Five Mid-Majors You’re Likely to Hear From Next MarchPosted by Chris Johnson on November 6th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
There exists in college basketball a certain romanticism that distinguishes it from every other sport. It shines through in March, when the sport’s preeminent end-of-season tournament provides a glimmer of hope for Division one teams, no matter how small, unknown or minimally-funded, to break through on a national stage. For the mid-majors, this is prime time. Unlike their high-major counterparts, the little guys’ path to the field of 68 is restricted. Most smaller leagues only receive one Tournament bid, which is normally decided through conference tournaments. It’s what makes championship weekend – when one-bid leagues fight tooth and nail for that coveted Tournament bid – such a compelling series of high-stakes contests. It’s also why predicting each smaller league’s participant(s) is inherently difficult. In a do-or-die knockout setting, anything can happen. So when I look back on my five mid-major Tournament breakout picks (the subject of the following list) five months from now, I’ll probably be kicking myself over a lack of informed judgment and insight. The hope is that at least one of my designated team breaks the field and makes some noise once there. If not, well, that’s why the NCAA Tournament is such a spectacle – because you just never know.
A word of caution: you’ll notice the list fails to include teams from the A-10, Missouri Valley, C-USA, West Coast Conference or Mountain West. I chose to exclude those leagues not because I don’t think any of their teams are capable of making NCAA Tournament runs; it’s quite the opposite actually. All three will likely send multiple teams to the Big Dance, so I’ve decided to leave them out for the sake of novelty. With that out of the way, we March on (pun totally intended).
If this is the first time you’re hearing the name Tony Mitchell, it will not be the last. Mitchell (6’ 8’’, 235 pounds) almost certainly would have been a first round pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. Instead, he’s back for his sophomore season after missing out on an NCAA bid last season when North Texas fell to Sun Belt upstart Western Kentucky in the conference tournament final. It’s a shame, too – no offense to Western Kentucky, but there is not a single person who wouldn’t have enjoyed watching Mitchell in a potential #1-#16 matchup with Anthony Davis and Kentucky. We aren’t always that lucky. Anyway, with Mitchell back in the fold, the Mean Green are more than capable of broaching the field this season, and the talented forward isn’t the only reason why. Point guard Chris Jones and swingman Jordan Williams, both double-digit scorers who were declared ineligible in January due to academic issues, are cleared to take the court again this fall. Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin returns for another season. Off-guard Alzee Williams, who averaged 15.8 points per game over his final 10 games, will stabilize the backcourt. The deep guard rotation will prevent teams from keying in on Mitchell, who should only improve in his second collegiate season. We will get an early taste of North Texas’s Tournament bona fides on November 9, when the Mean Green take on Creighton in Omaha. Mitchell vs Doug McDermott to kick off the 2012-13 college basketball calendar? Yes, please.
This pick should come with little surprise. Given its recent Tournament track record – two first round upsets in the past three years – Ohio’s status as an NCAA Tournament darling can no longer be considered an oddity. Last season, the Bobcats posted a 93.7 adjusted defensive efficiency rating, forced turnovers on 26.4 percent of their opponents’ possessions, and notched a 30.0 defensive field goal percentage on three point shots. That is the portrait of a hounding defensive team. The Bobcats legitimized their defensive prowess during last season’s Sweet Sixteen run and bring back essentially everyone of note from that lineup, including backcourt cogs D.J. Cooper, Nick Kellogg and Walter Offutt. Starting forwards Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keeley, who held their own against UNC’s conglomerate of first-round big men in last season’s overtime thriller, will complement the Bobcats’ sterling guard trio with consistent two-way production on the interior. If everything breaks right, this team won’t need the MAC Tournament to reach its desired postseason destiny. The non-conference schedule offers credible opportunities for resume-building wins, with road games at Memphis and Oklahoma. Win one of those (or both) and an at-large bid is very much on the table. New coach Jim Christian couldn’t have picked a better time to reboot his career in the MAC.
