We've reached that point on our preseason preview calendar where it's time to direct the spotlight on the litany of programs, players and coaches hailing from the lower leagues. (Gonzaga is exempt, naturally, as it's not a mid-major program. We have and will continue to highlight the Bulldogs in many of our preseason pieces -- and will do so again later this week.)
Every NCAA Tournament gets uplifted by small-school players and, with that of course, the small schools themselves. Some of the honorees below will wind up factoring into how the 2023 field of 68 shakes out. I can't promise there's a Saint Peter's-type run lurking among the listed, but I do believe the fabric of the college basketball season will be stitched together in significant ways by the teams, players and coaches you'll read about here.
It's our best-of-the-rest rundown. We've got less than three weeks until the season, so here's who and what stands out from the overwhelming population of conferences and programs in men's college hoops.
Ten mid-major players to know
1. Darius McGhee, Liberty
The 5-9 super senior ranked No. 1 nationally in usage (36.7% of possessions) and shots (40.7%) last season, per KenPom.com. His 24.6 points average was second in the sport to Bryant's Peter Kiss, and McGhee's 812 points were second overall to Iowa's Keegan Murray. McGhee's 142 3-pointers were easily the most -- 26 more than No. 2 on that list, who is also No. 3 on this list. He's a classic undersized mid-major baller who exemplifies why college basketball can be a little man's game just as much as anyone else's. .
He was No. 1 on this list a season ago, when the Golden Eagles' star guard was coming off leading the country in scoring. Last season Abmas was merely fifth in points per game (22.8). He was fourth in 3-pointers made (114) and complemented his shooting with 3.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds per night. He's a 39.6% career 3-point shooter. The Golden Eagles will rely on Abmas' buckets to fend off South Dakota State and others in the Summit League. Fun mid-major scheduling twist: the top two players on this last will play head-to-head in mid-December, when Abmas and ORU will play host to Liberty.
3. Jelly Walker, UAB
Walker is the guy alluded to in the McGhee capsule above. He sank 116 treys on 40% shooting last season, which helped him average 20.3 points for a UAB squad that made the NCAA Tournament. The Blazers' 5-11 dynamo also put up 4.9 assists per game and managed 2.9 rebounds despite being the smallest guy on the floor most of the time. Walker could have transferred out, but like many others on this list, he chose loyalty and guaranteed minutes-plus-production over the road unknown.
The Cowboys play unlike a lot of other teams in the sport. One major aspect to that approach is having a 6-7 power wing running a lot of the offense. Maldonado put up 18.5 points, 6.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game last season, the only player to cross the 18/6/5 threshold. He also shot 49.5% from the floor and also averaged north of 37 minutes, something I'm expecting him to match in his final season.
5. Antoine Davis, Detroit Mercy
at the school where he's become a local legend. With 2,734 points, and thanks to the bonus COVID season, Davis is destined to become a top-five scorer in D-I history. Question is if he can get to No. 2, behind the late, great Pete Maravich and his 3,667 points. Davis averaged 23.9 points last season. If he averages 24 per game and plays 34 games (a reasonable projection), he'll finish with 3,550 points -- comfortably No. 2 all time, but still more than 100 points behind Maravich. Regardless, the hope here is that Detroit Mercy can have a good year in the Horizon League, as it would bring some relevance to Davis' final season. He's never played in the NCAA tourney and Detroit last made it there in 2012.
If Bradley had left SDSU, the Aztecs wouldn't have a case to be a top-25 team. Fortunately for Brian Dutcher and 'Tec fans, that's not the case. Bradley is a sturdy do-everything guard who averaged 16.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 32 starts. He's grown comfortable with how to play team and on-ball defense, which has helped his case as one of the best mid-major players in the country.
7. Ace Baldwin, VCU
If you're gonna have the nickname Ace, you might as well wear the No. 1 Baldwin does. VCU's best player is also, potentially, a future NBA guy thanks to his elite defense and encouraging stat trends in a variety of areas. Baldwin is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he averaged 11.4 points, 5.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.5 fouls. His shooting is encouraging. Baldwin sank 41.3% of his 3-pointers in 2021-22, hitting 31 of his 75 attempts. He'll hoist a minimum of 100 triples this season for a Rams team that could be near the at-large cutline.
