Teams outside of the power conferences had a noticeable impact on the 2017-18 season, including UMBC becoming the first 16-seed to beat a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament and Loyola-Chicago winning 32 games and reaching the Final Four.
Buffalo and Marshall also managed to win an NCAA tournament game, and the College of Charleston gave Auburn all it wanted before falling by four points.
So what’s in store for mid-majors this season?
While predicting another Final Four participant at this stage is tough to do, there are a host of teams that possess the combination of talent and experience that generally leads to success.
Below are our preseason rankings of the 16 best mid-majors heading into the 2018-19 season.
Note: No teams from the American, Atlantic 10, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 or SEC were eligible. The same goes for Gonzaga and BYU out of the WCC.
Nate Oats’ Buffalo squad is coming off of a season in which it won 27 games, the MAC East regular season and MAC tournament titles. And all the Bulls did once in the NCAA tournament was blow out Arizona before falling to Kentucky in the second round. Buffalo will have to account for the loss of Wes Clark, but having five of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago back will certainly help with that.
Seniors CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris all averaged between 15.5 and 17.2 points per game, and junior guard Davonta Jordan made 35 starts and dished out 4.0 assists per game. Add in another senior in guard Dontay Carruthers, and two talented freshmen in point guard Ronaldo Segu and wing Jeenathan Williams, and Buffalo has the pieces needed to not only repeat as MAC champs but do even more damage in the NCAA tournament.
Like Buffalo the Thundering Herd managed to win a game in the NCAA tournament, as Dan D’Antoni’s team knocked off Wichita State before falling to West Virginia. And despite losing forward Ajdin Penava, who averaged 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game, to the professional ranks Marshall is well-equipped to make a return trip to the Big Dance.
A big reason why is the prolific backcourt tandem of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, who combined to score an average of 42.8 points per game last season. In addition to leading the team in scoring, Elmore also dished out 6.8 assists per game and was second on the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg). In total six of Marshall’s top seven scorers from a season ago are back, which sets this team up for another run.
While the Ramblers are best known for their run through the NCAA tournament, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1963, the fact of the matter is that Porter Moser’s bunch was darn good all season long. Loyola won the Missouri Valley regular season title by four games, and by the time their season was complete the Ramblers had amassed a school-record 32 wins. A stingy defense and a balanced offense were the keys, and the question now is what will Loyola do for an encore.
Reigning Larry Bird Missouri Valley Player of the Year Clayton Custer (13.2 ppg, 4.1 apg) is back, as is fellow senior Marques Townes (11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and sophomores Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson. That quartet will have to help account for the loss of two seniors who averaged 11.0 points per game last season (Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson) and the Valley’s top defender in Ben Richardson. Loyola’s path to another Valley title won’t be an easy one, as the competition has improved, but they’re capable of repeating.
4. WESTERN KENTUCKY
For some programs a saga like the Mitchell Robinson one would have dealt a crushing blow to the team’s hopes for that particular season. But that wasn’t the case for Rick Stansbury’s Hilltoppers, who won 27 games and reached the Conference USA tournament final. After getting over the disappointment of not reaching the NCAA tournament, WKU managed to reach the semifinals of the Postseason NIT. WKU returns just two starters from that team, guards Lamonte Bearden and Taveion Hollingsworth, but a look at the players Stansbury has added to the program reveals why there should be optimism in Bowling Green.
Five-star freshman big man Charles Bassey leads WKU’s freshman class, ad the Hilltoppers also managed to add some experience with transfers Desean Murray (Auburn) and Jared Savage (Austin Peay) among the non-freshman newcomers. If WKU can get consistent play in the post to help account for the loss of Dwight Coleby and Justin Johnson, who combined to average 26.8 points and 17.4 rebounds per game last season, look out.
5. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
After finishing below .500 in each of Barry Hinson’s first three seasons in Carbondale, the Salukis have won 22, 17 and 20 games in each of the last three years. And with all five starters back from a team that finished second in the Missouri Valley, SIU is capable of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Three seniors, led by guard Armon Fletcher, averaged at least 12.1 points per game last season and junior guard Aaron Cook wasn’t far off with an average of 9.8 points per.
