It’s that time of the year again.  The weather starts to turn, trees go bare of leaves, and college basketball starts up.

The first weekend of college basketball starts today, Friday the 11th. Blue bloods Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and Villanova are some of the top teams coming into the season. One thing they all have in common is they are in Power 6 conferences. While it’s teams in these top conferences that dominate the headlines, it’s important not to overlook the very talented teams and players from the mid-major conferences.  Last year, 28 mid-major teams made the NCAA Tournament and 11 of them upset their opponent in the first round.  This included big upsets like Middle Tennessee over Michigan State and Yale over Baylor.

Here’s a preview of the top 10 mid-major teams heading into the season, starting with 10.

10. SMU Mustangs (2015 Record: 25-5, 13-5 Conf)

Key Additions: Semi Ojeleye, Jimmy Whitt, Leo Kontopoulos, Harry Froling, Dashawn McDowell, Tom Wilson

Key Departures: Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert

Last season the Mustangs finished second in the American Conference, just behind Temple.  They would have surely made the postseason if they were not still under postseason ban, but that ban is over this year. The biggest loss they were hit with since last season was losing their head coach Larry Brown. They have replaced him with Tim Jankovich.  They also lost star guard Nic Moore. They will finally welcome promising redshirt junior forward Semi Ojeleye, who transferred from Duke after his first two years and had to redshirt his junior year due to transfer rules. Their core strength will lie around sophomore guard Shake Milton and the forward combo of Ojeleye and Ben Moore.

9. BYU Cougars (2015 Record: 26-11, 13-5 Conf)

Key Additions: Eric Mika, Payton Dastrup, TJ Haws, Yoeli Childs, Steven Beo

Key Departures: Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer, Nate Austin

The Cougars has an impressive season under head coach Dave Rose, but finished two games behind the West Coast Conference champion St. Mary’s. They have only three returning starters, but are stocked with young talents. The Cougars lost star players Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer and Nate Austin. They added three ESPN top 100 players in TJ Haws, Yoeli Childs and Payton Dastrup. Another bonus will be the return of Eric Mika from a two-year mormon mission, as he averaged 11.8 rpg and 6.4 rpg as a freshman in 2013-14. The Cougars strength will still primarily be around their sharpshooting, which is what coach Rose has been known for over the years.

8. Cincinnati Bearcats (2015 Record: 22-11, 12-6 Conf)

Key Additions: Tre Scott, Kyle Washington, Jarron Cumberland, Nysier Brooks

Key Departures: Shaquille Thomas, Octavius Ellis

Mick Cronin returns for his 11th season as the Bearcats coach with high expectations in the American Conference. Last season, the Bearcats lost to St. Joseph’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They will introduce forward Tre Scott back from a redshirted freshman year and transfer Kyle Washington from N.C. State. One of their leaders in Shaq Thomas} left due to graduation. Their strength is and has always been their defense. Cronin implores strong defense and almost always gets it from his guys. They will also be led by preseason AAC Player of the Year [Player: Troy Caupain. He averaged 13 points per game last season and is their leader.

7. Dayton Flyers (2015 Record: 25-8, 14-4 Conf)

Key Additions: Josh Cunningham, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Trey Landers

Key Departures: Steve McElvene, Dyshawn Pierre

The Flyers enjoyed another outstanding season with head coach Archie Miller at the helm, winning the Atlantic 10 season conference championship and going to their third straight NCAA Tournament.  The lost in the first round to an eventual Final Four Syracuse Orange team.  One of their biggest losses from last year was center Steve McElvene, who gave them great size up front.  McElvene tragically passed away this offseason.  They add transfer forward Josh Cunningham to get bigger and also added freshman forward {Player: Kostas Antetokounmpo], who is the brother of Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo and was ruled ineligible. Dayton will not be as big up front as before, but they will be led by their perimeter play of Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith.

6. Wichita State (2015 Record: 26-9, 16-2 Conf)

Key Additions: Landry Shamet, Daishon Smith, Darral Willis Jr., CJ Keyser

Key Departures: Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, Evan Wessel, Anton Grady

The Greg Marshall years have been going great for Wichita State. They have won three straight Missouri Valley Conference titles and made the Final Four in 2013.  Last season they dominated the conference and went on to win their play-in game and then their first round game against number 6 seed Arizona.  They will have to deal with the huge losses of seniors Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, who were their leaders for four years.  The Shockers have restocked with redshirt freshman guard Landry Shamet, junior college transfer point guard Daishon Smith, and forward Darral Willis Jr.  The Shockers have been known to be a very good perimeter shooting team under Marshall and should continue that this season.

5. San Diego State (28-10, 16-2 Conf)

Key Additions: Devin Watson, Max Hoetzel, Valentine Izundu, Nolan Narain, Jalen McDaniels, Montaque Gill-Caesar

Key Departures: Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol, Winston Shepard

Somehow, Steve Fisher’s coached team did not make the NCAA Tournament last season after winning the Mountain West Conference regular season title. Either way, it was a solid season for them and they have promise going into this season.  They lost key big men in Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol, and Winston Shepard.  Indiana transfer forward Max Hoetzel and transfer center Valentine Izundu will help to bring stability back to the frontcourt that Spencer and Chol had. Junior transfer guard Devin Watson should strengthen the backcourt as well. Jeremy Hemsley is one of the top point guards in the conference with NBA potential. The strength of this team lies in lottery level talent Malik Pope, who will look to finally play to his ability in his junior year. The sweet shooting PF has NBA range and down the stretch last season into the NIT began to show some leadership ability. Pope and the team’s high ranked defense are what could win this school the conference.   

