my last Mid Majors Bakers' Dozen back on February 26, a week before mid major conference tournaments started, I had no idea of the impact that those fourteen teams (there was a tie for 13th) would have on the NCAA Tournament. Seven of those teams won a first round game in the NCAA Tournament. Four of those teams would make it to the Sweet Sixteen. And of course, one of those teams, Butler, would come within a just missed buzzer bank shot of winning the whole thing.
Here's the kicker though. Of those fourteen teams, only one, Kent State did not make the NCAA Tournament (Kent State went to the NIT). And as everyone knows, or should know, the Golden Flashes lost to the Bobcats of Ohio in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament. The same Bobcats that of course would win the MAC as a ninth seed, then simply annihilate Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Ohio was the eighth true mid major team to win a game in the tournament (we will allow wannabe Xavier to be the ninth mid major team). 2009-10 was the season of the mid major.
Now back on December 15, 2009, no one had any idea what was going to take place a few months later. Certainly not me when I wrote my first Mid Majors Baker's Dozen for the 2009-10 season. Only six of the thirteen teams in my first countdown made the NCAA Tournament (but all six won a game in the NCAA Tournament). That goes to show you how long the season really is and how hard it is to predict what teams will make an impact by the end of the season.
Still, you have to stick with tradition and this countdown has been a part of this site for several years now. So without further ado, grab a boston creme, a cup of coffee, and enjoy the first countdown of the tastiest thirteen mid major teams in the country as of November 12, 2010.
1) Butler - The Bulldogs showed the college basketball world that if you have balls to the wall defense, all for one and one for all teamwork, timely shooting plus a good amount of talent (Gordon Hayward, ninth overall NBA draft pick), you can play with and beat the big boys. Hayward, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes are all gone but there is more than enough left to make at least another Sweet Sixteen run. The Shelvin Mack Attack is back for another season as is point guard Ronald Nored.
But the key for The Butler Way 2010-11 Version to be successful is the return to 2008-09 season form of forward Matt Howard. Last season, Howard sat way too often on the sidelines with foul trouble (only averaged 25 minutes per game). The Bulldogs could make up for it with Hayward, Mack, Nored, Veasley and Jukes picking up their share. But with three of those players now gone, there is less leeway for Howard to be foul prone. Yes he will get help from an improving Andrew Smith and freshman Erik Fromm and Khyle Marshall. But Howard must play 30 plus minutes for the Bulldogs to be successful. The schedule will not be easy though as Butler looks to be Gonzaga 2.0.
2) Gonzaga - While Butler looks to be Gonzaga 2.0, the original version, Gonzaga 1.0 would tell you that they are still going quite strong, thank you. The Zags made it to the round of 32 last season before losing to Syracuse. Despite the loss of Matt Bouldin, one of the more underrated players last season, the 1.0 Bulldogs return four of their five starters, including Elias Harris, who quite possibly might be one of the five best players in the country this season. Gonzaga also returns sweet shooting guard Stephen Gray and seven footer Robert Sacre, both double digit scorers. Guard Demetri Goodson looks to improve on his 1.8 assists per game.
The Zags schedule is never easy, and this season is no exception. Road games at #3 Kansas State, #14 Baylor, Wake Forest and Notre Dame, plus home games vs. Illinois, Oklahoma State,San Diego State and Xavier. Seven NCAA Tournament teams and one NIT team. Talk about working the non conference SOS and RPI. If Harris again improves this season, by season's end, it's very possible that Gonzaga 1.0 will be the better version than Gonzaga 2.0.
3) Old Dominion - The Monarchs continue the pattern of "Lose your best player from last season but still be ranked in the countdown". Forward Gerald Lee graduated but ODU returns its other four starters - Kent Bazemore, Darius James, Frank Hassell and Ben Finney, plus their sixth man Keyon Carter. The Monarchs were one of the best teams in the country in scoring defense, only allowing 57 points per game. And their defense on Luke Harangody enabled ODU to defeat the Land of the Leprechauns in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
ODU immediately faces a challenge tonight when they host Georgetown. The schedule doesn't get any easier probable second round game vs. Clemson in the Paradise Jam. Then another home game with Richmond on December 1, a home game vs. Dayton on December 11, then a road swing to #15 Missouri on December 30 before conference play starts. As long as the Monarchs can make up for the loss of their leading scorer in Lee with more balanced scoring from the rest of their cast, Old Dominion should be a good bet to repeat as CAA champ.
4) Murray State - The Racers had a marvelous 2009-10 season. Only one loss in the Ohio Valley, a first round upset over fourth seeded Vanderbilt and a near upset of Butler. Thirty one wins on the season. And here's the scary part - eight of the Racers' best players, including their three top scorers are back for another season. And the Racers are an excellent defensive team, leading the OVC in scoring defense, FG percentage defense, three point FG percentage defense and blocked shots.