The one thing to watch with this group is the progress of senior center Thik Bol, who averaged 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in 2016-17. Bol missed all of last season with a knee injury that ultimately required two surgical procedures (addressing different issues on the same knee), the second of which occurred in July. His ability to rebound and block shots make the 6-foot-8 senior a valued member of the rotation, but the question is just how much can Bol give them. SIU will still be a factor in the Valley if Bol is severely limited, but his return makes this group that much better if he can go.
6. UNC GREENSBORO
As noted in the Wofford blurb the Spartans are the reigning SoCon champions, as Wes Miller’s team managed to win a school-record 27 games and the conference’s regular season and tournament titles. First team all-conference guard Francis Alonso, who averaged a team-best 15.6 points per game as a junior, is back as are reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year James Dickey (8.4 rpg, 2.1 bpg), senior guard Demetrius Troy and sophomore guard Isaiah Miller. UNCG returns three starters and four of its top six scorers, with Marvin Smith (12.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Jordy Kuiper both having graduated.
The Spartans may have finished last season with just two double-digit scorers, Alonso and Smith, but a big reason why they were so successful was their work on the defensive end. In conference games UNCG led the SoCon in defensive efficiency and block percentage and also did a good job of both defending inside of the three-point line and ending possessions with a rebound (best defensive rebounding percentage in the league). If they can duplicate those efforts and have someone step forward to help account for the loss of Marvin Smith’s production, there’s no reason why UNCG can’t repeat as SoCon champs.
7. ILLINOIS STATE
Like Loyola and SIU, Dan Muller’s Redbirds should be a major factor in the Missouri Valley race. Last season Illinois State went 18-15, 10-8 in conference play, but with four starters having returned this should be a team that can make a case to be considered the preseason favorite. Senior forward Milik Yarbrough was a first team all-conference selection last season, as he averaged 16.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, and fellow senior Phil Fayne was a second team all-conference selection. Fellow starters Keyshawn Evans and William Tinsley are also back for the Redbirds, who have the talent and experience needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
Mike Young’s Terriers won 21 games and finished fourth in the Southern Conference last season, and four starters are back from that team led by reigning SoCon Player of the Year Fletcher Magee. Magee is one of college basketball’s best shooters, and in averaging 22.1 points per game the 6-foot-4 guard shot 48.4 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from three and 90.7 percent from the foul line. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Magee is a 50/40/90 player as a senior.
Magee will have help offensively too, as guards Cameron Jackson and Nathan Hoover and center Trevor Stumpe (all double-digit scorers) all return. Guards Storm Murphy and Matthew Pegram are also back, meaning that the Terriers return the top six scorers from last season. What could also help this group in its quest to dethrone UNCG is the fact that it took a summer trip to Portugal, as those practices ahead of the trip can be quite valuable.
Since taking over at his alma mater in 2014, Travis DeCuire has led the Grizzlies to at least 20 wins in three of his four seasons at the helm. Last year’s squad managed to win 26 games and the Big Sky’s regular season and tournament titles, reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. Montana may not have to wait that long for another trip to the Big Dance either, thanks in large part to one of the better guard tandems around in seniors Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine.
Rorie and Oguine combined to average 33.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game, with the former leading the Griz in both scoring (17.2 ppg) and assists (3.7 apg). In total Montana returns four starters from a season ago, with seniors Bobby Moorehead and Jamar Akoh being the others. This group has experience, talent and depth, which makes Montana the class of the Big Sky heading into this season.
10. GEORGIA STATE
If you’re putting together a schedule of college basketball games to watch the first week, mark this one down: Georgia State at Montana, November 9. Ron Hunter has four starters back from a team that won 24 games and the Sun Belt tournament title last season, led by dynamic junior guard D’Marcus Simonds. Simonds averaged 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and if he can improve his perimeter shooting some (29.2 percent shooter from three last season) the 6-foot-3 junior becomes an even tougher matchup for opponents.
