For this year (and quite possibly this year only, thanks to the decimation of the Pac-12), college basketball has six conferences (, , , , , ) perched above the rest. We've covered all those 2023-24 conference previews at this point.
Here, today, we'll be focusing on the abundance of quality teams, talent and coaches outside the "Big Six" leagues.
This is the annual Best of the Rest preview, wherein you'll get intel on some of the top players and strongest teams from multi-bid leagues and single-bid mid-major conferences. This is not a "mid-major" preview. Teams such as Gonzaga, Memphis and San Diego State are highlighted; none of those programs are mid-majors.
This is what we said it is: Best of the Rest. And there's a lot of Rest out there to get to, so let's go.
Ten players to know
These aren't for sure the 10 best players outside of the Big Six leagues, but they are 10 quality hoopers who should play vital roles on teams well-positioned to make the 2024 NCAA Tournament, listed in alphabetical order ...
1. Lamont Butler, San Diego State
Here's the fella responsible for the biggest shot in school history. A reminder that Butler's buzzer-beater to knock off FAU is the only game-winner in Final Four history that was a do-or-die shot. Meaning: Time expired as the shot was in the air, and had it not gone in, the team shooting it would have lost. Never before in that scenario had the trailing team won the game in a Final Four affair or the national title game. Until Butler did this.
The Aztecs should again be a quality team out of the Mountain West. Expect Butler's role to significantly increase. I don't think he'll be a top-10 player outside of the Big Six conferences, but I do think he'll be SDSU's MVP and that is going to be a major factor in the Aztecs making it back to the Big Dance.
2. Tucker DeVries, Drake
Obviously one of the better mid-major players in America, DeVries will probably emerge as one of the most statistically stout studs in the country. If Drake can manage a fourth straight season of 25 or more wins and DeVries improves on his averages of 18.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 37.3% 3-point shooting, he'll be in the conversation to be an All-American. Every high-major was afraid to play Drake, so the top nonconference affair to catch DeVries this season will be on Dec. 22, when UAB welcomes the Bulldogs. That's a really good mid-major matchup.
The Flyers fell short of preseason expectations last season, but Holmes was as advertised. He started 34 games and averaged 18.8 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 59%. It's not unreasonable to ask him to nudge those numbers up in his third year of college. Holmes is an easy pick for this list not just because of his value on offense; his defensive faculties are terrific and will be an energy source for UD this season.
Jones has a chance to be drafted in 2024 and almost definitely will be the best player in the Big Sky. (Twist: As you'll see below, I don't have Weber State winning the league.) The 6-6 (strong) wing averaged 16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists, but here's the wow stat: Jones grabbed 35.5% of opponents' misses when he was on the floor — the No. 1 defensive-rebound rate of any player in the country. Weber State has a fun mid-major schedule this season: I recommend you watch Jones open the season vs. Saint Mary's ( (Nov. 12), then catch him vs. Colgate (Nov. 18), Yale (Nov. 19) and Nevada (Dec. 13).
5. Aidan Mahaney, Saint Mary's
He's still something of a cult hero for late-night college hoops sickos, but this should be the glow-up season for the slender, 6-3 sophomore. Mahaney was more valuable than his numbers last season (13.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists) indicated.
With Logan Johnson (primary distributor) moving on, it means Mahaney's usage is going to inflate. He could become one of the more entertaining players in the sport. I made sure not to pick two players from the same team for this list, but had I not abided by my own rules, Gaels force Mitchell Saxen would've cleared the bar.
6. Alijah Martin, FAU
Of course a member of a mid-major Final Four team was making this list; the problem was FAU had four players under consideration. I'll narrowly take Martin over the likes of Johnell Davis, Nick Boyd and Vlad Goldin. Martin, a shooting guard, averaged 19.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in FAU's final seven games of 2022-23. He embodies the program's fearless and selfless spirit under Dusty May. There are six candidates on any given night to be the Owls' best player, but over the course of this season, I think Martin has the best chance to be FAU's best on most nights.
7. Ryan Nembhard, Gonzaga
College basketball fans know who this guy is, so his inclusion is not about educating the audience; it's about responsibly listing someone who probably will be one of the five most valuable players outside of the Big Six structure. (And had Nembhard not transferred from Creighton, Anton Watson would've been the Gonzaga rep here.) Nembhard's older brother, Andrew, used a transfer to Gonzaga (via Florida) as a springboard to becoming a first round NBA pick. Nembhard (12.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 4.0 rpg) gives a semi-mysterious Gonzaga squad confidence to be a top-20 team again, even if few think this group will be of the top-10 variety this season.
