Its that time again for my preseason poll, my rankings of the Top 13 mid major teams based on my analysis. Remember, no A10 or Mountain West teams. They are not mid majors (and for you A10 fans, you can verify this with Linda Bruno, A10 commissioner.)
Mid Major Hoops Baker’s Dozen
3) St Mary’s
5) San Diego
8) Middle Tenn State
11) Wright State
12) Miami Ohio
#1 Gonzaga - The number 1 ranked team in my preseason poll is poised for big things this year. Basically the entire team that lost to Davidson in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season returns. Senior guard Jeremy Pargo originally applied for the NBA draft but wisely did not hire an agent. He rescinded his application at the last minute and decided to return to the Zags for his senior season. It was a wise decision. Pargo is part of a very deep, balanced and talented team that includes sophomore forward Austin Daye, senior center Josh Heytvelt, junior guard Matt Bouldin, sophomore guard Stephen Gray and senior guard Micah Downs. Pargo, Daye, Heytvelt and Bouldin each averaged over 10 points per game and Downs and Gray averaged 8 points per game.
Things will not be easy for the Zags. First, they will have to battle it out with two other NCAA teams from last season just to win the West Coast Conference. Both St Mary’s and San Diego, fellow members of the Baker’s Dozen, return most of their starters from last season’s teams. Second, Gonzaga always plays an elite schedule; at Indiana, at Washington State, at Arizona, at home to #2 UConn on a nationally televised game on CBS and at Tennessee. Throw in a couple of games against another NCAA mid major tournament team from last year, Portland State, and against Utah, and the Zags should be NCAA tournament ready barely into calendar year 2009. The key factor will be Daye’s development into an elite college forward. If Daye progresses, the Zags have a significant chance to go to the Elite Eight this year. Remember the Zags had Davidson on the ropes last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament and look what the Wildcats did in the tourney. Coach Mark Pew’s deep team will go far this season.
#2 Davidson - The Cinderella story of 2007-08 returns with their main man, All World guard Stephen Curry. I had the distinct privilege of watching Davidson’s first two tournament games in the Raleigh region this past March. The wonderful ball movement that coach Bob McKillop runs along with the amazing ability Curry possesses is truly something to behold. What helped last season was having a great point guard in Jason Richards, who not only found Curry and his teammates but was able to be a major scoring factor from outside. The loss of Richards will be tough to overcome but something tells me that the Wildcats will be just fine. The rest of the supporting cast from last season has returned including the very underrated forward Andrew Lovedale, fellow forward/guard Max Paulhus Gosselin, and long range shooter Bryant Barr. A key addition will be Frank Ben Eze, a 6-8 230 pound freshman, an elite big man who Scouts.Com gave a 90 rating to and was heavily recruited by Big East schools. The key though will be finding a point guard to replace Richards. It may be McKillop’s son, Brendan, who gets the nod there.
Again, the schedule is not kind to the Wildcats. Home games with JMU, Winthrop, and NC State start off the season. Then a road game at West Virginia, followed by a matchup against #10 Purdue in the Wooden Classic. Then their first conference game is at fellow Baker’s Dozen member Charleston, then a road game to Duke ends their non conference schedule. Things won’t be as easy in the SoCon this year with an improving Charleston, so don’t look for a perfect 23-0 run through the conference again. However, as long as Curry stays healthy, the Wildcats will be there at tournament time and will be a dangerous foe again.
#3 St Mary’s - Imagine you are the coach of a midmajor team that had an elite season, going 25-7 and made the NCAA tournament. You had wins over Drake, Oregon and Gonzaga. Six of your seven losses came against NCAA tournament teams (and a seventh came to perennial mid major power Southern Illinois, a NIT team) Yet, you were considered the third best team in your conference after Gonzaga and WCC tournament champion San Diego. Better yet, you return four of your five starters for this season, and your team is not even picked by some to win your conference. And to top that, you are only picked #3 in my Baker’s Dozen Poll. Such is the life of Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett. The Rodney Dangerfields of the Mid Majors. No respect. No respect. Well, that’s not true, the Gaels got a lot of respect last season and they will this year too. They were in the Top 25 for most of the season. They have probably one of the best sophomores in the country in guard Patty Mills. And add returning starting forwards Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan who combine for 24 points and 17 rebounds a game.
The key factor will be the continuing maturation of Mills who nearly averaged 15 points per game. If he can cut down on his turnovers (nearly 3 a game last season), the Gaels will be even better. The schedule is not kind to the Gaels again with road games again at Oregon and at Southern Illinois. However, if the Gaels get off to a running start, they should be inline for another NCAA tourney season and perhaps will come out from the shadows of the Zags and the Toreros. Look for a sweet 16 run for the Gaels. They are that good.
