Our college blogs are broken into seven parts, with one for each of the Power 5 (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12) plus the Big East and my "Mid Major Blog" which will cover everything else. Mid-Major schools are generally the teams that will bust your bracket. They also consistently turn overlooked recruits into stars. Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and CJ McCollum are just a few of the recent Mid-Major examples to make a huge impact in the NBA. Here are some of the teams and players to be on the lookout for as the season gets underway.
1.) Wichita State Shockers
(AAC) 31-5, 17-1
Key Additions: Isaiah Chandler – C
Key Departures: None
Now a perennial Mid-Major powerhouse, Wichita State tops the preseason rankings. Considered by many to be a top-ten team in the nation, they return nearly all of their key players that led them to the round of 32, before losing by three points to second-seeded Kentucky. This includes their top eight scorers from last season.
Star lead guard Landry Shamet broke his right foot this offseason, but returned to score 17 in their season opener, a 52-point victory over UMKC. If he is at full strength, this looks to be yet another dominant season for the Shockers, who are an elite defensive group that does not rely on only one scorer. No one on this team will average 20 points a game.
This is their first year in the AAC, moving from the MVC, which should help them be seeded in a more deserving spot. When a team that goes 31-5 is given a ten seed, questions about strength of schedule come into question. Their record may not be as strong this season simply due to the strength of the AAC compared to the MVC (Wichita went 17-1 in conference last season).
With annual games against the likes of Cincinnati and UConn along with a consistently-improving out-of-conference schedule, a strong season from the Shockers will easily give them their seventh consecutive tournament appearance and should put them in position to earn a top four seed.
Cincinnati is also coming off of an impressive season in which they were eliminated in the round of 32 by UCLA. Losing Troy Caupain, their lead assist-man, will certainly hurt. It is now a question of who will pick up the slack and ensure that the ball moves around in this offense.
Cane Broome will be eligible this season after sitting out last year following a transfer from Sacred Heart. It will have to be some combination of Broome, Jarron Cumberland and Jacob Evans. These three guards have stand out talent, and the Bearcats will go as far as they take the team. Evans is the team’s top athlete and scoring threat and his development as a leader will be key to the team’s success.
The would-be AAC favorites, if not for Wichita State coming to the conference, will look to continue the success that landed them a six seed in the tournament last year, despite losing to SMU in the conference championship, I have no reason to anticipate a drop-off from the team that went 30-6 last year.
3.) Saint Mary’s Gaels
(WCC) 29-5, 16-2
Key Additions: Kristers Zoriks – G
Key Departures: Joe Rahon – G, Dane Pineau – F
If there is a year for Saint Mary’s to overtake Gonzaga in the WCC, this is it. Saint Mary’s was able to retain most of their talent from last season, where they lost to Arizona in the round of 32.
Losing Joe Rahon will hurt, as he played 36.4 minutes a game last season, and was a key part of facilitating their offense. On the other hand, returning guard Emmett Naar averaged the same number of assists last season (5.6).
I expect big things from Calvin Hermanson, a 6’6 forward with range (43% on 6 3PA/gm last season). Even more important will be the team’s top player Jock Landale, their latest star Aussie import. Coach Randy Bennet doubled the 6’11 center’s minutes from 14 to 28 per game and the payoff was massive. He went from averaging 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds to 16.9 and 9.5.
He was able to get over a block per game, 1.7 assists, and even became a threat from three, albeit not that frequently and not that efficiently. If he put in the work this offseason, this is a player capable of carrying the load and putting his name into national player of the year conversations.
4.) Gonzaga Bulldogs
(WCC) 37-2, 17-1
Key Additions: Jacob Larsen Corey Kispert – F, Zach Norvell – G, Jesse Wade – G
Key Departures: Nigel Williams-Goss – G, Przemek Karnowski – C, Zach Collins – F, Jordan Mathews – G
This is not the Gonzaga team that came within a few points of cutting down the nets. Anytime a team losers four of their five top scorers, there are questions to be asked.