8. Drew Pember, UNC Asheville
The reigning Big South Player of the Year is back — and credit to him for staying loyal to coach Mike Morrell. Pember came to Asheville a few years ago after not liking his fit at Tennessee. He put up 20.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 blocks. With Pember starring for the Bulldogs, the program made its first NCAA trip in seven seasons. Pember was second in the sport in fouls drawn. He made opponents pay by sinking 83.2% of his freebies. So long as he's healthy, he's the runaway favorite to win POY in his league again.
9. Jahvon Quinerly, Memphis
Quinerly joins Nembhard as former power-league players who transferred to schools outside the realm and thus landed on my list. The veteran lead guard will turn 25 on Nov. 25, the day after Memphis wraps up playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Quinerly was considered one of the most important gets of the portal, and though his stats last season weren't eye-popping (8.7 points, 3.6 assists, 40.2 FG%), he figures to play a humongous role for an NCAA Tournament contender.
What a player. Stevens was tabbed as the 2023-24 Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year. The Ram is in his fifth season with the school and should rank among the 5-10 best point guards in the nation. A year ago, Stevens averaged 17.9 points and 6.7 assists for a sub-.500 team with injury issues. This CSU squad is going to be a lot better and Stevens' stats should thrive because of it. Find the time to watch him; he'd start at the 1 for all but 3-5 teams. EvanMiya.com expects him to be the second most important player on offense in the nation this season, only behind a guy named Zach Edey. (😳)
Mid-major coaches on the climb
In an effort to continue to put shine on lesser-known coaches, I'm sidestepping including any mid-major coach that has made this list the past two seasons. That means Casey Alexander, Darian DeVries, Jared Grasso, Joe Golding, Robert Jones, Matt Langel, Jeff Linder, Ritchie McKay and Russell Turner are all already accounted for.
In alphabetical order, here are six coaches on the come-up, all of whom strolled the sidelines in the 2023 NCAA tourney.
Amir Abdur-Rahim, South Florida
Let's highlight a coach who DID get a promotion. Abdur-Rahim got the USF gig after commandeering a massive four-year turnaround at Kennesaw State. He went 1-28 his first season, then guided the Owls to their first NCAA Tournament ever this past March by going 26-9 and taking the ASUN title. Abdur-Rahim makes the list not just because of that, but because he should have a team that's in the top half of the American and figures to have USF more competitive in the years to come.
Pat Kelsey, Charleston
In the past 10 seasons at Winthrop and Charleston, Kelsey has won 70% of his games — a clip few coaches can match in that timespan. The Cougars went 31-4 last season and did so without a top-three player in the league. That's good coaching. The Cougs are again the favorite to win the Coastal Athletic Association (yes: there was a name change; this was formerly the Colonial Athletic Association). If Charleston makes another NCAA tourney, Kelsey's name will be a hot one on the carousel.
Mitch Henderson, Princeton
You take an Ivy League team to the Sweet 16, you're making my list. Henderson's Tigers gave us vintage March Madness vibes by upsetting Arizona and then mopping the floor with Missouri as a No. 15 seed. Henderson's quietly been doing a good job at his alma mater since 2011, so here's an overdue bouquet of flowers. Princeton is not expected to be the best team in the Ivy this season, but no one will shortchange Henderson after last season's glory.
Dusty May, FAU
I mean, come on. He's the No. 1 pick for this list. May had one of the best single-season reputation enhancements in recent memory. The Final Four is a huge reason why, but keep in mind that FAU was a known entity and legitimate feel-good college hoops story for two-plus months prior to March., but better than that: He didn't lose a player to transfer, which is why the Owls are projected to be one of the better teams in the country this season. If FAU merely makes the NCAAs in its new confines of the American Athletic Conference, May could be the most desired name on the carousel.
Mike Morell, UNC Asheville
This is Year 6 for Morrell, who took the Bulldogs to the NCAAs as a No. 15 seed this past March. His team won 27 games last season and will be favored to win the Big South again. Morrell's first year with the program was dreadful: 4-27. Now he's got the reigning player of the year back in the fold and is enjoying life in one of the most underrated cities in the country. Love to see these types of turnaround stories.
