Predicting the Most Dangerous Mid-Majors in 2014-15 College Basketball Season
College basketball's power conferences don't get to have all the fun anymore. Each season, new interlopers from the game's less-heralded leagues manage to make a splash in the NCAA tournament.
This season, their numbers were legion. Harvard struck for the second straight year, Mercer continued the Atlantic Sun run that Florida Gulf Coast started in 2013 and Stephen F. Austin sprung an upset on mid-major patron saint VCU.
So who's in line for next season? Do any of the usual suspects return for another run? Does someone pop up from the weeds? Does somebody defy all reason and make the dance despite looking like an afterthought in April?
The answer to all will likely be yes, but some of the lower conferences' top contenders show signs of life even at this early stage. These 10 teams have enough talent on hand to stamp them as potential Cinderellas, even 11 months in advance.
Teams from the following conferences were not considered mid-majors: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC. Also, top programs like Wichita State and Gonzaga were not considered.
The American University Eagles had to be happy with just making their first NCAA tournament since 2009, since they were unceremoniously blasted out of it in a 40-point loss to Wisconsin. Still, don't bet against a return.
AU brings back a talented perimeter group, led by double-figure scorers Darius Gardner, John Schoof and Jesse Reed. The trio combined for 36.5 points per game in coach Mike Brennan's deliberate offense, shooting better than 41 percent from three-point range between them.
Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Tony Wroblicky is gone, but the Eagles will attempt to replace him at center with 6'11" rising junior Zach Elcano and 6'9" Nevada transfer Kevin Panzer. Panzer started 30 games for Nevada in 2012-13, averaging 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 84.2 percent from the foul line.
The ability of Elcano and Panzer to protect the rim will be a major key, as Wroblicky's shot-blocking skills were a major component of the team's stifling defense. AU ranked seventh in the country in scoring defense, surrendering only 59.1 PPG.
Another transfer, ex-George Washington forward Jonathan Davis, was once a three-star prospect according to Rivals and Scout.com. The 6'7", 215-pound rising junior should play a major role on a front line that needs bodies on hand.
Senior-to-be Kyle Kager is the most experienced frontcourt returnee for American, and he averaged 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds last season. Kager did have a good six-week run from mid-December to early February, scoring in double figures eight times over a 13-game span.
Cleveland State was scuffling along at 11-9 in mid-January, splitting its first six Horizon League games. From there, only regular-season champion Green Bay could get the better of the Vikings. CSU took 10 of its final 11 games, presenting itself as a viable contender for the Horizon's automatic NCAA bid.
Surprising losses in the Horizon tournament and the CIT left a sour taste, but nearly everyone returns to try and wipe it out in 2014-15.
Seven Vikings averaged at least 5.9 PPG last season. Six return, led by All-Horizon second-team selection Bryn Forbes—seen here popping a jumper over Kentucky star Julius Randle. Forbes averaged 15.7 PPG, joining backcourt mate Charlie Lee and forward Marlin Mason in shooting better than 42 percent from the arc. Junior-to-be Trey Lewis supplemented that group by shooting 36.7 percent himself.
Forward Anton Grady's minutes were closely managed in 2013-14 after a knee injury cost him most of the previous season. In less than 25 minutes per game, he still averaged 10.4 points and finished fifth in the Horizon at 6.8 rebounds per game.
If Grady can get some post support from burly Aaron Scales and DeMonte Flannigan, Cleveland State should have plenty of muscle to supplement the backcourt's hustle.
Florida Gulf Coast
New Florida Gulf Coast coach Joe Dooley nearly authored a sequel to that 2013 feel-good story that put #DunkCity on the map. The Eagles finished tied with Mercer for the Atlantic Sun title, then fell to the senior-laden Bears in the conference tournament final.
Revenge won't be on the menu, as Mercer is leaving for the Southern Conference along with mid-table contender East Tennessee State. With most of the A-Sun's remaining programs in various stages of rebuilding, the path should be clear for FGCU to return to the Big Dance to worry and annoy some new No. 2 seed in 2015.
Point guard Brett Comer (pictured) returns for his senior season, along with fellow all-conference first-teamer Bernard Thompson. If Thompson can bring last season's 50.1 effective field goal percentage back up near the 53.4 he carded in 2012-13, he could lead next year's A-Sun in scoring. Freshman Zach Johnson will help out at both positions with an eye toward replacing Comer in 2015.
Athletic forward Chase Fieler has exhausted his eligibility, but his production may be replaced by former Marquette forward Jamail Jones. Jones ranked second on the team at 5.6 RPG last season but greatly needs to improve his outside shot. He made only 20-of-80 threes last year, a mere 25 percent clip.
Gulf Coast is set to become a poor Southern man's Iowa State, welcoming a sea of transfers to next season's roster. Ex-Rice shooting guard Julian DeBose averaged 10.4 PPG as a sophomore in 2012-13. Auburn transfers Nick Pellar and Brian Greene and former Tulane forward Marc-Eddy Norelia will provide depth.
Unless Lipscomb or USC Upstate seriously step their game up, FGCU may run the A-Sun the same way its in-state rival from Gainesville ran the SEC this year.