Also back are guard Devin Mitchell and forwards Jeff Thomas and Malik Benlevi, who averaged between 9.6 and 12.0 points per game in 2017-18. With Jordan Session and key reserve Isaiah Williams having moved on Georgia State will need some of its supplementary options to step forward, but with Simonds leading the way the Panthers can make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
11. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
By now you should know who the headliner is for the Jackrabbits: 6-foot-8 senior forward Mike Daum. “The Dauminator” has won Summit League Player of the Year honors each of the last two seasons, and in 2017-18 he averaged 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Due in large part to Daum’s efforts T.J. Otzelberger’s program won 28 games and the Summit League regular season and tournament titles, resulting in a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore guard Davis Jenkins, who as a freshman averaged 16.1 points per game, and senior guard Tevin King and Skyler Flatten shouldn’t be overlooked either, as the Jackrabbits return four starters from a season ago. Daum, and the production around him, are reasons why South Dakota State should once again rank among the best mid-majors in college basketball.
Kevin Baggett’s Broncs won 22 games and the MAAC regular season title last season, only to once again experience disappointment in the conference tournament. Rider will take another stab and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, and having all five starters back will certainly help with that quest.
Sophomore guard Dimencio Vaughn (16.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), the MAAC Rookie of the Year last season, leads the way with fellow sophomores Jordan Allen and Frederick Scott and juniors Stevie Jordan and Tyere Marshall back as well. All five were double-digit scorers on a team that had just one senior, one fewer than the number of seniors on this season’s roster. Rider can certainly rack up the wins during the season, but it’s all about that first weekend of March. This group has the talent needed to get over the hump.
Prior to last season a member from the Sunshine State represented the Atlantic Sun in the NCAA tournament three straight years, FGCU twice and North Florida once. Lipscomb managed to end that run last season by beating FGCU in the A-Sun tournament title game on the Eagles’ home floor, and the Bisons have the pieces needed to make a return trip to the Big Dance.
Lipscomb returns its top six scorers from last season, led by seniors Garrison Mathews (21.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Rob Marberry (15.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Also, guard Nathan Moran, who averaged 11.1 points and 4.2 assists per game in 2016-17, returns after offseason hip surgery led to his taking a medical redshirt. Casey Alexander managed to lead Lipscomb to its first NCAA tournament as a Division I member last season, and the Bisons may not have to wait long for that second trip.
14. MURRAY STATE
Yes, Matt McMahon has two major holes to fill thanks to the departures of OVC Player of the Year Jonathan Stark and fellow first team all-conference selection Terrell Miller. Those aren’t players who can easily be replaced. That being said, Murray State has a promising young talent in sophomore guard Ja Morant. As a freshman Morant averaged 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 80.6 percent from the foul line.
Due to the departures of Stark and Miller more will likely be asked of Morant from a scoring standpoint, but he’s got the talent needed to rise to that challenge. Seniors Leroy “Shaq” Buchanan and Brion Sanchious return as well, giving Murray State three returning starters to work with as they look to remain atop the OVC.
Rick Byrd may return just two starters, Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain, from last season’s squad but year after year Belmont managed to put forth teams capable of contending for conference titles. Since the last time Belmont failed to win 20 games in a season (2009-10, and they won 19 games that year), the program has made four NCAA tournament appearances and won at least 22 games in seven of those eight seasons.
In Windler the Bruins have an outstanding 6-foot-7 senior forward who averaged 17.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, and he can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. McClain averaged 12.6 points per game as a junior, and sophomore Nick Hopkins (7.4 ppg) was a solid reserve off the bench. Belmont has some holes to fill, but their system is incredibly difficult to defend. And when you have a player the caliber of Windler, you’ve got a shot to be really good.
The Catamounts won the America East regular season title for the second consecutive season, going 27-8 overall and 15-1 in conference play. But thanks to UMBC’s Jairus Lyles hitting a game-winning three in the America East title game, UVM had to settle for the Postseason NIT...and we all know what UMBC went on to do in its next game. The Catamounts, even with the graduation of three of the top four scorers from that team, are still a team worth keeping an eye on this season.
Forward Anthony Lamb, who was hampered some by injury, still averaged 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, and redshirt senior Ernie Duncan (10.8 ppg) is back as well. Vermont’s hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament will rest upon the shoulders of those two, and they’ll need returning starter Everett Duncan to take a step forward as well, but John Becker’s work during his time in Burlington will ensure that they’ll remain a favorite in America East.
College of Charleston
Stephen F. Austin
William & Mary