If he's all the way back and 100% the player he was a year ago, Perkins will prove to be too low on this list. Saint Louis' most important player was the preseason player of the year choice in the Atlantic 10 in 2021. An ACL injury ended that. Now he's back for a team that hopes to make the Big Dance with room to spare. When we last saw Perkins he was averaging 17.1 points for the Billikens. He's got Yuri Collins back, and a good supporting cast, but SLU at its best means Perkins being one of the three best players in the A-10.
If Bates puts it all together, he'll easily rank in the top half of this list. If not, this ranking will wind up looking too optimistic. After recently having gun-possession charges against him dropped, Bates has been cleared to return to the team. The Ypsilanti, Michigan, native (where EMU is also based) had a rocky freshman season at Memphis. Now he's hoping his sophomore try goes a lot better than another former five-star prospect who chose the mid-major route. A season ago, Patrick Baldwin Jr. played for his father at Milwaukee. He had an injury-affected, forgotten season ... but still managed to be drafted in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. Bates currently rates as a toss-up NBA pick. EMU doesn't project as a top-end MAC team. There's a lot Bates can do to change the conversation in the next five months. Maybe this will be for the best.
The tallest player in college basketball plays for the Hilltoppers. At 7-5, Sharp naturally led the nation in blocks (4.6) and had the most in a season since Anthony Davis (4.7) in 2011-12. Sharp seems a shoo-in to lead the country in swattage again, and if he does that, he'll be the first player since Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado did it in 2007-08 and 2008-09. If he crosses 5.0 blocks per game, he'll be the first player since Hassan Whiteside in 2009-10 to do it. Whiteside averaged an absurd 5.4 that season at Marshall. Expect Sharp (8.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) to average a double-double.
Mid-major coaches on the climb
I'll dodge having repeat names from a year ago, so the following guys aren't eligible this time around: Ritchie McKay, Liberty; Casey Alexander, Belmont; Brian Dutcher, SDSU; Joe Golding, UTEP; Russell Turner, UC Irvine; Darian DeVries, Drake. (Note: All of those coaches are still at those schools.) This year's mid-major coaches who qualify all have done at least two of the three: won at least one regular-season title in the past two seasons, made at least one of the past two NCAA Tournaments and have a projected top-two team in their conference.
Jared Grasso, Bryant
John Becker's Vermont program has been king of the America East for most of the past decade. This season, if that's to end, it'll be AE newcomer Bryant that most likely dethrones the Catamounts. Grasso has a 62-54 record since getting the job in 2018. He's coming off guiding the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tourney appearance; Bryant won the Northeast Conference in its final season in that league.
Jones has to rank among the most underrated mid- or low-major coaches in the country. He has coached the Spartans for a decade and won the MEAC the past two seasons. Jones owns a 166-126 mark -- and has won 75% of his games in MEAC play. NSU won its First Four game over App State in March, continuing a strong trajectory at a school that once upset No. 2 seed Missouri. With Jones working the whiteboard, NSU should be the best in its conference again.
Matt Langel, Colgate
The Raiders have developed a reputation for having an erudite offense under Langel, who's 44 and more than a decade into his Colgate tenure. This has been the premier Patriot League program five years running, and I'm not seeing that come to an end over the next six months. One more Big Dance appearance and Langel (176-165) will be lured away by a bigger program -- that's a fact.
Jeff Linder, Wyoming
I briefly Northern Colorado., when the Cowboys were on their way to earning their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2015. The Pokes figure to be in the running for the Mountain West again, thanks to the reasons you'll see depicted in UW's capsule further down in this story. It's fun to see Wyoming good, because that's irregular. Linder is 119-70 dating back to the start of his head coaching career in 2016 at
Grant McCasland, North Texas
Make no mistake: McCasland has had suitors in the past two years. But thanks to how much support he's received from UNT athletic director Wren Baker, it's going to take a top 50-level kind of job to pry him away from the Mean Green. UNT upset Purdue in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, then won the Conference USA regular-season title USA last season (16-2) before falling to Louisiana Tech in the conference tournament. The Mean Green wound up 57th at KenPom, their highest finish ever. McCasland has a 179-82 career record.
