two non-conference losses last season: to then-defending WNIT champion Indiana, and to then-defending MVC champion Drake. But while their in-state rivals have to travel to Des Moines to face Drake this season, the Yotes get the Bulldogs right where they want them: at home, where they lost zero games last season.

In their home opener, the Yotes will face a difficult challenge in the defending MVC regular-season champion Bulldogs. Things don’t get easier from there — over the next 12 days, they’ll also face Utah and both above-mentioned Missouri schools. But having three of the four games at home will play a big part in improving their résumé, should they escape with wins.

South Dakota is a young team, losing just one senior and returning four starters. There’s also a switch in familial alliance happening this season, as freshman Macy Guebert — sister of 2019 South Dakota State grad Madison Guebert — will suit up for the Yotes. How that turns the tide between these teams has yet to be seen, but between the Guebert family success and the proven youthful talent, it’s no wonder the Yotes was picked to finish first in the conference this season.

South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Key non-conference rematches from 2018-19: Marquette (L), Green Bay (W), Drake (W), Oregon (L)

Other notable non-conference games: South Florida, Notre Dame

Winning the conference tournament against your in-state rival is one thing. Preparing for that with one of the most loaded non-conference schedules in the country is another.

Though they finished non-conference play 8-5 in 2018-19, two of the Jacks’ losses came to eventual Final Four teams Baylor and Oregon, and both final scores were within 10 points. They even faced Oregon again in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in another relatively close loss.

While the Jacks won’t be taking on Baylor or fellow mid-major power Buffalo again this season, their respective replacements — national runner-up Notre Dame and AAC tournament semifinalists South Florida — won’t provide any relief. This schedule is a testament to the Jacks’ willingness to take hits early to bolster their résumé, and a lot of the time, the risk has paid off. In 2017, South Dakota State defeated No. 23 NC State and only lost to No. 4 Louisville by four points; in 2016, they took down Iowa; in 2015, there was a win over No. 16 DePaul and a seven-point loss to No. 6 Maryland.

Although Macy Miller, arguably the best player in Jacks history (not to mention in conference history), has graduated, don’t expect this team to suddenly get worse without her. They’re still returning three starters, and their non-conference schedule will certainly toughen them up in preparation to face the Summit’s best.

In recent years, South Dakota State fully embodied the idea that non-conference play isn’t just about winning, it’s also about proving yourself against the top teams in the country — even if that means taking a loss (or five). But winning is somehow always in the picture when a team plays like the Jacks do.

A two-bid conference?

Most of the attention is, deservedly, on the teams tabbed to finish at the top of the conference. After all, it’s tradition — South Dakota State has won 9 of the last 11 conference tournaments, with South Dakota and Western Illinois picking up one apiece in that time.

Last season, the most impactful spoiler was Denver, who handed South Dakota their only non-South Dakota State loss in conference play. Oral Roberts also played tough at home, only losing to South Dakota by four points, and to South Dakota State — who blew out everyone else in conference play, except the Yotes — by nine points.

It’s no surprise, then, to see Denver picked to finish third in 2019-20, and Oral Roberts in fourth. Neither of their non-conference schedules are anything to write home about, compared to their South Dakota counterparts: Denver gets New Mexico State and Colorado, while Oral Roberts gets Arkansas, Utah and Nebraska, to give a few of the biggest names.

That’s not to say that neither South Dakota nor South Dakota state shouldn’t be worried about their conference foes down the line. One of last season’s marquee mid-major conference surprises came as fourth-seeded Portland State defeated sixth-seeded Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Tournament, leaving heavy favorites Idaho and Northern Colorado in the dust. If Denver or Oral Roberts can pull off the upsets needed to secure the Summit’s automatic berth, imagine the time the selection committee will have deciding if either South Dakota school deserves an at-large bid — and, if so, which one.

Conjecture aside, come March, the expected Summit League bids should be a pair to fear — if they can maintain their established dominance over the opening months of the season.