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College Basketball's Early Season Conference Review: Mid-majors


Butler coach Brad Stevens

The Hoosier State doesn’t belong to the Hoosiers, at least not entirely.

When Butler defeated Indiana 88-86 in overtime Saturday, the Bulldogs signaled they’re back in contention for a deep run in the Atlantic 10 and in the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps we should have took Brad Stevens’ team more seriously back in the Maui Invitational.

Butler’s not alone among the usual powers outside of the major conference power structure who is playing at an elite level. The Mountain West still boasts more frontline teams than the Pac-12 at this point. Success is nothing new at Gonzaga, but this may be one of Mark Few’s better crews in recent seasons.

As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon will examine the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.

Here’s our look at the scene so far in the non-Big Six conferences.

Other conferences: ACC | Big 12 | Big East

Surprise team: Illinois-Chicago
What team is going to lead the post-Butler Horizon League. How about UIC? The Flames are 9-1 with the lone loss to New Mexico 66-59 in the Virgin Islands. UIC held four consecutive opponents to 50 or fewer points, including a 50-44 win at Northwestern. Other surprise teams are out there -- an undefeated Wyoming, for example, but UIC already has exceeded its best win total from each of the last three years.

Disappointing team: Delaware.
With three double-digit scorers returning to a team that went 12-6 in the Colonial last season, Delaware was expected to make some noise. The perception didn’t change as the Blue Hens defeated Penn and Virginia in the NIT tip-off. Since then, the Blue Hens have gone into a tailspin, losing five in a row since reaching the NIT semifinals. Some of those losses have been to good teams -- Duke, Pittsburgh, Kansas State and Temple -- but an overtime loss to Delaware State on Dec. 8 may show the Blue Hens aren’t ready to compete for a CAA title.

Where’d he come from? Jalen Jones, SMU.
The sophomore Jones was one of a handful of holdovers on Larry Brown’s first team in Dallas. He’s been one of the keys in the Mustangs’ 8-2 start this season with 15.6 points per game. The 6-foot-6 guard also leads SMU with 8.4 rebounds per game. The hot start may be a bit of a mirage, signaled by double-digit losses to UALR and Rhode Island. But even wins over major-conference patsies Utah and TCU are steps in the right direction.

Where’d he go? Tony Mitchell, North Texas
Mitchell entered the season as an NBA prospect who could help North Texas take a rare step into the college basketball spotlight. His overall numbers aren’t all that different from last season, but it’s been an inconsistent ride. In a recent four-game losing streak, Mitchell went 4 of 8 against Virginia, 3 of 13 against UT-Arlington, 1 of 1 against Louisiana-Lafayette in which he fouled out and 7 of 12 against Saint Louis.

Key stat: Butler’s improvement from 3-point range.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham have transformed the Butler offense turning one of the Bulldogs’ biggest weaknesses last season into one of its greatest strengths. In 2011-12, Butler on average went 4.8 for 17.6 from 3-point range. Now, Butler is averaging 7.7 of 21.8 attempts from 3-point range. Even with more shots from beyond the arc, Butler has improved from shooting 28.1 percent to 35.3. In wins over North Carolina and Indiana alone, Butler was 23 of 49 from 3-point range.

Mountain West. Entering the season, we knew UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico would be competitive on a national level. All of those teams have lived up to their billing so far, but the league has shown impressive depth elsewhere. Wyoming is 10-0, propelled by a 76-69 win over Pac-12 contender Colorado on Dec. 1. Boise State is 7-2 and upset Creighton 83-70 on the road at the end of November. And Colorado State, expected to contend for the postseason, has lost two in a row, but defeated Washington earlier this year. Mountain West teams are 9-9 against major conference programs with three of those losses coming from Fresno State.

Atlantic 10. Welcome to the A-10, Butler and VCU. Both league newcomers may be the favorites to win the conference, but it won’t be easy. The league appears as deep as ever. Butler lost early to Xavier 62-47, but that game has proven to be an aberration as the Bulldogs have gone on to defeat Marquette, North Carolina and No. 1 Indiana. Besides Xavier, the only other loss for Butler was to undefeated Illinois in the Maui Invitational final. VCU’s three losses came to two undefeated teams (Duke and Wichita State) and Missouri. Despite changes in personnel, Temple is going to remain in contention. If there’s any drawback, teams like Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s and UMass have been uneven in a season in which they were expected to challenge for the postseason.

Missouri Valley. Whereas the previous two feature teams loaded with potential NCAA Tournament teams, the Missouri Valley may be a two-team race between Creighton and Wichita State. Creighton can play up-and-down offense, and Wichita State can defend. Could a regular season-finale between the two in Omaha be for a conference title?


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Gonzaga coach Mark Few

1. Gonzaga (10-1)
Despite an 85-74 loss at home to Illinois, there’s a lot to like about this balanced and deep Gonzaga team. The Bulldogs have defeated West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, Washington State and Kansas State. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk has learned how to throw his weight around the basket.

2. UNLV (8-1)
Rebels got good news on the Mike Moser injury front, though it hasn’t mattered. Freshman Anthony Bennett is carrying this team. With Moser playing only five minutes in the last three games, Bennett has averaged 23.3 points and 11 rebounds.

3. Butler (8-2)
We've seen this before: an Indiana team defeats the No. 1 team in a game coming down to the final minutes. Last year it was Indiana upsetting Kentucky. This year it’s Butler over the Hoosiers. With wins over IU, North Carolina and Marquette, Butler’s no fluke.

4. Creighton (9-1)
The home loss to Boise State seems to be an aberration. After a slow start in the first two weeks of the season, Doug McDermott has heated up. He scored 34 points Saturday in a 74-64 win at Cal.

5. New Mexico (11-0)
No true signature win yet for the Lobos, but Steve Alford’s best team has defeated some quality mid-majors plus UConn.

6. San Diego State (8-1)
The best team in California will have a tougher time being crowned the best team in the Mountain West. Jamaal Franklin is having an All-America type year.

7. Wichita State (9-1)
A 69-60 loss at Tennessee ended an undefeated start, but the Shockers have nice wins over VCU (on the road) and Iowa (on a neutral court).

8. VCU (7-3)
The Rams are still going to win a lot of games in the A-10. No shame in losses to Duke, Missouri and Wichita State. On Saturday, VCU coach Shaka Smart defeated his predecessor, Anthony Grant, with a 73-54 win over Alabama.

9. Murray State (7-1)
The Racers are more than Isaiah Canaan: Ed Daniel has come from nowhere to average 17.1 points and 12.1 rebounds (he averaged 6.8 and 5.5 in just six fewer minutes per game a year ago).

10. Bucknell (9-1)
A wild race in the Patriot League is on deck between Bucknell and Lehigh. Not to mention a race for the top player in the league between Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (24.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.1 apg) and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala (18.7 ppg, 11 rpg, 2.5 apg).