Jonathan Williams is the lone returner of the five. There are big shoes to fill in the paint with the departures of Collins and Karnowski. Jesse Wade and Zach Norvell are now eligible after both having to wait through last season’s run.
Scouts are intrigued by their sophomore forwards Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie. A lot will be expected from their two rising talents who combined played less than 20 minutes per game last season. Their ability to step into key roles will be key for the team.
Center Jacob Larsen, a freshman redshirt from Denmark, is an intriguing bigman, who missed last season with a knee injury. He’s a raw player who will take time to be a major impact guy, but gives them a presence inside, replacing Karnowski and Collins.
Mark Few is being held to the high standards he has set for himself in what may be a challenging year for the Bulldogs, as many people still consider this team to be top-25. Even if Hachimura and Tillie are everything some scouts project them to be, repeating last year’s success, 37-2 and a final four run, will be nearly impossible.
Despite losing multiple key players, Nevada figures to finish atop the MWC once again. This is mainly due to the potential of the Martin twins (Caleb Martin and Cody Martin), transfers from NC State. In their first game this season—a 88-64 beat down of Idaho, the duo combined for 41 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals and 3 blocks.
Having two dominant forwards can often lead to elite success. Look no further than the Morris twins on Kansas a few years back for an easy comparison. Their game against Rhode Island on Monday will be a good test for two teams with tournament aspirations that had to replace some of their key players.
I am optimistic about the Wolf Pack this year if they can find their groove with their new players and continue to gel as a team. There is no question that they can defend, they just need to find 70-80 points a night somehow, which is something I think the Martin twins can make happen. I see no reason not to expect this team in the tournament, barring injury or the team simply falling apart.
6.) San Diego State Aztecs
(MWC) 19-14, 9-9
Key Additions: Jalen McDaniels – F, Jordan Schakel – F
Key Departures: Zylan Cheatham – F, Dakarai Allen – G
The Aztecs are able to return all three of their double-digit scorers from last season. Despite a weak in-conference record of 9-9, this team showed flashes of becoming the class of the MWC with all the returning starters they have. They also brought in a new coach in Brian Dutcher. This team has struggled to score the ball in the past, but is tough defensively.
Their top scorer from last season, Trey Kell, had 13.2 points a game on 37.5% shooting. With continued usage, Aztec fans will certainly be hoping more of his shots will fall. Similar to Nevada, this is just a team that needs to find enough points to score more than the other team.
Senior forward Malik Pope had 20 and 6, going 1 for 2 from downtown in the opener. He has been a major disappointment so far so whether he can finally have a consistent season will be a major story line. It will be interesting to see which of Nevada and San Diego State claims early control of the MWC this season.
7.) UCF Knights
(AAC) 24-12, 11-7
Key Additions: Dayon Griffin – G, Caesar DeJesus – G
Key Departures: Matt Williams – G, Nick Banyard – F
UCF may be the most underrated mid-major team at the moment. They were able to retain all of their big men while reloading at guard. 7’6 Center Tacko Fall is a matchup nightmare for any team.
With a balanced yet very effective offense, it will be tough for other teams to keep up with them. Fall will have to stay healthy as he has some hip soreness going into the season. When he plays, the defense has the anchor that makes them a strong defensive team.
For those reasons, UCF is positioned to have one of the best seasons in their school’s history following an already solid 2016-2017 campaign in which they went 21-11.
8.) SMU Mustangs
(AAC) 30-5, 17-1
Key Additions: Elijah Landrum – G, Ethan Chargois – C, Jimmy Whitt – G
Key Departures: Semi Ojeleye – F, Sterling Brown – G, Ben Moore – F
The reigning AAC champions are in somewhat of a retooling year. SMU lost their top two scorers from last season, including now Boston Celtic Semi Ojeleye. As it stands now, this team will go as far as guard Shake Milton will take them. Many have circled his name as a candidate for AAC player of the year.