4. Rhode Island (2015 Record: 17-15, 9-9 Conf)

Key Additions: Stanford Robinson, Jeff Dowtin, Mike Layssard, Cyril Langevine, Michael Tertsea

Key Departures: Star McGlynn, Earl Watson

The Rams and head coach Dan Hurley had so much promise heading into last season with arguably the best player in the Atlantic 10 in E.C. Matthews.  In the first game of the year he injured his knee and out for the rest of the year, ruining the Rams chances at a postseason berth.  In the offseason, the Rams lost guard Star McGlynn who averaged almost 12 points per game.  They also lost center Earl Watson.  They are bringing in Indiana transfer guard Stanford Robinson who can guard multiple positions.  They also have dangerous shooter Jeff Dowtin and forward prospects Mike Layssard, Cyril Langevine and Michael Tertsea.  Matthews will be the cornerstone of this team.  In his freshman year, he flashed his skills and talents en route to winning Atlantic 10 Co-Rookie of the Year.  He will set this team up for success or failure.  If he’s on, he gives this team a great chance to make the NCAA Tournament.  Rhode Island will start the season at number 23 overall and have many people’s attention.

3. UCONN Huskies (2015 Record: 25-11, 11-7 Conf)

Key Additions: Alterique Gilbert, Terry Larrier, Juwan Durham

Key Departures: Daniel Hamilton

Head Coach Kevin Ollie already has a national championship under his belt while at UCONN and his Huskies looked primed to take control of the American Conference this year.  Senior guard Rodney Purvis elected to come back to his senior year to help the UCONN stout defense make another tournament run.  This offseason, their biggest loss was shooting guard/small forward Daniel Hamilton declaring for the NBA draft.  To combat the loss, VCU transfer Terry Larrier will step into the roll.  Freshmen Alterique Gilbert and Juwan Durham will help cement the front and backcourt behind seniors Amidah Brimah and Rodney Purvis.  This a big year for the Huskies.  Purvis decided to stay because he himself said he wanted to make a deep run into the tournament like Shabazz Napier did a couple years ago.  If Purvis is a star again and their defense plays like Kevin Ollie wants it to, they have the potential to make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament come March.  The Huskies will start the year at number 18 overall.

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (2015 Record: 28-8, 15-3 Conf)

Key Additions: Zach Collins, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Killian Tillie, Jacob Larsen, Rui Hachimura

Key Departures: Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Dranginis, Eric McClellan

The Zags had another great season under head coach Mark Few, who will be going into his 17th season as the Bulldogs coach.  Even though they did not win the regular season title, they were able to win the West Coach Conference tournament to automatically clinch a postseason berth.  There, they made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, before they lost to Syracuse.  This offseason, they lost almost all their core players and veterans.  Backcourt mates Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan will leave huge holes, but maybe not as big as the frontcourt players in Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.  Sabonis was the thunder, providing the hard rebounding while Wiltjer was a lighting hybrid forward with strength and shooting range.  The backcourt will be helped by the addition of top freshman recruit Zach Collins, who should be a monster down low.  Both Pac-12 transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews will come in with veteran leadership this roster so desperately needs.  I think their core strength will again come at the big man/forward spot.  Collins looks to establish himself as the top center in the conference, now that St. Mary’s has lost their most talented big men.  Even with it all, I don’t think it will be enough to beat out an experienced, efficient Gaels team that has Gonzaga’s number.  They will make the postseason, but don’t expect a huge year from the young and learning team.  They will start the year at number 14 overall.

1. St. Mary’s Gaels (2015 Record: 26-9, 15-3 Conf)

Key Additions: Jordan Ford, Jock Perry

Key Departures: NONE

The Gaels came out firing last season and hung tough all year long with Gonzaga, eventually beating them out for the West Coast Conference title. Head coach Randy Bennett led his team to the best field goal percentage in the country. After all they did, they somehow got snubbed from the NCAA Tournament. Arguably the biggest snub of the whole season. It will be a tall task to repeat what they did last year, but their roster is did not lose much. Amazingly, their roster is so intact from last season. They were lucky enough to add nice three-star point guard Jordan Ford and 7’1” Australian center Jock Perry for depth in the frontcourt. I think they have a huge advantage coming into this season to repeat as conference champions and make the postseason. Since they have no major losses, player wise, the experience and veteran leadership will be there. Coach Bennett knows how to get his team to play smart and take good shots so watch out for this team to make a potential run.  They won’t be snubbed again. The Gaels come in at number 17 overall but watch for their ranking to rise throughout.

Now that the team previews are finished, here’s a brief preview of some preseason top five prospects of these mid-major conferences.

Malik Pope, Forward, Junior, San Diego State
2015 Stats: 7.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 40.1 FG%

Cameron Oliver, Forward, Sophomore, Nevada
2015 Stats: 13.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 50.8 FG%

EC Matthews, G, Junior, Rhode Island
2014 Stats (since he missed almost all of last season): 16.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 41.0 FG%

Zach Collins, C, Freshman, Gonzaga
ESPN Top 100 recruit (37th overall), 2016 McDonald’s All-American

Troy Caupain, Guard, Senior, Cincinnati
2015 Stats: 13 PPG, 4.8 APG, 33.5 MIN


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