Georgia State loses more production than just about anyone on our list, but as long as it returns the devastating backcourt duo of Ryan Harrow (pictured) and R.J. Hunter, the Panthers have to be considered a threat.
Harrow was much more productive at his third school than he had been at his first two (N.C. State and Kentucky). His 17.8 points and 4.2 assists per game—against only 1.7 turnovers, we might add—put him on the Sun Belt's all-conference first team right next to backcourt mate Hunter. Hunter's 18.3 PPG placed him fourth in the league, one spot ahead of Harrow.
The GSU attack will dearly miss double-figure scorers Manny Atkins and Devonta White, but menacing power forward Curtis Washington will return to anchor the defense. Washington's 2.4 blocks per game stood second in the Belt. Offensively, the 6'9" 240-pounder was efficient in his limited looks, hitting 65.6 percent from the floor.
Washington will need frontcourt help from part-timers like Markus Crider, T.J. Shipes and LaRon Smith. Lanky freshman Jordan Session (6'9", 205) may be pushed into action earlier than coach Ron Hunter would like.
Backcourt depth will come from rising sophomore Jaylen Hinton and 6'5" freshman Jeff Thomas, a three-star prospect according to Scout.com.
The Panthers, like Florida Gulf Coast, benefit from realignment as they watch perennial Sun Belt contender Western Kentucky bolt to Conference USA. With Arkansas State losing multiple seniors and Louisiana star Elfrid Payton entering the NBA draft, there may not be a challenger equipped to take down GSU next season.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is on the verge of becoming the Ivy League's answer to Mark Few, in control of a colossus that crushes all conference opposition. Say what you like about the school's alleged relaxing of academic standards, but the fact remains that Amaker has brought in multiple players who would be considered program-changers at any other Ivy institution.
Two-time All-Ivy point guard Siyani Chambers is back in full control of the offense after splitting time with the returning Brandyn Curry. Even with the veteran back in the fold, Chambers still finished second in the conference with 4.5 assists per game. He'll need to step up his shooting from inside the arc, but he's still a 38-percent threat outside of it.
Swingman Wesley Saunders and post banger Steve Moundou-Missi are Chambers' primary passing options. Saunders took the Ivy's Player of the Year award after leading the conference in steals, ranking third in assists and eighth in scoring. Moundou-Missi led the team in rebounding and blocks, ranking in the Ivy's top five in both categories.
The frontcourt remains loaded, with three returnees who played at least 200 minutes last season and a fourth, sophomore-to-be Zena Edosomwan, who committed to the Crimson over schools like UCLA and Texas.
Likewise, 2014 recruit Chris Egi (6'9", 220) spurned the likes of Florida and Marquette to enroll at Harvard. Egi was last seen helping Montverde Academy win the Dick's Sporting Goods High School National Tournament championship at Madison Square Garden.
Incoming freshman Andre Chatfield may see immediate playing time in the backcourt, but beyond him, depth may become a problem. Untested reserves like Alex Nesbitt or Matt Fraschilla will need to step up if Chambers and Saunders want any kind of rest.
The always-entertaining Iona Gaels are one of the few teams that can simply shrug off bidding adieu to a pair of scorers who combined for 31 PPG. Coach Tim Cluess has three other double-figure scorers returning and runs an offense fast enough to breed a few more.
Rising junior guard A.J. English (pictured) ranked in the MAAC's top five in scoring, assists, minutes and three-pointers made en route to first-team all-league honors. Without gunners Sean Armand and Tre Bowman alongside, his role in the offense will increase even further.
Forwards David Laury and Isaiah Williams will also return. Laury was third on the team at 14.0 PPG and fourth in the conference at 8.4 RPG. Williams is a versatile threat, shooting 42.7 percent from long range and also ranking third on the team in steals and second in blocks.
Rising senior Tavon Sledge is a former starter at point guard who should resume that role next season. He fell to less than 10 MPG in 2013-14. The Gaels have no other experienced backcourt depth, which is an issue when running one of the nation's quickest offenses. Marshall transfer Kelvin Amayo should help, as he's 6'5", 205 pounds and versatile enough to play anywhere from the 1 to the 4 in Iona's offense.
There are frontcourt reserves, albeit untested ones. Still, there's size handy in the form of 6'10" Ryden Hines and 7'0" Daniel Robinson.
The Gaels largely went only six deep last season, and they may end up doing the same again in 2014-15. Still, they'll need as many legs as they can muster to outrun opponents yet again.
Louisiana Tech breathed a sigh of relief when the University of Tennessee arrived at the Conference USA coach dealership, kicked the tires on Tech's Michael White and eventually left with a slightly higher-mileage model in Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall.
Free to get back to work, White will return four of his eight players who averaged at least seven PPG last season. Tech was one of the nation's highest-scoring squads in 2013-14, and the pieces are in place to do it again, led by guards Alex Hamilton, Raheem Appleby and Kenneth "Speedy" Smith.
Appleby has averaged in double figures in all three of his seasons in Ruston, but a January ankle injury rendered him a non-factor the remainder of the 2013-14 season. After missing 12 games, he was a bit player over the Bulldogs' final nine. Before the injury, however, he scored 18 points against Saint Mary's and 22 in a win over Oklahoma.
