20 Mid Majors To Watch In March
With the calendar flipping over to March, the madness is about to begin. There will be conference tournaments galore over the next couple of weeks, all leading up to Selection Sunday, which of course will be followed by the NCAA tournament.
More than ever, a big part of March Madness is all the little schools that think they can compete with the big boys, and relish the opportunity to prove themselves. We got a bit of a sneak peak of the schools we know little about during ESPN’s Bracket Buster weekend, but there are so many out there it’s hard to keep them all straight. So now that we’re a little closer to the conference tournaments getting underway, here’s a closer look at 20 mid major programs that you’re going to want to know about as we reach the crux of the college basketball season.
Some of the schools should already be household names, but a lot of them will be unknown to the casual college basketball fan; and most will be hearing their name called on Selection Sunday, whether it is as a conference champion or as an at-large team. Most importantly, all of these teams are good enough to matchup with the big-conference teams and all are capable of busting some brackets in March.
To show you that we’re not playing favorites, we’ll go through them in alphabetical order, but without further adieu, here are 20 mid major programs that you’re going to want to keep an eye on in March:
The Zips are currently riding a 19-game winning streak and have flown threw the MAC unscathed up to this point. Akron is led by senior center Zeke Marshall, who is seven-feet tall and is averaging 12 points and seven rebounds per game. Junior point guard Alex Abreu runs the team with 10 points and six assists per game. Both Marshall and Abreu played key roles when the Zips played in the NCAA tournament in 2011, and if they can help Akron win the MAC Tournament and get back to The Big Dance, they’ll be a scary first-round matchup for somebody.
The Bruins have been to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, and this year they’ll try to get back there as a member of the Ohio Valley. The change of conference has not slowed down Belmont at all, as they hold a 23-6 record. If the Bruins can get back to The Big Dance, the third time could be the charm for them. Head coach Rick Byrd, in his 24th year at the school, doesn’t have the depth he’s had the past couple of years, but he’s got plenty of veteran players that know what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament and know how to get there.
This team needs no introduction. Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs have made the move to the Atlantic-10 this year, but they’re the same giant killer they’ve always been, knocking off in-state rival Indiana earlier this season. The names are less familiar from the Butler teams that made back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, but it’s the same kind of tough-as-nails and relentless Butler team that we’ve come to expect. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke is one of the best shooters in the country, averaging 17 points per game. With 22 wins and counting, including victories against the likes of Marquette, Indiana, North Carolina, and Gonzaga, the Bulldogs will be dancing for sure.
The Bluejays advanced to the round of 32 last year and they have their sights set a little further this year. Junior Doug McDermott is one of the players in the country, scoring over 22 points per game, but the rest of the Creighton team isn’t bad either. The Bluejays make over 50% of their shots, and they share the basketball as well as any other team in the country. They’ve stumbled a bit in a tough Missouri Valley conference, but McDermott is one of the toughest players to face and Creighton is one of the most feared mid majors around.
Don’t let the 19-11 record fool you, Detroit’s a quality team that can play with anyone. They’ve played a tough schedule, which accounts for the high loss total, so they have faced some quality teams and won’t be intimidated by anybody they face in March. Ray McCallum Jr., son of head coach Ray McCallum Sr., is a former McDonald’s All-American and is scoring 19 points a night for his father. The Titans went dancing last year, and could have been a candidate to pull an upset if the committee hadn’t undervalued them and given them a 15 seed, as they lost to eventual national runner up Kansas. This year, Detroit will have to fight hard to win a tough Horizon League tournament, but they’ll be well prepared to spring an upset if they can get back into the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags started the trend of mid majors making noise in the tournament, and this year could be Mark Few’s best team ever. They have flown through a West Coast Conference that has three other 20-win teams in it. The only blemishes on the Bulldog’s resume are a one-point road loss to Butler and an early-season loss to Illinois. Center Kelly Olynyk is one of the best players in the country, and has many predicting a trip to The Final Four this year for Gonzaga.
Harvard is close to locking up the Ivy League title and an NCAA tournament bid for the second straight year. As a 12-seed last year, Harvard game a good accounting of themselves in a first round loss to Vanderbilt. However, this year’s Crimson is a much different team. Sophomore Wesley Saunders, who rarely played last year, and freshman Siyani Chambers are leading the way this year, scoring close to 30 points per game and dishing out close to 10 assists per game between them. Saunders and Chambers give Harvard quite a potent backcourt, which could be something to be reckoned with if they get back to the big dance this year.
The Sycamores are hanging around the bubble thanks to wins over Ole Miss, Miami, Wichita State, and Creighton; and of course they’ll have a chance to win the Missouri Valley Tournament and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, as they lost to Syracuse in the first round in 2011. Indiana State has no seniors, so they could be a year away from being a real dangerous team, but they do have half a dozen juniors, many of whom remember the trip to The Big Dance from two years ago. Jake Odom is a do-it-all guard that leads the way, and he’s been helped out a lot by Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop. Together, they have made the Sycamores a formidable team this season.
