Over the previous two weeks we've thoroughly previewed and predicted what to expect in men's college basketball's Major Seven conferences; linked here you will find said previews for the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12.
But, of course, there are very good teams housed outside those big-time leagues. So that's what brings us here today for our final conference-adjacent preview. Time to share the sugar with many a team that will find its way into the field of 68 come March. Below you will discover a hearty list of elite mid-major players, coaches on the rise and a top 15 teams-to-know.
With one exception.
Although Gonzaga is a rent-paying member of the WCC, Gonzaga isn't a mid-major program and does not recruit mid-major players. Given the Zags are the preseason No. 1 team in the , the , my 1-358 AND have the in Drew Timme, safe to say our coverage of GU is not lacking around these parts. We've omitted the Bulldogs from the proceedings; take it as a compliment, Gonzaga fans, because nothing about your program except for your conference affiliation is defined by the term "mid-major."
CBS Sports preseason top 10 mid-major players
The quick-shooting two-guard from the Summit League is a preseason CBS Sports Second Team All-America selection. Abmas guided the Eagles to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years, then pushed the No. 15 seed to the Sweet 16, giving a unique 2021 Big Dance one of its best stories. His sophomore season saw a spike -- from 14.5 to 24.5 points per game -- and he led the nation in scoring. How high can he go in 2021-22?
2. Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee
The Panthers will be part of an intriguing Horizon League, and no player will be more must-see in that conference than this potential 2022 lottery pick. At 6-foot-9, Baldwin is going to be a nightmare for opponents to face in that league. He'll have a chance to put up the best statistical profile of any freshman in the nation. If you're wondering why a five-star, top-10 prospect chose Milwaukee, perhaps his name rings a bell: his father is the coach.
3. Alex Barcello, BYU
The Cougars' outstanding super-senior lead guard was (if you're asking me!) ranked too low in our Top 100 And 1 player rankings (where he came in 85th). Personally, I've got Barcello as a top-60 guy in the country this season, registering as the best non-Gonzaga player in the WCC after he averaged a team-high 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists a season ago. Barcello is a point guard in a shooter's mold, as he really puts it all together for Mark Pope's Cougars. Few players in the country are sharper when it comes to taking the right shot vs. making the right pass.
4. Kenneth Lofton Jr., Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs have been a solid mid-major program in their recent history, averaging 22 wins across the past 12 seasons. But there's not been an NCAA Tournament appearance in that time; the school hasn't danced since 1991. If that is to change in 2022, it will be because of this fabulous sophomore. Lofton (12.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 56.7 FG%) is a vintage mid-major game-changer in that his size will wreck your scouting report. He was one of the best 20 freshmen a year ago. Do I dare say he can be a 20-and-10 guy?
5. Antoine Davis, Detroit Mercy
College basketball is not lacking small-league ballers who can fill it up. Davis easily fits this description, and if you're a college hoops diehard then you already know who he is. Davis (career average: 24.9 ppg) has a slight chance to set the Division I record for most consecutive games with at least 10 points (the record is 115 by La Salle's Lionel Simmons. Davis is at 82). But let's not pigeonhole the man into a shoot-only kind of player. He averaged a career-high 4.8 assists last season while playing for his father, Mike, who's been at the helm of this program since 2018.
6. A.J. Green, Northern Iowa
As valuable to his team as any other player you'll see listed. Green is a high-major player who has a variety of scoring tricks in his bag -- he just has to stay healthy. He lost much of last season because of a hip injury, but now he's fully healthy and should at least keep steady with his career numbers: 17.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 88.5% FT and a 37.3% from 3. The Missouri Valley's two best teams are Loyola Chicago and Drake. Its best player is Green.
My pick for 2021-22 Mountain West Player of the Year -- and the highest-ranked player on my list who did not crack our Top 100 And 1 player rankings. Roddy is a do-it-all, 6-5, 250-pound forward who averaged 15.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 59% 2-point shooting and had a 25.5 PER last season for the Rams. No one else on this list is tasked with as much as Roddy is for CSU, and even though his teammates will be even better this season, he'll still be the Rams' Swiss Army knife.