Their schedule shows that the Racers are no longer an unknown quantity this season. A road game vs. Mississippi starts things off, followed later with three games in the 76 Classic. In the first round of the 76 Classic, the Racers face Stanford, followed by potential games vs. UNLV, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech or Tulsa. Can the Racers follow the standard set by another mid major that played in the 76 Classic last year, Butler? Time will tell.
5) Wichita State - I am old school. And once in a while, when I think of the Wichita State Shockers, I think of the above Glen Campbell song. So sorry, but when talking about Wichita State, I just had to include that video.
The Shockers are back from a season where they started out 19-4 but struggled down the stretch to finish 25-10. However they were able to wiin two games in the Valley Tournament, before losing to Northern Iowa in the MVC championship game. The Shockers season finished with a 74-70 loss at home to Nevada in the first round of the NIT, which was their only home loss on the season.
The Shockers return eight of their nine top players, with the lone exception being Clevin Hannah, their leading scorer from last year (hey, we're continuing the pattern here). But Toure' Murray and J.T. Durley, who averaged almost as many points as Hannah are back (11.9 and 11.2). Wichita State looks poised to win the Valley this season and they have a chance early on to show the nation how good they will be as they will be a part of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. A first round game vs. UConn awaits and depending on the outcome there, the Shockers could potentially face 2010 Final Four Member Michigan State, an Enes Kanter-less Kentucky, Washington, Oklahoma or Virginia. Further on in their non-conference season schedule, Wichita State plays at San Diego State and LSU. Yes, this season, Wichita State has the chance to truly be...shockers! (I know, bad pun).
6) Utah State - There are certainties in life. Death, taxes and Utah State having another really good season.
Since the 2001-02 season, Utah State has had nine consecutive 23 plus win seasons, five NCAA appearances and five NIT appearances. Stu Morrill's teams are always among the best in FG percentage in the country and this year looks no different. Despite losing their second leading scorer, Jared Quayle, to graduation, the Aggies return their leading scorer, Senior Tai Wesley and his 57 percent shooting from the field and fellow starters Nate Bendall, Pooh Williams and Tyler Newbold.
The Aggies are known for not venturing outside of Logan often during non-conference season. But the Aggies scheduled a dandy road game at Georgetown on December 4th, plus they have the usual in state rivalries with BYU (at Provo) and Utah (at home in Logan). Look for Utah State, perhaps the most underrated mid major in the country, to post another 23 plus win season, shoot a high field goal percentage and take another trip to the Big Dance.
7) Missouri State - The Valley has not had a multiple NCAA bid season since 2006-07 (Creighton and Southern Illinois). In the past three seasons, only the conference tournament champion has gone on to the NCAA Tournament (Drake in 2007-08 and Northern Iowa in the past two seasons). Could this finally be the season that the Valley breaks that drought? Wichita State certainly looks to be a NCAA Tournament team and with all their players returning, so does Missouri State.
Potential MVC player of the year Kyle Weems leads the Bears, along with fellow double digit scorers Adam Leonard and Jermaine Mallett should give MSU fans plenty of reason to cheer this season. Valley President Doug Elgin should be happy with the Bears non conference schedule. Missouri State is also playing in the NIT Season Tip Off with a potential second round game at Tennessee looming. Plus the Bears travel to Oklahoma State before kicking their conference schedule into gear on December 29 vs defending champion Northern Iowa.
8) Ohio - Think about the Bobcats 2009-10 season for a second or two. This was a team that at one time was 6-9 in conference with a 16-14 overall record. After needing overtime to defeat Ball State in the first round of the MAC tournament , the Bobcats were probably considered an afterthought to a Kent State team they lost twice to during the regular season. Then after a seventeen point win over the Golden Flashes, the above Tom Petty song was probably what most people thought about Ohio. But the Bobcats then proceeded to down Miami and then Akron to win the MAC Tournament. Then in the penultimate moment of the season, Ohio thoroughly trounced #3 seed Georgetown 97-83 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (the Bobcats lost to Tennessee in the second round).
Armon Bassett left for a pro career after last season, but Ohio is not Old Mother Hubbard with a bare cupboard. The rest of the starting Bobcat five is back with double digit scorers D.J. Copper, DeVaughan Washington, Steven Coleman and Tommy Freeman. The Bobcats do not have an easy non conference schedule. A home game with fellow 2009-10 NCAA Tournament member Oakland, then a first round game vs. #7 Kansas in the Las Vegas Invitational, and a home game in December vs. T#22 emple, another NCAA Tournament team. The Bobcats won't sneak up on anyone. But they won't back down either (hey two Tom Petty references in the same team preview. Nice!).