Top 15 mid-major teams for '22-23
|Brian Dutcher has had an NCAA Tournament-worthy team in four of his previous five seasons, and the one year he didn't, SDSU won 21 games. The Aztecs get Bradley, Nathan Mensa and Adam Seiko back for the bonus year, which is enough to validate putting this team atop the list. SDSU was a No. 8 seed last season and fell in a three-point overtime outcome to 9-seed Creighton. Now those teams are shaping up to be much better seeds a year later. Trying to size up which transfers will hit big at this level can be a crapshoot. That in mind, SDSU is looking for Darrion Trammell (Seattle U) to step in at the point and flesh out an offense that can (nearly) match that 'Tecs vintage D.
|Notice something about teams 1 and 2? Yeah, we're getting some of those 2019-20 vibes. Dayton might have been a top seed that year; San Diego State was tracking to a No. 2. Can't know for sure how '22-23 is going to unfold, but it would be one heck of a story if SDSU and UD rose above the rest of the mid-major din to compete for high seeds and find some 2020 redemption. Anthony Grant's Flyers bring back almost everyone from a 24-win team that finished 45th at KenPom. DaRon Holmes II, Malachi Smith, Toumani Camara and Kobe Elvis should all get better and turn the Flyers into a top-30 outfit on offense and defense.
|So long as Travis Ford's team can shake off the uneasy energy from the end of last season, SLU will be a top-40 team. On Feb. 10, the Billikens were 17-6 and nudged up against Davidson for the top of the A-10 table. The Bills finished 6-6 and dropped the A-10 title game vs. Davidson by 15 points, then got booted from the NIT immediately by 12 points -- a home loss -- against Northern Iowa. Perkins coming back is massive. SLU is dangerous because it could be Perkins, Collins or Gibson Jimerson as the MVP on a given night. It doesn't seem like Saint Louis will be deep, so in order for the Billikens to play in the first round of the NCAAs since 2014, good health will mean good fortune.
|Maldonado got a lot of ink above, but anyone familiar with Wyoming knows that Graham Ike is the jelly to Maldonado's peanut butter. The all-inside player averaged 19.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and was top-10 in usage nationally. No mid-major tournament team relied more, minutes- and usage-wise, on two fellas than Wyoming did with these two. It's fair to expect more of the same, but the coaching staff isn't going to strictly fall back on old habits. USC transfer Ethan Anderson should be a nice reserve, and if any starter is going to see increase from last season, Xavier DuSell (7.5 ppg) figures to pop. A mid-major game to watch: Dayton will play Wyoming in Chicago in December.
|This is probably the last team listed that could wind up as the best of the group. The Blazers broke through C-USA to earn a No. 12 seed and finished with 27 Ws. That group was a lot of fun; with six major minutes-getters back, this group be better. Walker is the projected No. 1 player in the conference. He also ranks high on the short list of most watchable players in college hoops. Supporting him in the frontcourt will be 7-footer Trey Jemison and power forward KJ Buffen. A nice influx of proven mid-major transfers and tempting high-majors also come in. Kennedy could have a SQUAD.
|Conference USA hasn't ranked as a top-10 league at KenPom since 2011-12. With UAB, North Texas and Western Kentucky all looking like top-20 mid-majors this season (sorry, WKU fans, the 'Toppers just missed out on my rankings here), the league has an outside chance to get two bids. If UNT is going to be in that mix, it'll be because of the defense. The Mean Green are coming off a program-best 25-win campaign. Tylor Perry and Rubin Jones will be the playmakers and bucket-getters in the backcourt for a team that will most likely hold more than half of its opponents below 60 points.
|Was recently talking with a coach who knows the WCC well. We got to discussing what Saint Mary's will look like in '22-23. "They got the coach, man," this assistant said. Simple, to the point. He's right. Randy Bennett is simply too good too often to fade the Gaels. SMC was a No. 5 seed that made the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. It brings back three starters, but loses NBAer Tommy Kuhse. Returnees Alex Ducas and Logan Johnson might combine to average 30 points. Johnson shapes up as one of the best on-ball defenders in the WCC. The Gaels figure to be hell to face on defense once more, and should be in the NCAA tourney mix all season long.