#4 Siena - Siena was my favorite team in the NCAA Tournament. They were my best bet pick to knock off Vandy. Not only did they knock off Vandy, they did it convincingly by 21. So what can they do for an encore? Well, the Saints are another team that returns all five of their starters, especially senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck who has the makings of being an elite college player this season. Between Hasbrouck, senior forward Josh Duell, and juniors Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin and Ronald Moore, they averaged 62 points, 22 rebounds and 11 assists per game. Throw in a solid bench and the Saints are easily the favorites of the Metro Atlantic and again a dangerous opponent come tournament time.
However, they won’t be able to sneak up on teams this year and their non conference schedule to start the season will be difficult. First comes a return BracketBusters home game against Boise State, as mentioned a fellow NCAA tournament team from last season (Siena smoked Boise on the road last season in the BracketBusters game). Then a nationally televised game vs. #13 Tennessee on ESPN2 on November 27. Then another ESPN2 televised road game at #6 Pitt on December 17, followed by road games at St Joe’s and Holy Cross. Finally a nationally televised ESPN Full Court game vs. #23 Kansas on January 6. If Siena can come out of that schedule with a couple of big RPI helpful wins, the Saints should be poised to dominate the MAAC. We’ll see.
#5 Creighton - The Bluejays were under the radar in the Missouri Valley last year with the sudden emergence of Drake, the rise of Illinois State and the always solid play of Southern Illinois. Yet, the Bluejays in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, finished 22-11, their tenth straight 20 win season and won in the first round of the NIT. Despite losing two starters in Dane Watts and Nick Bahe, the Bluejays return three starters in P’Allen Stinnett, the Valley Freshman of the year, Cavel Witter and Kenny Lawson. Throw in Booker Woodfox (the best name in college basketball), the Valley’s Sixth Man of the Year, former Louisville transfer Chad Dillard, another Korver in sophomore Kaleb Korver, and a nice incoming class and the Bluejays should be the team to beat in the Valley. Oh, yeah I forgot to mention, Creighton might have the best coach in the Valley with Dana Altman.
The keys will be having Lawson and Dillard improve up front to make up for the loss of Watts. The Bluejays non conference schedule is not that strong with only two games of consequence vs. Dayton and at St Joe’s (of course there is always the game at Nebraska for state supremacy). With a good start, the Bluejays can then roll into an always tough Valley conference season.
#6 San Diego - It speaks volumes for mid major college basketball when the first six teams in the rankings all went to the postseason and had six wins to boot - Davidson 3, Creighton 1 in the NIT, Siena 1 and San Diego 1. Imagine three WCC teams in the top five. Well Gonzaga is to be expected. By the middle of last season, St Mary’s wasn’t a surprise. But San Diego? Holy Toreros Batman! Despite finishing third, the Toreros used their home court advantage in the tournament to sweep their three games and for their reward, a first round date with UConn. San Diego then justified its standing in the tournament when they stunned the Huskies in the first round before losing to fellow mid major Western Kentucky in the second round. Well San Diego has cemented its standing in my rankings by returning all five starters from that 22-14 season. Led by the dynamic duo of seniors Gyno Pomare and Brandon Johnson, the Toreros look again to make the WCC a three bid conference. The Toreros’ three other starters, Trumaine Johnson, Rob Jones and DeJon Jackson must provide quality minutes because the team does not have much depth.
The Toreros have a tough non conference schedule that immediately starts at UNLV on November 15. There are road games also against Oregon and Mississippi State. They also have home games vs Nevada, New Mexico and Boise State, who made the NCAA tournament last year. They need to go 4-2 in those games and not slip up elsewhere before league play starts. If the Toreros get off to a fast start with solid RPI wins, then a three bid WCC looks likely. San Diego won’t have home court advantage this year (WCC is playing their tournament this year at the Orleans Casino in Nevada), so the more wins, the better in the now really tough WCC.
#7 Belmont - We have now come to the official midway point of the Baker’s Dozen rankings and the last team in our rankings that made the NCAA tournament last season, the Bruins of Belmont. Its been a good year for Belmont, first making the NCAA tournament, second a heartbreaking loss/near upset to Duke in the first round of the tournament, then finally the first Presidential Debate (something Belmont and Hofstra have in common at the moment). The Bruins lost their leading scorer Justin Hare to graduation, but four of their five other starters return; Matthew Dotson, Shane Dansby, Andy Wicke and Alex Renfroe, along with their sixth man, Jordan Campbell, who now will move into the starting lineup. Those five combined for 52 points and 21 rebounds a game. Keaton Belcher also provides size and experience off the bench.