Hamilton shot nearly 55 percent from two-point range and made a good living at the foul line, knocking down a CUSA-leading 164 free throws. Smith ranked in the nation's top 10 in both assists (7.7 per game) and steals (2.5). Similarly, his 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio stood 19th in America.
Up front, spindly forward Michale Kyser (6'9", 205) anchors the defense. Kyser ranked fifth in the nation with 109 blocks as a junior. He should once again see support from fellow rising senior Isaiah Massey, who averaged about 10 rebounds per 40 minutes and sank a pair of crucial foul shots to seal the Oklahoma win.
Freshman Joniah White (6'11", 220), who drew interest from programs like Memphis and Wichita State, could also see immediate time. Like Kyser, he's a remedial offensive player who can make an impact on the boards and on defense.
Athletic 6'8" forward Erik McCree, a Murray State transfer, may take over a starting role immediately. Michael White is unafraid to rely on freshmen, so athletic guards Dayon Griffin, Xavian Stapleton and Jacobi Boykins should also get a chance to add depth.
Some teams have a lot coming back next season, but few have as much experience as Northern Iowa. The team's only two departing seniors combined for a mere 6.5 PPG and shot less than 38 percent from the floor.
The Missouri Valley's hopes of challenging Wichita State's budding hegemony may rest squarely on the Panthers next season, and rising senior forward Seth Tuttle is the man to lead the way. The 6'8" Tuttle has averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds over his career. In UNI's second loss to the Shockers last season, Tuttle outrebounded both Cleanthony Early and Kadeem Coleby by himself.
Wing Jeremy Morgan and guards Deon Mitchell and Matt Bohannon are all dangerous three-point threats, while point guard Wes Washpun could be one of the Valley's best playmakers if he can cut down on his turnovers. Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson will provide yet another shooting threat when he suits up this November.
Up front, Tuttle will get able support from stretch 4 Nate Buss (50 percent from three-point range) and slasher Marvin Singleton (77 percent at the rim per Hoop-Math.com).
With five seniors on next season's roster, UNI will have more experience than anyone in the Valley. It will also be arguably deeper than any team in its conference, including Wichita State. The Shockers' road to another unbeaten MVC run will certainly face a major roadblock in Cedar Falls.
One season after an Academic Progress Rate-related ban from the NCAA tournament, Toledo nearly stampeded its way into the Big Dance. The Rockets finished tied with Western Michigan atop the Mid-American Conference's West Division but lost the head-to-head tilt in the conference tournament.
With only one starter departing, the Rockets have plenty of firepower to take another shot at the MAC's automatic bid next season.
Point guard Julius Brown led the MAC at 6.0 APG, helping his fellow starters to each put up at least 9.2 PPG. Of course, Brown was no slouch in getting his own shots, ranking seventh in the MAC at 14.9 PPG.
A pair of former transfers, Justin Drummond (Loyola of Maryland) and J.D. Weatherspoon (Ohio State), combined for nearly 25 points and 12 rebounds per game, providing solid support for the electric Brown. Both knocked down about 57 percent of their two-point shots but need to improve from the perimeter.
Center Nathan Boothe will enter his third season as a starter. The 6'9" 250-pounder is a decent shot-blocker and a great foul shooter for a big man (87.1 percent last season), but he's also an underwhelming rebounder and a better mid-range scorer than he is in the post. If those things improve, Boothe is a potential All-MAC candidate.
Guards Jonathan Williams and Jordan Lauf played well as freshmen, as did 6'9" forward Zach Garber. Garber's a solid offensive rebounder but needs to add strength to truly compete in the post.
Coach Tim Floyd's UTEP Miners were one game short of joining the four-way tie for Conference USA's regular-season title, and results could be even better next season. Southern Miss and Tulsa lost their head coaches, Middle Tennessee lost the league's player of the year and Louisiana Tech lost four of its top eight scorers.
UTEP, by contrast, bids farewell only to center John Bohannon. Even Floyd is sticking around, having fallen out of the running for the open job at Missouri.
Without Bohannon, there's still plenty of size and athletic ability in the UTEP frontcourt. Forwards Vince Hunter (pictured), the CUSA Freshman of the Year, and Cedrick Lang are the team's top two returning rebounders, combining for nearly 12 caroms per game. Hunter scored at least 20 points against three of the four co-champions.
Wings Julian Washburn and Jake Flaggert are primarily jump-shooters, although Washburn could rank among the conference's top scorers if he attacked the basket more and lived at the foul line (79.3 percent last season).
Point guard C.J. Cooper is the only experienced backcourt player, so a group of touted freshmen will need to hit the ground running. California guard Chris Sandifer—a top-100 prospect according to both Rivals and Scout—should start from day one as long as his shot selection is on point.
Guards Shaquile Carr and Omega Harris, along with wing Marqywell Jackson, should also see immediate playing time if they're interested in being part of Floyd's always-fierce defense.
If anyone can defend the post as well as Bohannon did, the Miners could break into the NCAA tournament for only the second time since 2005.