Credit: Icon SMI
By: Jeffrey Newholm
Coming from a d3 university, I’ve always been interested in sports and teams off the beaten path. But I’m also still interested in all of the mainstream sports regular fans are interested in. So I think a fair compromise would be a preview of the top five mid majors to watch for this men’s basketball season. College basketball being what it is, many of these teams could be out of the tournament very quickly, and a team I don’t mention almost certainly will make a run out of nowhere very deep into march. So consider this list a good starting point rather than being all inclusive. So with that caveat in mind, let’s begin with:
1. Wichita State
It’s probably not too much of a shock to see the shockers at the top of this list. The shockers are most famous for going all the way to the final four in 2013 and having a perfect regular season in 2014, but their level of success runs deeper: the shockers actually lead the nation with a .839 winning percentage since the 2010-2011 season. Senior Guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have become household names, but forward Evan Wessel is also an important returning piece, having been named the Missouri Valley Conference’s most improved player last year. Graduate transfer Anton Grady from Cleveland State was first team all-conference in the horizon league last year, and joining him is three point sharpshooter Conner Frankamp from Kansas, who will be eligible in December. The Shockers won’t lose many games this year, but each one will hurt as their strength of schedule figures to be weak.
Under coach Mark Few, the Zags have been to seventeen NCAA tournaments in a row and have won the West Coast Conference fourteen of the last fifteen years. However, the Zags are yet to reach the final four, while many mid-majors who have been successful for much shorter periods of time (such as George Mason and VCU) have. Can they take the next step this year? Expectations are certainly high in Spokane this year, with the team ranked ninth in the AP poll and three players named preseason all conference, including returning starters Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski. Redshirt freshman Josh Perkins also figures to be a big contributor after missing last year with a broken jaw. If the Zags can run through the conference without a loss, which is no easy feat with BYU now in the WCC, they will have a great chance to be a #1 seed again.
The Wildcats may be most famous for their 2008 postseason run when Stephen Curry nearly led his team to the final four, but the team is trying to forge a new identity in the Atlantic Ten. Davidson won the conference in their first year in the league last year and figure to be even better this year with four starters coming back and a very strong sophomore class. Best among them is Peyton Aldridge, who started every game last year and was a finalist for national freshman of the year. Also figuring to build on strong freshman campaigns are Nathan Ekwu and Oskar Michelsen, who each played in over 30 games. This team may not reach its ceiling until the 2018 season, but is capable of pulling off a few upsets in the meantime.
Credit: USA Today Sports
In 1998 Valpo had their one shining moment as Bryce Drew hit his iconic shot at the buzzer to beat Mississippi. Now Drew is back as head coach as the Crusaders try to rekindle that March magic. Coming off a year where the team won the Horizon league regular and postseason titles, Valpo returns an incredible 99% of its scoring. Two players to especially note are junior forward Alec Peters and senior center Vashil Fernandez. Peters was first team all conference and all region last year and scored an average of 16.8 points while pulling down 6.7 rebounds. Fernandez had an astonishing 98 blocks last year, breaking the school record while unsurprisingly being named conference defensive player of the year. Unfortunately, the Horizon league has become a one bid league in the post-Butler era, so a single misstep in the conference tournament (now held in Detroit) could mean the dancing shoes get left at home.
- Stephen F. Austin
When one thinks of mid-major conferences, usually the Missouri Valley or Atlantic Ten are the quickest to come to mind. But there’s a team from the humble Southland who has appeared on the national scene the last few years, and that of course would be the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. A virtual unknown a few years ago, the Jacks have a chance to be the first program in the league’s 60+ year history to win the regular season crown four years in a row. The biggest name to note is versatile senior Thomas Walkup, who led the team in scoring and rebounding last year and was both regular season and postseason league MVP. Senior Guard Trey Pinkney may not have had many points last year, but he was still a major contributor with 131 assists, the sixth best mark in program history. But even if the Jacks win 30 games again this year, they would be well advised to win the conference tournament to take all of the drama out of making the field of 68.
You can follow me @JeffreyNewholm.
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