Bob Richey, Furman
The four-decade-long drought finally expired in March when Furman overcame its bugaboos and broke through in the SoCon. What came next was even better: The 13th-seeded Paladins upset Virginia in the first game of the first round.
Richey inherited this job after Niko Medved left for Drake in 2017. He has been tremendous, owning a 139-55 record (.716) and first, second or third place in the SoCon every season. A top-three finish in '23-24 seems all but guaranteed, meaning FU could again be a Cinderella candidate — and Richey could be high up on the interview list for a few athletic directors come next March.
Top 15 non-Big Six teams for '23-24
|The Owls enter 2023-24 as the darlings of the sport after their run to the Final Four. Now a member of the American, FAU is a viable team because it returns 90% of its minutes from a team that won more games (35) than any other last season. Alijah Martin, Johnell Davis, Nick Boyd, Vlad Goldin, Bryan Greenlee, Jalen Gaffney, Giancarlo Rosado and Brandon Weatherspoon give the Owls an interchangeable rotation that is balanced as both ends and capable of winning in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s. Some may be skeptical of this team's preseason top-10 standing in the AP Top 25, but it has an inarguable claim to top-20 status nationally heading into opening night. Let's see what the encore looks like.
|The Bulldogs enter this season with a tad more skepticism than they've had in a while. Last season, Mark Few embraced the role of being a pretty good team that wasn't targeted because it wasn't top-five quality. Now I get the sense his group will be plenty motivated after being picked to finish second in the WCC. Ryan Nembhard (transfer from Creighton, and a massive addition) will command an offense that returns efficiency monster Anton Watson and junior combo guard Nolan Hickman. Key additions: Wyoming center Graham Ike, Eastern Washington wing Steele Venters. It's going to be weird to see Gonzaga without Drew Timme, and his void will probably be felt in November. Trust the Zags to easily make it to the NCAAs again, however.
|Brian Dutcher has achieved the goal: He has SDSU at a level where people within the program and the fanbase expect the Aztecs to be semi-regular occupants of the AP Top 25 and make the NCAA Tournament. In all but one of his six seasons, he's done that. The 'Tecs made a run to the national championship game (still wild to think about almost seven months later) and bring back four good pieces: Darrion Trammell at the 1, Lamont Butler at the 2, Jaedon Lee as the starting 5 and Micah Parrish as a starting wing or the first guy off the bench. It will get reinforcements from Mountain West Preseason Newcomer of the Year Reese Waters, who was the Pac-12 sixth man of the year last season at USC. This will be the best team in the Mountain West — which is saying something, because that conference figures to be better as well.
|The Gaels, not Gonzaga, were picked to win the WCC this season on account of returning two-thirds of its roster from a No. 5 seed that won a game in the NCAAs. SMC finished 13th last season at KenPom.com, boasting a top-10 defense. If it can come close to that in '23-24, then it's going to be in the mix for a 5-seed for a third straight season. Aidan Mahaney will be the maestro, but it's Mitchell Saxen who is the true problem here. At 6-10 and 250 pounds, he's a hoss and on the short list of most underrated bigs in the country. I can't wait to watch this team.
|The Flyers haven't hit their expected cruising altitude in this phase under Anthony Grant, but hope springs eternal so long as DaRon Holmes II is in uniform. The A-10 is coming off an abnormally down season, so a bounceback with a few teams should be the expectation. I think UD will wind up being the best of the bunch in that league. Losing Toumani Camara is a ding, but getting back Malachi Smith, Kobe Elvis and Koby Brea should make this group a mid-major force. We'll know nice and early: The Flyers play at Northwestern the first week of the season.
|Penny Hardaway has a huge roster flip. Expect it to pay off. Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama) and Caleb Mills (Florida State) are the two big names, but well-traveled vet Jordan Brown (Louisiana) is liable to be a pillar for the Tigers. Depending on who starts, Memphis' top five could be older than 23.0 years old on average — besting an NBA team or two. This will be the oldest team in college hoops and that experience and strength should get Memphis to a third straight Big Dance.