A shrewd veteran point guard and one of the best on-ball defenders in the college game, Gilyard's steadily gotten better over the years thanks to so much playing time. The Spiders should make the 2022 NCAA Tournament because of their veteran leadership. Gilyard is the core of this, as he's great at distributing, he doesn't turn the ball over -- and yet he is a thief. His 3.6 steals per game last season were No. 1 in the NCAA.
Bradley is only on this list because he decided to transfer. Truth be told, he's a power-conference player. But after leaving a bad Cal team, he's now stepping into a great spot at San Diego State. He averaged 18.0 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Golden Bears. The Aztecs need someone just like him to come in and be an alpha in order to keep SDSU in the chase to win the Mountain West.
The Bulls are fueled by the duo of Williams and Josh Mballa. Williams (17.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is a notch above for his reliability and both-ends-of-the-floor basketball IQ. He's a lead-by-example guy. A get-shots-up-90-minutes-before-tip guy. Doesn't tire, doesn't make excuses. Williams plays a powerful style, though he stands 6-5. Doesn't matter. He'll overpower guys who have 3 or 4 inches on him. A joy to watch play because you get the same effort every night.
Hot coaches on the climb
Let's highlight coaches from outside the Major Seven conferences who've done the most winning across the previous three years. Here are six with at least 70 victories to their name in that span.
Ritchie McKay, Liberty
No mid-major program has more wins since the beginning of the 2018-19 season than McKay's (82). The ASUN again has Liberty as the preseason pick to be the top team. McKay, 56, has coached at five schools but never as long as he's been here; this will be his ninth season leading the Flames.
Casey Alexander, Belmont
This name shouldn't surprise. The Bruins seamlessly have been able to remain among the best mid-majors in the post-Rick Byrd era, winning 81 games the past three years. Alexander will probably coach himself into an agonizing decision in 2022 or 2023, as he's set to have Belmont be really good again, and even though the program's going to the Missouri Valley, a bigger school is going to try to lure him away if one or two more 25-win seasons materialize.
Brian Dutcher, San Diego State
I have a hard time selling that SDSU is a mid-major program (because, really it's not), but in keeping with the theme of this piece, I need to include Dutcher. He's overseen 74 victories across three seasons and done so with a significant change in his starting lineup each season. Dutcher was the coach-in-waiting for a long time behind Steve Fisher. The Aztecs' succession plan has worked out wonderfully.
Joe Golding, UTEP
Of the six listed, here's the only one in a new spot. Golding won 71 games the past three seasons at Abilene Christian, making the NCAAs in 2019 and 2021. UTEP smartly hired him after he led the 14th-seeded ACU squad over No. 3 Texas in the first round of the tournament. Now he'll try to revive a mid-major with a rich history -- in one of the more remote locations. Lest you forget, UTEP is on the very western edge of Texas.
Russell Turner, UC Irvine
Everyone knows Mark Few, Mick Cronin, Andy Enfield and the like. But who's the mid-major coach out West that's been quietly increasing his profile? It's Turner, who's won 70 games since 2018-19 and had the best program in the Big West for much of the past half-decade. The team is 43-9 vs. league opponents the past three years.
Darian DeVries, Drake
Last season gave Drake its most publicity and national relevance in a long time, but the truth is DeVries has been going strong since he got this job in 2018. The Bulldogs have 70 wins and set up as a top-two team again in the Valley this season. For more, keep on reading -- I've got Drake as one of the top 15 mid-major teams for the season ahead.