Jimmy Whitt will play this year after sitting out last year following a transfer from Arkansas, giving them some much needed ball distribution.
SMU earned a 6-seed last season after a dominant year, but lost by one to USC in the first round of the tournament. Many felt that last year was their best chance to make a run, but the program is surely on the upswing. If Milton can have a 20 PPG season, expect to be hearing about this team in March.
9.) Charleston Cougars
(CAA) 25-10, 14-4
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: None
This is essentially the same Charleston team that went 25-10 last season, good for second place behind UNC-Wilmington in the CAA. Continuity is becoming rare in college basketball, and this team that possesses it. These players know each other and have experienced success together. The question now is if they will experience March Madness as a unit.
Sophomore guard Grant Riller looks primed for a breakout season. There is no question that this team can defend, but can they get enough production on the offensive end to keep up with some of the elite teams? Only time will tell.
To me, they are the clear-cut favorites in the CAA, and I would expect at least 27 wins from this squad. Their game against Wichita State on tonight will be a great test for both teams.
10.) Temple Owls
(AAC) 16-16, 7-11
Key Additions: Justyn Hamilton – F, JP Moorman – F, Nate Pierre-Louis – G, De’Vondre Perry – F
Key Departures: Daniel Dingle – G
This final spot was a toss-up between Temple and UConn, but I ultimately gave it to Temple simply due to continuity.
They return one of the most experienced rosters in basketball, and will look to improve upon their .500 campaign from last season. In addition to bringing back most of their key players, they also had one of the better recruiting classes in the AAC. If their new additions can find their role within the team, the Owls are suddenly an intimidating team.
A lot will be expected of Shizz Alston Jr, as he will be running the show. This is not a team that will have a 20-point scorer every game, but through tough defense and a balanced offense, I expect them to show significant improvement over last season and to win at least 20 games.
Top Five Mid Major Prospects
1.) Rui Hachimura, F, Gonzaga: A 6’8 versatile forward who will need some time to develop. However, he demonstrated elite skill for Japan at the FIBA U-19 World Cup. He can push the ball in transition, find the open man, shoot the three, and play defense. This is someone with a (healthy) Jabari Parker-level ceiling if he is able to put it all together. He just needs to continue to develop and learn the nuances of the game. Hachimura is someone that may need an additional year in school to be ready for the next level, but could decide to bolt early as his upside is very intriguing.
2. Brandon McCoy, C, UNLV: McCoy was a McDonald’s All American and the Runnin’ Rebels highest recruit in years. He has good size and strength and runs the floor well. His post game and touch are developing. He’s one of the most athletic 7-footers on the college level and could be a lottery pick if he plays to his abilities this season.
3.) Alize Johnson, F, Missouri State: A 6’9 forward with a high motor and three point range. He is someone that teams will strongly consider as a 3 and D player in today’s NBA, someone that plays defense and can also knock down perimeter shots. He’s also an excellent passer. A player like Draymond Green having such a huge impact in the NBA have given more intrigue to a senior prospect like Johnson who has a versatile skill set.
4.) Killian Tillie, F, Gonzaga: The 6’10 French forward is exactly what the NBA is shifting to. He has demonstrated elite vision and passing for someone his size in international play, and is someone you can run your offense through. With him receiving more minutes this year due to Gonzaga’s big men leaving, I expect him to burst on the radar of NBA scouts.
5a.) Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State: Shamet made a speedy recovery from a broken foot in the off-season and looks primed to carry the Shockers to a big season. Shamet is a solid athlete who makes those around him better with his great passing and playmaking ability. He’ll need to prove that he can stay healthy as he has developed a bit of a reputation for being injury prone, having redshirted his freshman year with a stress fracture in his left foot.
5b.) Jacob Evans, G, Cincinnati: Evans enters his junior year as one of the top returning wings in the country. He has a good-looking shot, and NBA teams love 6’6 guards that can do a little bit of everything. He’ll need to develop more consistency and leadership to enhance his draft stock this year.