Mountain climbing

Drue Aman

Drue Aman

March 6 through 9 may be busy for 34,681 people.

That crowd – which broke the attendance record for the Summit League Tournament by more than 6,000 people – has the opportunity to witness a do-or-die battle for the NCAA Tournament once again.

In comparison, 2009 and 2010 appear to be remarkably different tournaments. SDSU will not enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed after being swept by an Oral Roberts team that leads the NCAA in team steals this season. Last season, Oral Roberts snuck into the tournament as the eighth seed and lost to the Jacks by 28. They enter the tournament this year as the No. 1 seed and favorites to win.

This season, however, the depth of competition reaches a higher level. Jacks head coach Aaron Johnston thinks several teams have a chance of playing past next week.

“I think there’s a lot more balance in the Summit League this season,” said Johnston. “Oakland and us last year really hands down were the best two teams, and I think this year when you look at the top four or five, there’s not a lot of difference between them right now.”

The games played between the top five teams prove that. Only two games separate first-place Oral Roberts (13-3) and fourth-place UMKC (11-5). Fifth-place IPFW swept the season series against regular-season champion Oral Roberts, while SDSU has split with Oakland, IPFW and UMKC.

With SDSU faring 3-5 against the other four teams in the top five in conference play, the possibility of final games at Frost Arena being Feb. 27 and March 1 means an emotional weekend for seniors Maria Boever and Ketty Cornemann.

“Frost is a really special place,” said Cornemann. “It’s something we don’t take for granted – we recognize it and appreciate it.”

“It’s going to be an emotional but yet exciting weekend,” said Boever.

This year’s team has a quality unique from any other basketball team under Aaron Johnston’s tenure: an NCAA Division-I tournament appearance. Johnston acknowledges the imprint this year’s senior class – Cornemann, Boever and Alison Anderson – has left on his program.

“They have been a part of a lot of great moments in our program’s history,” Johnston said. “? They’ve really done an awful lot to get us going in the right direction in Division I. They’re going to be missed.”

The Jacks – who have compiled a 52-4 home record through the career of this year’s senior class – will benefit from expected large crowds 54 miles from Frost Arena, with the tournament being held in Sioux Falls Arena for the second straight year.

“I think we do really well with home-court advantage,” said Boever. “Having it be in Sioux Falls, it’s a lot like home. Obviously, we’re going to have the majority of our fans, so that’s going to be a key for us.”

In a tournament format, experience can have the equivalent impact of six players on the court. Players shoot under the guide of muscle memory, they run loose and with less hesitation, they cherish the moment but stop the moment from consuming them. All of the starting five have assimilated with the pressure and tenacity of playoff college basketball.

“I think the fact that we’ve been there before helps us immensely,” said Johnston, who also gained significant experience coaching a 32-3 Jacks team last season to the second round of the NCAA tournament. “Everybody except for our freshmen should have a really good feel for the pressure and atmosphere, and with the tournament in Sioux Falls, the atmosphere is great.”

With the seeds of the tournament locked up, the women and men will play back-to-back at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 7, respectively – creating an opportunity for fans to watch both teams not favored to win the title but that have the capability.

“I don’t feel like we’ve played our best basketball yet,” said Johnston. “I think this team still has a lot to prove.”