9) VCU - The defending CBI champs (won both games vs. St Louis in the CBI championship) surprisingly at times struggled in conference through their 2009-10 season, finishing fifth in the CAA. Then after knocking off George Mason in the CAA quarters, the Rams had ODU on the ropes,but the Monarchs survived winning in overtime. Again, this is another team that does not return it's best player, Larry Sanders, who declared early for the NBA draft and was picked 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, the other starters, Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen all return, plus talented sixth man guard Ed Nixon and Darius Theus give the Rams depth in the backcourt. The frontcourt is a question with only Skeen and David Hinton, returning from injury as the remaining bigs from last season.
The Rams are a part of the Preseason NIT and a second round matchup at Wake Forest looms. Depending on how they do, they could match up against teams such as Road games at Richmond and UAB, and a home game vs. defending Southern Conference champ Wofford should all provide good tests for VCU before conference season starts. Could the Colonial get two teams into the NCAA Tournament?. It's hard to speculate at this time, but with four starters returning from a 25 win season, they should be a tough opponent for basically any team they face.
10) New Mexico State - The other NCAA Tournament member Aggies from the WAC return their talented frontcourt of Wendell McKines, Hamidu Rahman and Troy Gillenwater. The trio combined to average nearly 36 points and 25 rebounds per game, while collectively shooting over 52 percent from the field. The Aggies problem is that their two leading scorers, guards Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson are no longer on the team, so NMSU must have returning starting point guard Hernst Laroche must step up in the scoring column.
The Aggies waste no time jumping into a good non conference schedule by going to Tucson and facing Arizona, then home games with UMass and USC. Then New Mexico State has home and homes with both UTEP and New Mexico, two other NCAA Tournament teams from last season. Finally two days before Christmas, the Aggies host another NCAA Tournament team, Sweet Sixteen member St Mary's. If NMSU can get relatively good backcourt play to match their excellent front court, it will be another very good season for the Aggies.
11) Oakland - So you lose two of your best Golden Grizzlies in forward Derick Nelson and guard Johnathon Jones (who averaged 6.4 assists per game), do you worry? Not when you have the Summit League's best player, Keith Benson, returning. The double double machine Benson, who averaged 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game is a one man wrecking crew. Fortunately for Benson, guard Larry Wright and his 11 points per game average also returns. Guard Ledrick Eagles and forward Will Hudson will both have to step up into larger roles.
Give the Golden Grizzlies a lot of credit, they don't mess around with their non conference schedule. Oakland starts at West Virginia, then Ohio. Follow that up with at Purdue, at Illinois, at Michigan State (please don't tell me the Palace at Auburn Hills is a neutral game. Gimme a break). Top that with at Ohio State and at Michigan and I am just exhausted writing that. But remember what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And that's why Oakland had a RPI of 65 last season and was more than ready for the Summit Conference. Check back with the Golden Grizzlies come March Madness time.
12) St Mary's - So you lose "The Beast" Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan, a long time favorite here at the College Hardwood and Ben Allen from their Sweet Sixteen team. What's a Gaels team to do? Reload with the perimeter shooting of Mickey McDonnell, Matthew Dellavedova and Clint Steindl. Mix in Jordan Page and Mitchell Young, the main two players off the bench last season and the Gaels will be just fine thank you.
St Mary's always plays a tough non conference schedule. This season is no different. The Gaels host St John's before heading to the South Padre Classic to take on Texas Tech, then face either BYU or South Florida. Then it's road games with San Diego State, Long Beach State, New Mexico State and Mississippi State. The Gaels road warrior ways should prove valuable come WCC conference time. Look for another three battles with Gonzaga which may determine whether the Gaels go dancing again.
13) Iona - The other Gaels are my surprise team this season (well, not much of a surprise anymore since Basketball Prospectus picked them to finish first in the MAAC too). Iona returns four of their starters including Scott Machado, Alejo Rodriguez, Kyle Smith and Jermel Jenkins. Plus they have one of my favorite coaches, Tim Cluess running the show now (Kevin Willard left for Seton Hall). Cluess' teams at C.W. Post were always exciting to watch and now he has DI talent to work with.
The Gaels schedule should be challenging. Iona starts with the World Vision Classic in Cleveland vs 2010 NIT member Kent State, then Cleveland State. The Gaels have a home game vs. Richmond next week, then a road game vs. Syracuse before playing Hofstra at home. The MAAC season starts with a road game vs. defending champ Siena. It should be a good season for the Maroon.
With all due respect to Christmas, College Basketball is the most wonderful time of the year. The season truly starts tonight with 134 games on tap and another 61 tomorrow. Just close your eyes, listen to Johnny Mathis and think of three point baskets, monster dunks, players diving for loose balls and Bruiser Flint doing his stomp at an official's call. And most importantly, go to a live game this weekend. Lots to choose from! Enjoy the start of the best season in sports.