The Bruins have a nice incoming class with guard Drew Hanlin and forwards Mick Hedgepath and Brandon Baker, so the Bruins should have enough depth to repeat in the Atlantic Sun. The Bruins however will not sneak up on anyone. Their third game of the season is at #6 Pitt, along with a home game vs. Middle Tennessee State, #8 in my Baker’s Dozen Rankings. Then an annual road trip to #13 Tennessee on December 30 and a home and home vs. Austin Peay. The Bruins should make the tournament again. The question will be can they breakthrough this time.
#8 Middle Tennessee State - Geez, there are a lot of good basketball teams in Tennessee. The Volunteers, the Vandy Commodores who made the NCAA tourney last season, the aforementioned Bruins. Now a fourth team looks to emerge in Rocky Top Land; the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders had knocked off eventual NCAA Tournament member South Alabama in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament before falling to NCAA Sweet 16 member Western Kentucky. Now with their entire starting team returning including guard Calvin O’Neil, who was injured in the first game of the year and sat out the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Blue Raiders look poised to win the Sun Belt. Along with O’Neill, Desmond Yates, Demetrius Green, Kevin Kanaskie, Theryn Hudson and Nigel Johnson, the Blue Raiders averaged 66 points and nearly 27 rebounds a game.
The Blue Raiders get a chance early to establish themselves. A home game vs. #13 Tennessee on November 21 is their first test. Then a game against Vandy on November 24, then road games at Belmont, UC Irvine and Missouri State round out their non conference schedule. Not an easy task for the Blue Raiders. Then again knocking off South Alabama two out of three times last season wasn’t either. The Blue Raiders look to be up to the task.
#9 Oakland - The Summit League has always been a league under the mid major radar. Successful teams such as Oral Roberts and IUPUI have had their share of upsets the past seasons (Kansas, UMass are recent victims of various Summit League teams). Perhaps one Summit team will emerge and become a new force in Mid Major college basketball. That team this season might be Oakland. Greg Kampe has been at Oakland for 25 years. His 2005 team won the conference tournament but this team could be the best yet. Kampe believes this is his most deep team yet with five starters returning and a heralded incoming freshman class where he believes “three or four freshman that will play.” It all starts with six foot five senior wing forward Derrick Nelson, an all First Team Summit League players who averaged 17 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Nelson is joined by point guard Johnathan Jones who averaged about 15 points and 6 assists a game and shooting guard Eric Kangas who averaged 14.6 points a game on 3.3 three pointers per game. The Golden Grizzlies added four legitimate top prospects in shooting guard Drew Maynard, power forward Jay Thames, shooting guard Blake Cushingberry and center Ilija Milutinovic, who originally was going to Oregon State before going to prep school.
The Golden Grizzlies will find out very early where they stand with a Davidsonesque killer road non conference schedule; at Cleveland State, at Oregon, at Syracuse, at Iowa, then finally at Kansas State. Two home games later in December vs Michigan and #7 Michigan State round
out the festivities. But remember what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. The Golden Grizzlies will emerge as a strong mid major contender and rumble through the Summit as only Grizzlies do.
#10 VCU - As noted in my CAA season preview, the Rams lost three starters from their 24 win team that went 15-3 in the CAA. The Rams though return the key starter, the 2007-08 CAA player of the year and this year’s preseason player of the year, Eric Maynor. Maynor, a future NBA draft pick, will need a lot of scoring help this year from guard Joey Rodriguez, dynamic shot blocker Larry Sanders (insert your Garry Shandling jokes here) and a cast of others, including top freshman Terrance Saintil . Based on their recent exhibition game, sophomore guard Brandon Rozzell has been inserted into the starting lineup and may become a scoring force. But the core of the Rams is Coach Anthony Grant’s vaunted press.
The Rams will find out early how their new mix works with games against Rhode Island, Akron and at Oklahoma (former Rams coach Jeff Capel is of course the Sooners coach). The Rams won’t go 15-3 this year in conference but if Sanders, Rodriguez and Rozzell step up and Maynor is Maynor, the Rams will be good enough to win the conference.
