Summit League tournament: Can North Dakota's women's teams recapture their former glory?
Bison and Fighting Hawks finished near the top of the Summit after several years of Division I struggles
SIOUX FALLS — If you only started paying attention to area college basketball in the Division I era, you may not know this, but the North Dakota State Bison and University of North Dakota used to be women's hoops powerhouses.
The Bison won five Division II national championships in a six-year span from 1991-96. They were also national runner up in '92 and 2000, and made the NCAA tournament in 2001, 2003 and finally, 2004, their final season in Division II.
North Dakota was every bit their equal. UND won three straight Division II titles under legendary coach Gene Roebuck, who also took them to the NCAA tournament every single year from 1990-2008, which was their final year in Division II.
When the Bison moved up to Division I alongside South Dakota State in 2004, women's basketball figured to be the one sport where immediate success was most attainable. Ditto for UND when they joined USD in making the move in 2008.
But that's not what happened.
The Bison went 74-105 from 2008-2014 under Carolyn DeHoff, and 40-106 in five seasons under Maren Walseth, the last four of which saw the Bison lose 20-plus games. NDSU has come nowhere near an NCAA tournament berth at the Division I level.
UND had a little more luck in the move up, joining the Great West Conference and then the Big Sky, and making their NCAA tournament debut in 2014. But moving to the Summit League proved a tall task for the Fighting Hawks. After winning 20 games in their last year in the Big Sky, UND went 12-18, 12-19 and 15-15 in their first three years in the Summit, which spelled the end for coach Travis Brewster, a former Roebuck assistant.
Brewster was replaced by Mallory Bernhard, a former UND player, who went 2-19 in her first year.
While all that was going on, South Dakota's women's basketball teams have risen to the ranks of the best mid-major teams in the nation. SDSU has been to 10 NCAA tournaments, USD four, and both the Jackrabbits and Coyotes have reached the Sweet 16.
And as the Summit League tournament returns to Sioux Falls this weekend, South Dakota's grip on the conference isn't loosening. The Jackrabbits went 18-0 in league play this year and are considered a virtual lock to go back to the Big Dance for the 11th time. USD had a rebuilding year under a rookie coach, but that's likely to be a speed bump for a team that came perilously close to the Elite Eight last year.
But our neighbors to the north might finally be showing signs of rekindling the fire of the Division II era.
NDSU is the No. 2 seed in this weekend's tournament, having gone 18-10 and 12-6 in the league. It's the Bison's second winning season in the last three years under Jory Collins, who has a 35-33 against the Summit in his four seasons at the helm.
And Bernhard has things looking up for the Fighting Hawks. They went from two wins to 15 last year, and this season are 18-10 and went 11-7 against the conference to nab the 3-seed in the tournament.
"When you look at the season as a whole it feels like we exceeded expectations a little bit," Bernhard said. "But we're still a hungry team. When we talk about what our team goals are, there's still things out there we want to do. We've seen some massive strides in some areas that we feel like helps us for sure. We've gained some confidence that I think we can play with just about anybody."
Both UND and NDSU won all but one of their home games this season (both lost only to SDSU), which will hopefully start to energize fan bases that lost their zeal amid the losing seasons. As the 2-seed, NDSU would get an invite to the WNIT assuming SDSU wins the Summit. UND could be in the WNIT mix as well, if not this year than soon. The WNIT provided a huge boost to USD and SDSU on their way up the Division I ladder — perhaps it could spark UND and/or NDSU as well. Because as encouraging as this season has been for the Hawks and Bison, sustaining that success and showing an ability to consistently compete with USD and SDSU will be the true test of their legitimacy.
For women's basketball fans in South Dakota, the potential rise of the Bison and Hawks is a good thing. While USD and SDSU have made the conference a two-bid league, the rest of the league has barely been able to compete in recent years.
"It's really good when our league has several good teams," said Jacks coach Aaron Johnston. "There's history there with the old NCC, but to me, as many good teams as we can have in our league, the better off we all are. Where they're located doesn't matter from a league perspective."
But, Johnston continued, the location does matter from the standpoint of making those old NCC rivalries great again.
"I think it's great to have really productive rivalries with those longtime competitors," Johnston said. "North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, Omaha (also a former NCC school) — there's great history there. You can see that in all sports. You see what's happened in football and how good that rivalry has been for those schools. Men's basketball has had those, too, and as that happens in women's basketball, that's a great thing. We really want those. It's good to see, it's great for those programs and it's good for the league. It really brings to light the history of what some of those rivalries have been for many years."