|The Cougars are in their 12th and final year as a WCC member. Next year, it'll be off to the Big 12. Mark Pope's outfit should almost certainly ricochet back a bit after dipping a bit '21-22, when the Cougars were 23-10 with a 9-6 WCC mark. (Injuries played a big part in this.) Gideon George and Fousseyni Traore are back in the starting lineup. Former Coastal Carolina combo guard Rudi Williams is the key transfer. As usual, the Cougars have a good blend of backcourt ability to legitimate size and depth at the 4/5.
|The A-10 will get at least two bids this season, and a third is on the table. The team most likely to be No. 3 is a usual suspect. VCU ranked seventh in defensive efficiency at KenPom last season, led by Baldwin's studly D. VCU was marred by injury issues, so if Mike Rhoades' guys can stay healthy and get a huge year from Jamir Watkins (missed last season because of an ACL), this team can be in the field of 68. Also look for returning SG Jayden Nunn to be a major player for a program that doesn't stay down long.
|A large portion of the team is back, including MVC freshman of the year Tucker DeVries, the coach's son. DeVries averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds for a 25-win Bulldogs troop that lost to Loyola Chicago in the Valley title game. With the Ramblers off to the A-10, Drake sets up as a clear-cut top dog in the league. While DeVries plays the wing, it's point guard Roman Penn who is Drake's most valuable player. Penn, Garrett Sturtz and D.J. Wilkins combined with DeVries to average north of 46 points. This team could be better than the '20-21 group that went 26-5 and earned an at-large bid.
|As I was tiering out these teams and going through my research, I was stunned to learn the last time this program made the NCAA Tournament was way back in 1980. That's almost mind-blowing, considering how good and healthy the MAC has been as a mid-major league over the past four-plus decades. This is Tod Kowalczyk's 13th season with the Rockets and he might have his best team. For the third straight year, Toledo should rate as the MAC's strongest squad. J.T. Shumate and Setric Millner are all-league guys who came back, and they'll be elevated by the heady play of PG RayJ Dennis.
|A change of house for Loyola Chicago in its second season under Drew Valentine. Now in the Atlantic 10, the Ramblers have the facilities, resources, home court advantage and overall brand to immediately adapt to their new surroundings. The program is coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances but lost three key pieces, most notably Lucas Williamson. Two pivotal guys are back: sharpshooter Braden Norris and Swiss Army knife Marquise Kennedy. A difference-maker of a transfer could be Bryce Golden (via Butler), who will start at the 5. My guess is this team has a bumpy November but finds its groove by mid-January.
|Pat Skerry has coached the Tigers since 2011. Last season marked the first time Towson had a better KenPom rating than any other CAA team. (Delaware wound up earning the league's auto bid.) Coming off a 25-9 drive, Skerry figures to have one of the best Towson teams in program history. The Tigers lost three to the portal but added two for balance. Most importantly, its best players are returnees who have established the tenor in the locker room: Nicolas Timberlake, Cam Holden, Charles Thompson, Jason Gibson. All seniors, too. Then toss in Sekou Sylla, the former D-II national player of the year, and it's possible to make the case Towson could be a top-80 team this season.
|Grand Canyon finished fifth in the WAC standings but was second in tempo-free metrics. That's part of the reason why the league is that will more-fairly seed its league tournament based upon win quality as opposed to just win total. Bryce Drew guided the 'Lopes to a school-record 23-win season in '21-22. This team could usurp that total. Three starters return (Jovan Blacksher Jr., Gabe McGlothan, Yven Ouedraogo), while 17-point-per-game Presbyterian transfer Rayshon Harrison will help this team boast the top backcourt in the league. Blacksher, a combo guard, will compete for WAC Player of the Year. GCU has the best home court advantage in the conference and one of the most electric environments in the country.
|The Paladins were one play away from making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since '80, then Chattanooga vultured the game away in the SoCon championship -- losing on a buzzer-beater after Mike Bothwell hit Furman's last go-ahead bucket with 4.3 seconds remaining. Furman has rated as 1, 2 or 3 in the SoCon six years running. This surely must finally be the season the 'Dins break through, right? Coach Bob Richey gets super seniors Bothwell and Jalen Slawson back, which makes FU the team to beat in the league.
Projected mid- and low-major league champions
|Long Beach State 49ers
|Wright State Raiders
|Norfolk State Spartans
|Tennessee State Tigers
|Nicholls State Colonels
|Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
|Marshall Thundering Herd
|Grand Canyon Antelopes