Top 15 non-power-conference teams in '21-22
|The Bonnies enter this season ranked, marking the first time since 1971 the program has held an AP number. Huge weeks ahead for Mark Schmidt's team, which returns its starting five. The two best: PG Kyle Lofton (14.4 ppg, 5.5 apg) and C Osun Osunniyi (10.7 pg, 9.4 rpg, 2.9 bpg). I put Bona 19th in my overall rankings of every team in men's D-I hoops. The A-10 often has one team that enters the national conversation as a second-weekend NCAA Tournament threat. Dayton was that team a couple of years ago and didn't get to live out that dream due to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Now it will be the Bonnies, who I don't think are as good as that Dayton group but should be no worse than a No. 6 seed if everyone remains healthy and most improve from the 16-5 pandemic season.|
|Yes, I'm pushing the chips in on the Ramblers. A Sweet 16 run last season, and now everyone of importance except two people are back. Gone: the head coach (Porter Moser off to Oklahoma) and the star senior (Cameron Krutwig off to overseas glory). In: Drew Valentine promoted to head coach. The Ramblers have Lucas Williamson and Aher Uguak back. Williamson is one of the best mid-major players in the country and both of them rate as two of the 25-or-so best defenders in the sport. I don't think this team's dropping off all that much this season, not with an A-level mid-major defensive front and enough wing attack and perimeter potential to keep them in the mix as a top 25-40 team.|
|It's more than just Roddy for the Rams, who also put guard Isaiah Stevens on the preseason All-Mountain West team. Stevens averaged 15.3 points and 5.4 assists a season ago. Fourth-year forward Adam Thistlewood returns as well. The last time Colorado State won any kind of Mountain West title was 2003, when the sixth-seeded Rams took the automatic bid in an eight-team MW and won the league bracket. This team is my pick to win the regular-season championship, and if it does so, would earn that accomplishment for the first time since 1990, when CSU was in the WAC.|
|The Cougars won't qualify for this kind of list in two years' time, as BYU will soon be in the Big 12 -- a realignment move that I believe will fit this school and that conference extremely well. In truth, BYU's not a mid-major program anyway. But it's also not near the level of Gonzaga. And Mark Pope's team deserves some shine here, so onto this list it lands. BYU brings back Barcello (see stats above), who I think is a dark-dark horse to be a Third Team All-America selection by the end of the season. BYU will likely go with Milwaukee transfer Te'Jon Lucas to play the two, Gideon George as a slicer at small forward and sophomore Caleb Lohner at the four. Did you realize: BYU finished No. 20 at KenPom last season.|
|Though he did not make my short list above, nor did he make our Top 100 And 1 player rankings, Bruin senior lead guard Grayson Murphy (10.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.8 apg, 2.3 spg) was near the back end on my personal 1-101 list. And if I had to expand that list out to 150, Belmont big Nick Muszynski (15.0 ppg) would easily crack in. The Bruins went 26-4 last season and didn't even receive an NIT invite. Truly one of the all-time disgraces by the NIT committee, which of course never receives any heat because everyone's paying attention to the NCAA Tournament. So now Casey Alexander and Belmont bring back almost every scholarship guy from last season and should be one of the 40-45 best teams in America.|
|Very few teams in contention to make the NCAAs will have two sixth-year players on the roster. Not only will Richmond have that, neither of those guys is the best Spider (Jacob Gilyard, as depicted above). The sixth-year guys are Nick Sherod (12.7 ppg in 2019-20; he missed last season due to injury) and Grant Golden (12.7 ppg). Richmond has two fifth-year starters, two sixth-year starters and two other fifth-year guys coming off the bench. And these are genuinely good-to-great A-10 players. This team is slightly above the borderline to make the NCAAs.|
|The Aztecs were picked second in the official preseason Mountain West poll. Beyond Bradley, what do we have here? Yet another A-level defense group that gets back Nathan Mensah (8.1 ppg) and Trey Pulliam (7.3 ppg). Some holes to fill, but big picture is the past four seasons under Dutcher have seen SDSU finish No. 53 on average at KenPom, so this ranking among non-Major-Seven teams is about in line with historical performance. Dutcher has given me no reason to doubt the Aztecs' propensity for clocking in and reaching at least 20 wins.|
