20 Questions: Who Are the Best Candidates to Become Another Butler, George Mason or VCU?Posted by rtmsf on November 9th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the Mountain West and Pac-12 Conference correspondent and an occasional contributor.
Question: Who are the best candidates to be another Butler, George Mason or VCU?
In the five seasons since George Mason’s huge breakthrough win on the part of mid-majors everywhere, the Colonials have seen their feat matched by three other teams, with Butler even outdoing GMU by advancing to consecutive national championship games and even giving Duke everything possible in 2010, coming just a fraction of an inch away from claiming an improbable national title. But Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, who faced each other in one of last year’s national semifinals, are likely to take steps back this year. While Brad Stevens has rightly earned the reputation as a coach who gets the most out of his team, the fact that the Bulldogs are now missing Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, in addition to Gordon Hayward (who left two years ago) means that this vintage of Butler will be starting over. Sure, Ronald Nored returns for his senior season, while guys like Khyle Marshall, Andrew Smith and Chrishawn Hopkins are ready for their turns in the spotlight, but in the exceedingly unlikely event that Butler makes its third national title run, Stevens should be up for immediate sainthood, because that would qualify as a miracle. Likewise in Richmond, the Rams will be replacing four key players from last year’s run. While Bradford Burgess returns for his senior year ready to play a bigger role for VCU, there likely isn’t enough talent surrounding him to repeat last season’s remarkable exploits.
So, if Butler and VCU are out of the question, which team is possible? First, we should define the question a bit more clearly. The way I look at it, we’re not simply looking for a team outside of the Big Six conferences to fill in here, because schools like Memphis, UNLV and Louisville (when it was in Conference USA) have made Final Fours prior to GMU, and none of those were all that surprising. Likewise, if a team like Xavier or Memphis, for instance, made it to the Final Four this year, it wouldn’t exactly be a shock. Sure, it may raise an eyebrow here and there, but for all the money those schools throw at basketball and all the recruiting success those programs have, they shouldn’t be considered true mid-major programs. For the purpose of this question, we’ll use the Mid-Majority’s redline, which takes the Big Six conferences, along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, Xavier and Gonzaga and names them all major programs.
So, who outside of those teams has a chance to make a Final Four run? I’ll give you three possibilities. First, Temple, Xavier’s primary Atlantic 10 rival, returns four senior starters from a team that was within a play (on several occasions) of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen last season. With Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore, Michael Eric and Scootie Randall being joined by junior guard Khalif Wyatt and redshirt freshman center Anthony Lee, the Owls not only have the ability to give the Musketeers a run for their money in the A-10, they could become a dangerous team come March. Of my three picks here, this is the biggest cop-out, as Temple’s hoops success is well-documented.
Next is Belmont, out of the mighty Atlantic Sun Conference, last year’s 21st ranked conference according to Ken Pomeroy (and ranked that high mostly on the strength of Belmont and its 30-5 record). The Bruins return almost everybody from last year’s team which played tough defense and efficient offense throughout the year. Belmont will have to replace guard Jordan Campbell, who posted stunning shooting percentages (a 68.2 true shooting percentage, for one), but there are plenty of other bona fide shooters on this squad. We’ll get a good chance to see just how much of a threat Belmont is right out of the gate this year, as they’ll travel to Duke on November 11, then head to Memphis on November 15.
Finally, we’ll head over to the MAAC and call out Iona, a high-scoring, highly efficient team that returns a couple of seniors who make this team go. Wing Michael Glover is a member of the Wooden Award preseason Top 50 team, and he is a prolific and athletic scorer who also gets to work on the glass. Point guard Scott Machado is Glover’s sidekick, a great passer and the team’s leader. Also, head coach Tim Cluess got an early birthday present when Arizona-transfer Lamont “Momo” Jones was granted immediate eligibility with the Gaels. Jones ran the point for the Wildcats last season, but he’ll likely take on more of a scoring role alongside Machado this season. If Iona can solidify its defense (which is a pretty big “if” considering they were 128th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency numbers last season), this team has enough star power to catch fire in March.