Before we get into the meat of this post, let’s hold the annual tradition of laying out our “mid-major disclaimer”, or how we determined who was eligible for this team:
The schools from the Power 5 conferences were excluded, obviously, as well as any program in the Big East, the American, the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West. The WCC, with the exception of Gonzaga and BYU, were included, as was the Missouri Valley, with the exception of Wichita State. The Zags and the Shockers are top 25 programs nationally paying their head coaches many millions of dollars and recruiting like the big boys. And to me, BYU is still a Mountain West program that was forced to relocate because #football.
This is my plea: Don’t argue the semantics of who we rated as high-major vs. mid-major. That’s not the point of this. The point is to highlight the best players in the country that you’re probably not aware of.
MID-MAJOR POWER RANKINGS
1. Saint Mary’s
The West Coast Conference regular season co-champion was one of the notable snubs from the NCAA Tournament this past March. That shouldn’t be the case this season, as Randy Bennett returns all five starters to what should be a top-25 team in the preseason. Emmett Naar, a first-team all-conference selection, and senior forward Dane Pineau are among the four double-digit scorers the Gaels bring back. According to kenpom.com, Saint Mary’s was top-20 in adjusted offensive efficiency. That’s the highest its been since 2013, the last time the Gaels reached the tournament.
Jerod Haase is now the head coach of Stanford. He left the program in the hands of Robert Ehsan, an assistant who has been with the program since 2012. Ehsan, the first-year head coach, inherits a team that returns four starters, with the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Dirk Williams, set to be the starting point guard. Chris Cokley, the team’s leading scorer, and William Lee, Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year, are both back, giving the Blazers one of the best frontcourts among mid-majors. UAB could face up to three ranked opponents during in the non-conference: Kansas, Saint Mary’s and Texas.
Mitch Henderson’s team is set to return the Tigers back to the top of the conference standings this season. Princeton essentially returns six starters: the five who started last season, as well as Hans Brase, a 6-foot-9 forward who averaged 11.5 points during the 2014-15 season, but missed all of last year due to a torn ACL. Henry Caruso, the team’s leading scorer, is back as one of several shooters the Tigers have in their arsenal. Besides center Pete Miller (who did not attempt a three last year), four starters shot better than 35 percent from deep. It’ll be a three-team race with Harvard and Yale, but if Princeton can separate themselves, it’ll earn this spot in the rankings.
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The Mocs had been on the rise since Will Wade took over the program. Even after he departed for VCU, Chattanooga continued to rise, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. During the process of a 29-win season, the Mocs knocked off three high-major programs, including Dayton. Matt McCall brings back four starters. That doesn’t include Casey Jones, the 2015 preseason SoCon Player of the Year, who missed all but seven games due to an ankle injury. In his absence, Tre’ McLean emerged as the top scorer at 12.1 points per game while Justin Tuoyo was named SoCon Defensive Player of the Year for the second time. Chattanooga will have its hands full with Eastern Tennessee State, but the Mocs should be favored to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2017.
5. UT Arlington
On January 21, the Mavericks were 13-2 and held wins over Ohio State and Memphis. But their season was abruptly derailed when Kevin Hervey tore his ACL, ending his season. UT Arlington went on to win 24 games, but saw Little Rock play the role of Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament. Hervey is one of five starters back, meaning the Mavericks should be a team to be reckoned with in 2016-17. Kaelon Wilson, Erick Neal and Jalen Jones were all double-digit scorers last year, which allows Hervey, who was close to averaging a double-double before getting hurt, to ease back into the lineup if he’s not already at 100 percent. UT Arlington did figure out how to win without Hervey, closing out the season as winners of 10 of 14.
6. UNC Wilmington
In two seasons, Kevin Keatts is 43-22 as head coach of UNC Wilmington. He not only guided the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade, he put a scare into Duke in the first round. From that team, four players return. Chris Flemmings, a candidate for CAA Player of the Year, headlines a backcourt that also includes Denzel Ingram and C.J. Bryce, two other double digit scorers. The trio will continue to force other opponents into turnovers, as the Seahawks were one of the best at doing that last season.
Siyani Chambers is back at Harvard following an ACL tear. He joins a mix of veteran players and talented youngsters. Zena Edosomwan, a second-team all-Ivy League selection as a junior, is part of the former, while Corey Johnson, a potential mid-major breakout star, headlines the latter. The Crimson are in the middle of what should be a tight race between themselves, Princeton and Yale.
8. Long Beach State
The 49ers were close to a NCAA Tournament berth last season. They should be in contention for once again this year. Long Beach State has one of the best mid-major backcourts with Justin Bibbins being joined by Evan Payne, the Loyola Marymount transfer who should replace the production left behind by Nick Faust. UC Irvine, which has been to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, should fight with the 49ers for the top spot.
9. Northern Iowa
The Panthers graduated three double-digit scorers in Paul Jesperson, Matt Bohannon and Wes Washpun, but return arguably the best player in the Missouri Valley Conference in Jeremy Morgan. The last time we saw Morgan, he posted 36 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. That’s the only thing Northern Iowa fans choose to remember about the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Northern Iowa does test itself out of conference, playing Xavier, North Carolina, Iowa and South Dakota State.
Isaiah Johnson anchors the middle, while Antonio Jackson and Noah Robotham bring experience to the backcourt for the Zips. Akron should be the favorites after coming up short in the 2016. The Zips go on the road this season to face Creighton and Gonzaga, both of whom could be ranked, before they head into MAC play in a conference that is wide open.
Alec Peters is the best mid-major player in the country. He was named a third-team NBCSports.com Preseason All-American and is on the radar of every NBA team. The Crusaders, in the first season of the post-Bryce Drew era, will go as far the 6-foot-9 Peters can take them. That isn’t to say the cabinet is bare outside of Peters. Valpo also returns starting guard Tevonn Walker and Shane Hammink.
12. Fort Wayne
A 24-win season led Fort Wayne to an NIT appearance. The Mastodons should be a player in the Summit League, contending with South Dakota State and North Dakota State. Fort Wayne no longer has Max Landis, the Summit League Player of the Year, but Mo Evans, who missed the last two months of the season due to an academic issue, is back, as is John Konchar, who led the conference in rebounding.
Rick Byrd has four starters back, including Evan Bradds, a 6-foot-7 forward who led the nation in field goal percentage at a remarkable 72 percent. The Bruins are projected to have another efficient offense. Since 2011, Belmont has been in the top-50 in adjusted offensive efficiency five times, according to kenpom.com. As always, Byrd will test his team early on, with games against Florida and Rhode Island.
Two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Tim Kempton and first-team all-Patriot League selection Kahron Ross are two of four starters from a team that had its NCAA Tournament hopes dashed by an unlikely postseason run from Holy Cross. The Mountain Hawks have great balance. They have Kempton, at 6-foot-10, on the block, a steady point guard in Ross and guys who can knock down shots from deep and defend.
15. South Dakota State
Despite being in Brookings, South Dakota, Mike Daum is going to be a name you hear a lot this year. The 6-foot-9 sophomore averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 boards per game last season, logging less 22 minutes a night. Daum hit 47 percent from three as a freshman. Reed Tellinghuisen, the other returning starter for the Jackrabbits, can also knock down shots from the outside. Those two, along with Ian Theisen, give first-year head coach T.J. Otzelberger a solid frontcourt to work with. But contending with Fort Wayne for the Summit League title could come down to how good the backcourt can be after losing Deondre Parks and George Marshall.
Ten More Mid-Majors to Watch: East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Illinois State, New Mexico State, Ohio, Siena, UC Irvine, Vermont, Weber State, Yale