|Grant Sherfield emerged last season -- after transferring from Wichita State -- to solidify this program's relevancy under Steve Alford. Sherfield averaged 18.1 points and 6.1 assists, though his effective field-goal percentage (49.4%) was a wee bit lacking. He's the Mountain West preseason Player of the Year for a Wolf Pack squad that returns most of its players from a 16-10 run. That includes Desmond Cambridge and Warren Washington, who alongside Sherfield combined to score 45 points a night. Intriguing addition is Will Baker via Texas. If he hits big, Nevada will be in position to win the Mountain West.|
|Gonzaga may still rule the WCC without a true foil, but Saint Mary's hasn't gone anywhere and is still a factor in that conference. Randy Bennett's team was an afterthought of sorts last season, finishing 14-10 -- though it did make the cut for the NIT. The Gaels clear the bar here thanks to returning super-senior point guard Tommy Kuhse (12.8 ppg, 5.0 apg). Also back for another tour are three seniors: Logan Johnson, Matthias Tass, Dan Fotu. Too much familiarity to think SMC won't be a top-60 team.|
|Since I gave Jeenathan Williams so much love above, let's dedicate a couple of sentences to the other great mid-major forward on this roster. Josh Mballa is the bruising big who led the team in rebounds (10.8) and grew into one of the better glass-cleaners in college hoops last season. He also put up 15.3 points per game. With those two feeding off point guard Ronaldo Segu, it makes me think Buffalo will edge out Ohio as the top team in the MAC. The Bulls never made the NCAA Tournament until 2015. Now they're trying to get there for the fifth time in eight years.|
|A lot of Mountain West in the room. Deservedly so. But if there's one team I'm leaning a little heavier on than most others, the Aggies are it. Craig Smith left to travel down to Salt Lake City and coach the Utes. New coach: Ryan Odom, who coached UMBC for five seasons and made one NCAA Tournament -- but what an appearance that was (sorry to any Virginia fans who staggered this far into the story). USU returns dark horse pick for league player of the year Justin Bean (11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and adds former Utah PG Rylan Jones, who feels like a perfect transfer addition.|
|I go with the Dons ahead of Loyola Marymount for the No. 4 spot in what should be a competitive-as-hell WCC. Todd Golden had a wobblier-than-expected go of it last season, finishing 11-14. This year should be different. Jamaree Bouyea (to me, a top-100 player) is back and should up his averages (17.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.7 apg), but he'll have experienced help with Khalil Shabazz (15.1 ppg) and Dzmitry Ryuny (9.4 ppg). This team has the most stunning preseason ranking at KenPom: No. 34! It will fall short of that; USF's best KenPom finish of 61st was in 1998, the last time it made the NCAAs.|
|The preseason MVC voters do not agree with me. It's Drake -- not Loyola Chicago -- that was picked to win the Valley. Both teams have most of their players back, so we'll call it a toss-up. DeVries' record is noted above. I could well be under-shooting them here, though my 1-358 ranking of the Bulldogs (No. 72) is basically aligned with KenPom (73rd). Tank Hemphill (13.2 ppg), who missed nine games in February and March, returns alongside Roman Penn (11.2 ppg, 5.5 apg) and D.J. Wilkins (10.1 ppg). If you watched Drake after its 18-0 start last season, you saw a legitimate mid-major outfit. Much more of that coming in '21-22.|
|There's a chance we see the Mountain West leapfrog the American Athletic Conference this season. If that happens, Boise State will likely need to be in the NCAA Tournament conversation. My biggest reason for putting Boise State in this spot: Leon Rice has one of the more experienced teams in the country. That said, the Broncos lost Derrick Alston Jr. to the pros and don't have a clear No. 1/top-five guy in the Mountain West heading into November. But that might change. Abu Kigab is the leading returning scorer (11.8 ppg). Regardless, this team has an NIT floor at worst. |
|Had Saint Louis not lost its best player, Javonte Perkins, for the year with a torn ACL, the Billikens would've made this list. Instead, a different A-10 school will slide in. VCU lost Bones Hyland, and that's huge. He's one of the few Rams NBA picks in program history. Without him, so much changes. And there serious injury concerns. But it's VCU. And the A-10 is destined to have at least three of the 15 best mid-major-type teams in the sport. So here we are. Mike Rhoades' two best guys back: forwards Vince Williams Jr. (10.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Levi Stockard III. Getting fans back into that home gym will be worth a win or four.|