Conference strength aside, winning 25 of your last 26 games seems like a pretty resounding statement for NCAA Tournament consideration. That’s what Drexel did last season and, lo and behold, Selection Sunday came and went without a Tourney bid. The Dragons fell to VCU in the Colonial Tournament final, which – given VCU’s recent success – is hardly a damaging loss. That made the Dragons’ exclusion no less disappointing, but there are strong indications pointing to another run for Bruiser Flint’s team. To start, CAA preseason player of the year Franz Massenat is reason enough to jump on Drexel’s bandwagon. The 6’4’’ junior, who submitted a team-best 30.4 assist rate while leading the CAA in three-point field goal percentage (45.0%), fronts a talented and experienced lineup. League freshman of the year Damion Lee will complement Massenat’s playmaking with versatile scoring punch from the perimeter. Senior Derrick Thomas, who averaged 8.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in 66.7 percent of available minutes, should bounce back after minimal regression last season to power the CAA’s best backcourt. Talent-wise, the Dragons know no equal in the Colonial, as there is quality talent returning at practically every position. The most promising development of the offseason, however, is more about who won’t be around in 2012-13. With VCU entering the A-10 earlier than expected, Drexel is the odds-on favorite to win the league. The path to an NCAA Tournament seed is plain and clear; if they miss the Tournament for the second straight season, the Dragons will only have themselves to blame.
In two games against Final Four opponents last season, Davidson finished with an aggregate -3 scoreline. It may seem like a distant memory now, but the Wildcats knocked off eventual national finalist Kansas on the road last season (the Sprint Center in Kansas City is not Phog Allen, but it is a home court advantage all the same). They nearly took down Louisville in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament as well. The second result is not nearly as impressive as the first, but it provided some level of validation for the Kansas upset. Davidson’s chances of not just reaching the Tournament, but breaking off a multi-win run are even greater this season. Having won 25 games or more in four of the last six seasons, the Wildcats, who bring back eight of its top scorers and rebounders from last season, are well-equipped to continue their recent dominance. And unlike the guard-heavy squads of Stephen Curry’s heyday, the Wildcats boast credible frontcourt depth in forwards Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks, who combined to snatch more than 36 percent of opponents’ misses last season. The Wildcats spurned the CAA’s advances this offseason, preferring instead to remain in the Southern Conference. The move would have elevated Davidson’s hoops prestige, sure, but staying in the SoCon, and ruling over the league’s competitive structure on a yearly basis, is not a terrible alternative. Barring a league tournament collapse (assuming they don’t qualify for an at-large bid), the Wildcats will be in the mix come March.
South Dakota State
Not even the Summit League is immune to the pervasive currents of conference realignment. Oral Roberts and Southern Utah are out this season, while Nebraska-Omaha is making the leap to Division I. That’s big news for the Summit, especially considering Oral Roberts’ strong hoops history of late. This season, the league is South Dakota State’s to lose. The #NateWolters’d phenomenon never really took root on a national scale last season, but trust me, the 6’ 4’’ lead guard will be a household name come Tournament time. He is by far the Summit League’s best player, a savvy facilitator with a tremendous offensive repertoire. Joining him in the backcourt is sharpshooting junior Brayden Carlson, who connected on 46 percent of his three-point attempts last season. Senior forward Tony Fiegen gives South Dakota State a strong inside presence, and a strong inside-out complement for Wolters. The Jackrabbits couldn’t have asked for a worse Tournament draw last season. Baylor’s athleticism and frontcourt size overwhelmed Wolters and his team. The Bears nonetheless needed a 5-for-10 three-point effort from Bears guard Brady Heslip to stave off the upset. Wolters poured in 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting while dissecting Baylor’s NBA talent-laden lineup. The Jackrabbits, despite going 17-14 and stumbling down the stretch last season, are again favorites to win the Summit. Here’s to hoping we see Wolters get another crack at Tournament glory.