|Leon Rice has won nearly 64% of his games at Boise State. He's the best coach in school history and might well be destined to win 400 games there. This team is positioned to be among his three or four best since he arrived in 2010. Tyson Degenhart is an all-league guard who averaged 14 and 5 last season and should improve those numbers. His sharpshooting reliability opens up a lot of potential for his teammates, many of whom have four-plus years of college experience. After going to two straight NCAA tourneys for the first time ever, I believe Boise State will make history again and go three in a row.
|Five projected starters with three-plus years of experience. That's why I'm banking on Pat Kelsey's team to again be the best in the CAA and make its way to the NCAA Tournament. If this goes awry, it will be because the Cougars might have the greatest disparity between experience in the starting lineup and lack thereof on the bench. Charleston will get by with the shooting and playmaking of returnees Reyne Smith and Ben Burnham paired with the growth of center Ante Brzovic. Winning 31 games again is asking too much, but 25 is on the table.
|Could prove to be my most underrated team on the list. Richard Pitino has two all-league guys back with Jaelen House and Jamal Masburn Jr., who I expect to combine for about 40 points a night. House has bested 500 points and 125 dimes in his past two seasons. He's such a fun player. Mashburn has gotten demonstrably better with each season. The Lobos should make the NCAA Tournament and help the Mountain West's reputation with a big win or two in the first six weeks of the season.
|Similar to FAU, I like the Blazers to continue to thrive after leaving Conference USA for the American. Andy Kennedy flirted with the West Virginia opening after Bob Huggins resigned, but it's a good thing for him he's still in Birmingham. The Blazers will have a team in the conversation to make the NCAAs due to a winning culture and a boatload of experienced players. There are a lot of portal adds here, led by North Alabama's Daniel Ortiz. The key guy is Eric Gaines, a returning starter who will be the compass on defense for a menacing attack.
|You read about Tucker DeVries up top, but who else is there to know about on the Missouri Valley's best team? Darian DeVries opted to go into the portal and bring aboard a lot of proven guys at the mid-major level, which is to say: He's trusting players who know their roles and aren't chasing unrealistic dreams. Look for Kyrin Gibson (UT Arlington), Ethan Roberts (Army) and Atin Wright (CSUN) to bomb from deep and allow the Bulldogs to outpace many an opponent through 3-point accuracy. This is Drake's league until someone takes it.
|Everyone in the Ivy League recognizes that it's Yale's conference to lose, even if Princeton made a historic NCAA Tournament run last season. The Bulldogs bring back four double-digit scorers, led by 6-6 power wing Matt Knowling and 6-4 PG Bez Mbeng. James Jones is an outstanding coach — and among the five longest-tenured in college hoops at this point. (He's been at Yale since 1999.) The Elis are also top-80 in the preseason at KenPom and BartTorvik.com.
|Matt Langel is still coaching here, somehow, and so Colgate will again rule the Patriot League, get a No. 15 seed and freak out the coaching staff of whatever 2-seed it faces next March. The Raiders bring all but two double-digit scorers back. Included in that group is one of the best mid-major point guards in the nation, Braeden Smith. He'll team up with Keegan Records in the frontcourt to make this offense unstoppable in that league. Colgate has won 23 or more of its games the past four years it played a full season, and it'll hit that mark again in 2024.
|Ritchie McKay's track record at Liberty is outstanding. Until the Flames fail to win 22 or more games (which has happened six years running), they deserve to remain in the discussion for best mid-major teams. This year's group has a little bit of everything except for a big-time scorer. That's to be expected: Darius McGhee and his 2,685 points are no longer here, so who will be the guy to step in and produce? Redshirt senior Kyle Rode should be the MVP.
|With Isaiah Stevens back, CSU has to make this list. Stevens is too good and coach Niko Medved did a really nice job upgrading this team in the offseason. There's a lot of buzz with the additions of Nique Clifford (Colorado) and JUCO transfer Joel Scott. The Rams will play five players with at least five years of experience. They won't be a big team but they will be wing-heavy and thrive with athleticism and switchable defenders. The Rams are the dark horse pick to steal the Mountain West.
Projected conference champions
|Eastern Kentucky Colonels
|UNC Asheville Bulldogs
|UC Irvine Anteaters
|Wright State Raiders
|San Diego State Aztecs
|Tennessee State Tigers
|McNeese State Cowboys
|Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
|James Madison Dukes
|Jackson State Tigers
|Grand Canyon Antelopes