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College Basketball Preview – The Mid Majors

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Feb 22, 2014; Wichita, KS, USA; Wichita State Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall watches his team during an 83-54 win against the Drake Bulldogs at Charles Koch Arena. Mandatory Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball season begins on Friday. Each team starts off with the dream that maybe, just maybe, they can win a national championship. Villanova fans have to face the reality that last season is over and the chase for a repeat national championship is about to begin. As with any new season, the landscape of the sport has changed. Incoming freshmen across the country look to make an instant impact in positions where outgoing players left big voids.

At many mid-major schools, the dream is to win a game in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, most of these schools won’t make the tournament if they don’t win their respective conference championships. Let’s take a look at some of the mid-major schools that could pull and upset or two in the tournament.

Atlantic 10 Conference – Dayton, Rhode Island, VCU, Davidson

The Dayton Flyers have built a consistent program under the leadership of Coach Archie Miller. They have a slew of seniors on the squad this year who have already experienced success in the NCAA tournament. In 2014 they reached the elite eight, and in 2015 they made the round of 32. Look for them to win a game or two and potentially break through to the second weekend of the tournament. Rhode Island returns E.C. Matthews from injury to a roster that already has a lot of talent. VCU has quality senior leadership in JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox. Davidson brings back their two leading scorers in Jack Gibbs and Peyton Aldridge. The Atlantic 10 should get 2 or 3 teams into the NCAA tournament.

Colonial Athletic Association– UNC Wilmington

Many will remember the tough game UNC Wilmington gave Duke in last season’s first round. The 93-85 loss to the Blue Devils will be a stepping stone for the Seahawks as they look to make a deeper run in March. They return 4 of their 5 top scorers from last season. They have a very soft schedule, so receiving an at-large bid to the tournament may be out of the question. This team should have no issues repeating as Colonial champs and giving some team fits in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The rest of the conference will have a tough time matching up with them.

Conference USA – UAB

Conference USA has become a one bid league in recent seasons, and it looks to remain that way heading into 2016-17. The top team should be the Blazers of UAB. Early seasons matchups against Kansas, Saint Mary’s, and Texas will be a good gauge as to how good this team actually is. UAB returns almost every key player from a team that finished 16-2 in conference play last season. Unfortunately, their season came to a grinding halt after being upset by Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Look for UAB to be better prepared for postseason play and potentially make a run in March.

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Valparaiso reached the finals of last season’s National Invitational Tournament. Photo: ValpoSports.com

Horizon League – Valparaiso

Many experts believed that Valparaiso deserved an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament last season after going 26-6. However, they lost in the conference semifinals to Green Bay in 99-92 in overtime and were forced to play in the NIT. The Crusaders made the most of their inclusion by advancing to the championship game before losing to George Washington. The runner-up finish should motivate them heading into the new season. Alec Peters is a true All-American candidate. The 6-9 senior seriously considered leaving college early to enter the pro ranks. Thankfully for Valparaiso he decided to return. Expect big things out of him and new head coach Matt Lottich.

Ivy League – Princeton, Harvard, Yale

The Ivy League will be as deep as ever. Yale upset Baylor last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and they return leading scorer Makai Mason. Princeton returns almost every key player from a team that finished just a game behind Yale in the standings last year. Harvard brings back point guard Siyani Chambers who was injured last season. Coach Tommy Amaker also brings in a top 25 recruiting class. A big change in the Ivy League is also occurring this year. Up until last year, the regular season champion had been declared the winner of the league. Beginning this season, the league will hold a 4-team tournament to determine the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Look for the Ivy League to be very competitive and potentially produce another Cinderella team in March.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference – Monmouth

It is rare to see a team from the MAAC receive much national attention, but last year was different. Monmouth pulled off big wins in the non-conference slate in 2015-16 against UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, and Georgetown. These wins, along with a bench known for crazy celebrations, propelled them up the rankings and into the hearts of college basketball fans. A three point loss to Iona in the MAAC title game put the team squarely on the bubble. They were subsequently left out of the NCAA tournament, and they flamed out in the NIT. Look for the Hawks to stay at the top of the conference with leading scorers Justin Robinson and Micah Seaborn returning. It should be another fun year for Monmouth.

Missouri Valley Conference – Wichita State

Over the past four seasons, Wichita State has put together one of the greatest runs of any mid-major school in college basketball history. In 2013, they advanced to the final four. In 2014, they had an undefeated regular season and were a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In 2015, they upset in-state rival Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16.  In 2016, they beat Vanderbilt and Arizona before a losing to Miami. The Shockers lose icons in Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet. These two players defined the program and will be tough to replace. Coach Gregg Marshall always has a team that plays tough and grinds out wins. There is no reason to expect anything different from his team this season. It will be a rebuilding year for most other teams in the conference as well.

Mountain West Conference – San Diego State

The Aztecs have been a consistent winner in March under Coach Steve Fisher. That changed last year after sputtering through the non-conference schedule. The losses piled up and ultimately cost them a spot in the NCAA tournament after losing the MWC title game to Fresno State. San Diego State returns the core of a team that should breeze through a depleted conference. For many years the Mountain West was a multi-bid league with teams looking to advance far in March. It has now become a one-bid league with teams such as UNLV and New Mexico struggling to bring back rich traditions.

Southern Conference – Chattanooga

Chattanooga quietly put together a 29-6 season in 2015-16. They received a #12 seed after winning their conference tournament.  Indiana beat them in the first round, but there is a lot to look forward to with the Mocs this year. The senior-laden team will be led by Casey Jones, Tre’ McLean, and Justin Tuoyo. Look for this team to pull an upset or two in March.

West Coast Conference – Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, BYU

Coach Mark Few continues to reload at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs lose two stars in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, but Przemek Karnowski returns from injury after missing most of last season.  They also add transfers Jordan Mathews and Nigel Williams-Goss to help round out a solid rotation. This team should not only be a lock for the NCAA tournament but also a serious contender to make the program’s first final four. Saint Mary’s has built a consistent program around Australian-born talent. The Gaels narrowly missed out on the NCAA tournament after losing in the conference championship game last season. Coach Randy Bennett returns every starter for a team that should have no problem securing a tournament bid even if they don’t win a conference championship. BYU should be a team straddling the fence all year. They lack deep experience, but Coach Dave Rose continually brings in players returning from Mormon missions. Keep an eye on this team as an early round sleeper in March.

The college basketball preview will continue in another installment with a closer look at some of the major conferences. Stayed tuned.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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