#11 Wright State - What’s a preseason ranking without a Horizon League team in it. Usually though its Butler. But the Bulldogs graduated most of their starters last year and are in rebuilding mode. That leaves the best team in the conference, Wright State and the one of the best mid major coaches, Brad Brownell to step up. Brownell is now in his third season at Wright State . I In the first two seasons, he is only led the Raiders to two 20 win seasons, a Horizon League title and a NCAA berth. Now in his third season, Brownell, who recently signed a six year extension, looks to lead a veteran squad to another Horizon League title and another NCAA berth. It starts with his backcourt of Vaughan Duggins and Todd Brown who combine for 26 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game. The Raiders are deep at guards but do have a question in the frontcourt where Brownell will have to rely on JUCOs and a redshirt freshman to step up.
The Raiders will find out early if the big men can step up as they have a home game against Osiris Eldridge and the Redbirds of Illinois State, a NIT team from last season, then a home game against fellow Baker’s Dozen member Miami of Ohio, then a road game against #24 Wake Forest in mid December. There is no coach in the NCAA who gets more out of his players than Brad Brownell. If he can get some frontcourt players to step up, look for a 23 win season like 2007 and another NCAA appearance.
#12 Miami Ohio - Tom Kemp would be very upset with me if I didn’t have one MAC team in my rankings. He will be very happy to know that not only is there a MAC team, but its his alma mater, the Redhawks making the list. This is a veteran squad that even though only went 17-16 last season, they played the seventh toughest non conference schedule last season. They return three starters, including Michael Bramos and Kenny Hayes who combined for 28 points and 7 rebounds per game. In total they have seven players returning who started at least one game last season. If top freshmen Kramer Soderberg and Julian Mavugna can come in and play significant minutes, they will only be better.
Of course, the Redhawks will have another brutal non conference schedule. Coach Charlie Coles’ philosophy must be “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. The Redhawks have road games at #6 Pitt, Wright State, Xavier, Temple, West Virginia, and Dayton before their first home game against Akron, a NIT team from the year before. If they can slosh through a few wins in their non conference schedule (and if you have seen Miami, slosh is a good word. That’s how MAC teams play), then they will be ready to slosh through the MAC. Remember, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
#13 Charleston - Things won’t be so easy for Davidson this year in the SoCon. A new force is emerging from the harbor of Charleston, the Cougars. Now grant you, the Cougars finished under .500 last year for the first time in 28 seasons (how good is John Kresse, retired Charleston coach), but former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins has hope for optimism. He has all five starters returning, including four players who averaged double figures in scoring; Dustin Scott, Jermaine Johnson, Tony White and Andrew Goudelock. Throw in four other players who averaged at least five points a game, plus two solid incoming freshman in Quasim Pugh and Matt Sunberg, and the Cougars look poised for another 20 win season.
It won’t be easy though as Charleston has a very tough non conference schedule which starts with them hosting the Charleston Classic. They have the potential of playing teams such as Clemson, Temple, TCU, Western Michigan or Hofstra in any of the three games. Then it’s a home game with South Carolina and road games at Winthrop, #20 Davidson in their first SoCon game of the season, then at #1 North Carolina. If the Cougars get off to a good start at home and things bounce their way, there is the remote possibility of two SoCon teams in the NCAA dance.
Now this preseason ranking is not an exact science. Not by any means. My rankings are based on previous season’s performance, starters returning, strength of league, preseason previews that I have read etc. There were several teams I also considered for the list but didn’t make it. Defending MAC champ Kent State still has MAC player of the year Al Fisher, but the losses in the frontcourt will make it difficult for them to repeat. Ohio and Akron are also always lurking in the MAC. Nevada has Brandon Fields and a very good incoming class with Luke Babbitt as the premier find, but it will take time to recover from losing Marcellus Kemp and JaVale McGee. Portland State has wunderkind guard Jeremiah Dominguez and a couple of other starters returning. They most likely might be the team to crack the Baker’s Dozen. Cal Northridge looks like the best team in the Big West. With the return of the injured Darryl Monroe, George Mason has actually four starters returning, but a loss to DIII Randolph Macon in an exhibition game is not helpful (even if they are ranked #15 in DIII). Northeastern has all five of their starters remaining but I need to see them win some road games before I put them on this list. Cleveland State could be the other team in the Horizon to look at. And finally, there is always a second Missouri Valley team at least and Northern Iowa looks to be above Illinois State and Osiris Eldridge for that spot.
You are always welcome to send in your comments and note a team I didn’t list. I am sure I forgot or overlooked someone. Hey its preseason, right? Of course, some team we haven’t listed will swoop in, but until that time, lets just celebrate the fact college basketball season is here. I will be celebrating by going to the inaugural Charleston Classic on Friday. I have to leave early on Sunday so I miss day three but, two days, eight games. Heaven. :-)