Jackrabbits, Coyotes' home-court edge in Sioux Falls has been tough for rest of Summit to top
Oral Roberts men are heavy favorites, but fans could swing things for home state teams
SIOUX FALLS — The Summit League tournament has been coming to Sioux Falls since 2009, and it quickly became the premier sporting event in South Dakota.
With national television coverage and an NCAA tournament berth at stake, basketball fans immediately flocked first to the Sioux Falls Arena and then, starting in 2015, the Denny Sanford Premier Center, to turn the event into one of the most successful mid-major conference tournaments in the nation. The women's sessions in particular became among the best-attended of any conference in college basketball anywhere.
That has, without question, been advantageous to the two schools from one hour away — South Dakota and South Dakota State.
The Jackrabbit women have won the tournament nine times. The men have won it six times. USD's women have won four — including each of the last three. Only one women's team from outside South Dakota has ever won the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls — Western Illinois in 2017 — and in the men's tournament, North Dakota State has almost as many wins (5) in Sioux Falls as the Jackrabbits. The only non-Dakota men's teams to win the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls are Oral Roberts in 2021, when it was played at the Pentagon without fans due to COVID-19, and the first two years the tournament was held here, which were both won by Oakland (Mich.).
The SDSU women are fully expected to continue their dominance in this year's event, as they're 18-0 against the league and winning games by an average margin of about 30 points over the last month and a half.
On the men's side, Oral Roberts is also coming in at 18-0, and while they're the favorites, an upset wouldn't necessarily be a shock, and the home court atmosphere for the Dakota schools is the reason why.
"We're gonna use that to our advantage," said SDSU guard Zeke Mayo. "(The Premier Center) brings out more people than Frost Arena holds, so it'll be an amazing atmosphere our there."
SDSU (18-12) is the No. 2 seed and they had won seven in a row before falling to Oral Roberts in the regular season finale. They were in that one (a 69-65 loss) to the end, thanks in part to the home court advantage, and the Eagles know if they face the Jacks in Tuesday's title game, they'd be up against a similar atmosphere — only louder. That, more than anything, is why a Jackrabbit championship feels plausible.
"Our fans are incredible," said Jacks guard Matt Mims. "They bring us so much energy and we want to fight for them. We know they're gonna come out and support us in Sioux Falls and we really appreciate it. I love playing in front of our fans. There's no better feeling and we're excited for that."
Jackrabbit fans have been filling up the tournament grandstands from the beginning. As if to prove they belonged in Division I, they made a point to attend games early on even for games not involving their team, or after the SDSU men were eliminated.
If the novelty has worn off since, it hasn't really started to show. It's been awhile since the tournament set attendance records, but huge crowds still turn out for SDSU games, with decent crowds on hand for the games that don't feature Dakota schools. And while USD hasn't been able to bring the red/blue ratio particularly close to 50/50, Coyote fans have steadily grown their presence in Sioux Falls in recent years, thanks largely to the success of their women's team.
Now it's the men's turn. It's unlikely this is the year they finally get their first tournament championship, but a first-round win over NDSU would help build the momentum rookie coach Eric Peterson is trying to create.
"I think it's really important any time you can win tournament games," said Peterson, whose sixth-seeded, 12-18 team will face the Bison (14-16) at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. "It's a huge deal for your program. (The Coyote women's success) has helped us with our fan base. Everyone looks at the location (as an advantage) but you have to win to create excitement. You have to win games to bring them back."