It’s November and that means the college hoops season is knocking on the door. Next thing you know we will be engulfed in January conference play. Come March, we will all be filling out our brackets, looking for the perfect 12-5 upset, seeking out the the dark horses and searching for Cinderella.
We’ve got the top 10 mid-majors to keep an eye on throughout the college hoops season and heading into March Madness.
A bit of a disclaimer: The lines between mid-major and high-major programs are always blurred. Though teams like Wichita State, Gonzaga and VCU may may in the so-called mid-major conferences, we consider those perennial NCAA contenders and top 25 teams to be high-major programs.
After three NCAA trips in six seasons, the Zips are to a spot where 21 wins qualifies as a down season. Akron won 20 games for the ninth consecutive season but failed to reach the MAC title game for the first time since 2007. All-MAC power forward Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell returns, but the Zips will need to find scoring punch to complement him.
Longtime coach Rick Byrd is a basketball institution at Belmont. Byrd loves to use his backcourt’s depth, ball handling and shooting ability to leave opposing team’s defenses baffled. Guards Craig Bradshaw, Reece Chamberlain, and Caleb Chowbay have big shoes to fill as they have to replace last year’s OVC Player of the Year J.J. Mann.
A No. 11 seed, the Flyers were one of the last at-large teams in the field but made it count with upsets of Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford on the way to the Elite Eight. Coach Archie Miller is already a hot contender for other programs even if he has his work cut out for him this season. Two starting forwards are out of eligibility, and his starting point guard transferred. Leading scorer Jordan Sibert is back, and sophomore Scoochie Smith should step up at the point.
Even without leading scorer Maurice Creek and forward Isaiah Armwood, George Washington has three players who averaged in double figures a year ago, plus starting point guard Joe McDonald. If Kethan Savage and Patricio Garino stay healthy, the Colonials could have a second consecutive NCAA Tournament team.
It’s hard to say a team that went 17-1 in conference play has unfinished business, but Georgia State has unfinished business. After winning the Sun Belt regular season title by five games, GSU was one point shy of a bid to the Big Dance last season when the Panthers lost to third-seeded UL Lafayette 82-81 in the conference tournament final. Reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year R.J. Hunter and all-conference first-teamer Ryan Harrow, a Kentucky import, highlight a GSU team bound for spot in the field.
Returning conference player of the year Keifer Sykes and the rest of the Phoenix have their sights set on much more than a Horizon League title. Guard play is what wins in March, and Sykes can be that guard that turns heads at the Dance. Green Bay also returns four starters from last year’s team that went 24-7. The one departure is a big one in 7-1 center Alec Brown.
After NCAA wins in each of the last two seasons, coach Tommy Amaker is looking to keep the Crimson’s March hot streak rolling. In three consecutive NCAA appearances, Harvard has been known for its backcourt and deadly perimeter shooting. This season, Amaker has plenty of frontcourt depth, easing the burden on returning guards Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers. The Crimson are again the clear favorite in the Ivy.
First-year coach Jon Coffman is looking to build upon last season’s 25-win breakout. The Mastodons will lean heavily on 6-foot-9 forward Steve Forbes and Gardner-Webb transfer Max Landis will be critical to shoring up the backcourt. While IPFW might not be the belle of the ball come late March, the Mastodons are more than capable of winning the Summit League.
The Bulldogs are early Conference USA favorites because they not only return four starters from last year’s squad that won 29 games, but coach Michael White turned down a chance to go to Tennessee to return to Ruston. Bulldogs fans should savor this season because White is going to be one popular fella to bigger schools come March.
Keeping up with Wichita State will be tough, but the Panthers could make the Missouri Valley a two-bid league again. The Valley has been a one-bid league five times in the last seven seasons. Ben Jacobson’s team returns five seniors and loses one role player from a team that went 10-8 in the Valley a year ago. This is Northern Iowa’s best squad since the 2010 Sweet 16.
The Rams haven’t won more than five Atlantic 10 games since 2011 but the rebuilding project is in full swing under Dan Hurley. The roster was full of transfers and freshmen a year ago. Now, Rhody is hopeful that group will come together around rising A-10 star E.C. Matthews.
Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks might be the Southland Conference team to beat for the next decade if head coach Brad Underwood isn’t scooped up by a higher profile program. The 32-win team of 2013-14 will be hard to top, but SFA returns plenty of talent, including the conference player of the year, Jacob Parker, Thomas Wallup and point guard Trey Pickney.
Thirty-five years is a long time to wait for anything, especially an NCAA Tournament berth. But this is the year the Rockets can reverse their self-inflicted curse. Toledo has the senior leadership in point guard Julius Brown, Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon that could lead this team to their first Tournament since 1980. If Toledo can improve on the defensive end, the rest of the MAC better look out, the Rockets are for real. Fifth-year coach Kowalczyk built the Rockets from 4-28 in his first season to 27-7 season and the best record in the MAC by his fourth.
UTEP will battle Louisiana Tech for the crown of Conference USA and for possibly a bid to the Tournament. With the help of sophomore forward Vincent Hunter and senior swingman Julian Washburn, the Miners have a legitimate chance of upsetting the early favorite Bulldogs or at least making at the case that Conference USA is a two-bid league.
The Terriers have to be the early SoCon favorites going into 2014-15. Coach Mike Young returns essentially the entirety of last year’s 20-win squad including first team all-conference and SoCon tournament MVP Karl Cochran and third team all-conference player Lee Skinner. Two of Young’s best guards, Spencer Collins and Eric Garcia, were just freshmen last year. Look for that backcourt duo to leave their mark on the conference as sophomores.
-By Jacob Rose