Long Beach State
The 49ers danced last year, but as a 12 seed lost a close game to New Mexico. This year, Long Beach State loaded up their pre-conference schedule with the likes of North Carolina, Arizona, Syracuse, UCLA, and Ohio State; unfortunately, they lost all of those games, and so their record sits at 17-10. However, they have rolled through the Big West and should be heavy favorites to win the conference tournament and return to the NCAA Tournament. A lot of their top players are junior and seniors, so they have the veterans and the experience to make a splash in March. Leading the way is senior James Ennis, who is scoring 17 points per game and getting a lot of help from sophomore point guard Mike Caffey.
The Bulldogs have gone through the WAC schedule to this point unblemished with a 15-0 conference record, to go along with a 25-3 record overall. They haven’t played the toughest schedule this year, but they’ve taken care of business every step of the way. Louisiana Tech is one of the deepest teams in the country, with 10 players that get double-digit minutes, something that can be important in March.
Memphis isn’t in the Big East yet, and by the time they get there that conference may be a mid-major conference, so the Tigers still fit in this category. It’s been a typical year in Conference USA for Josh Pastner’s Tigers, as Memphis is undefeated in conference play and 25-4 overall. It’s also a typical Memphis team, with a lot of long and athletic players that should be a handful to deal with in the NCAA tournament.
Middle Tennessee is once again proving to be the class of the Sun Belt, and arguably the best team in the state of Tennessee. With a 10-man rotation and a balanced scoring attack the Blue Raiders hold a 26-4 record. With a team comprised completely of juniors and seniors, it’s unlikely that anybody will be able to trip them up in their conference tournament, giving them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Once in The Big Dance, Middle Tennessee could get an upset-friendly 12 or 13 seed, which will give them a chance to bust some brackets.
The Racers took the nation by storm last year with a 31-2 record, despite losing to Marquette in the round of 32. This year, Murray State is back in the mix with a team led by handful of seniors, including Isaiah Canaan, one of the best scorers in the country, who’s averaging 21 points per game. Murray State doesn’t look like an at-large team this season, which means they’ll have to get past Ohio Valley newcomer Belmont in the conference tournament, but if they can get back to the NCAA tournament, there’s not a team in the country that wants to see Canaan and the Racers in a first round matchup.
The Bobcats were the upset darlings of the tournament last year, as they made it all the way to the Sweet 16, where they pushed North Carolina into overtime before being eliminated by the top-seeded Tar Heels. This year, senior point guard D.J. Cooper is leading the way with 14 points and over 7 assists per game, as the Bobcats average more assists as a team than anyone else in the country. Ohio will have to earn an automatic bid in what should be a highly contested MAC tournament, but if they can get back to The Big Dance they’re as capable as anyone of pulling off an upset or two.
St. Louis is a top-25 team and one of the best mid majors out there, as they lead the ultra competitive Atlantic 10 Conference. The Billikens have a win over New Mexico, VCU, and two wins over Butler on their way to a 22-5 record, so barring a late-season collapse they should be getting an at-large bid to the tournament. They took down Memphis in the first round of the tournament last year before losing a close game to Michigan State in the round of 32, and they have enough players back from that team to make a run towards the Sweet 16.
The Gaels have been in the shadow of Gonzaga all year, but their 25-5 record is nothing to scoff at, and it should be enough to get back to the NCAA tournament, where Saint Mary’s has been three of the last five years, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2010. Matthew Dellavedova played a key role on that Sweet-16 team, and now he’s taken over the lead role in this team, scoring 16 points per game and shooting better than 40% from the perimeter, while also dishing out six assists per game. With Dellavedova and a strong supporting cast, the Gaels are a team that should be taken seriously in March.
South Dakota State
South Dakota State made a strong bid for an upset as a 14-seed against Baylor last year, but came up a little short. This year, the Jackrabbits should be the favorites to win the Summit League Tournament and get back to The Big Dance with Nate Wolters and Jordan Dykstra forming a dynamic scoring duo, combining for over 35 points per game. South Dakota State has four players that can shoot it from deep, which allows them to stretch the floor and create matchup problems for opposing teams. As good as they were last year, the Jackrabbits may be in an even better position this year to spring an upset in the tournament.
Although they haven’t been to The Big Dance since 2004, the Crusaders are back on top in the Horizon League with a 23-7 record. Valpo features six seniors on their roster, including forward Ryan Broekhoff, who leads the team with 16 points and 7 rebounds per game. The Crusaders are a perimeter-oriented team, but they’re one of the national leaders in field goal percentage, which will make them a tough out in March.
Everyone knows the name Shake Smart, and he and the VCU Rams are back at it again this year, this time as members of a stacked Atlantic 10 Conference. There are still some holdovers from VCU’s Final Four team from two years ago like Darius Theus and Rob Brandenberg, but more importantly the Rams still play the “havoc” style of basketball that Smart made famous in 2011. VCU features four players that average double-digit points and they can really get up and down the court. The Rams are still chasing after an Atlantic 10 title, but we’ll definitely be seeing them in the NCAA tournament.
We conclude our list with the Shockers of Wichita State, who are currently tied with Creighton atop the Missouri Valley Conference and are looking good to receive an at-large bid this season. The Shockers are led by a pair of 6’8’’ forwards, Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early, who average 27 points and 12 rebounds per game between them. Wichita State has the kind of size that can matchup with major conference teams, and after playing in the Missouri Valley this season, they are battled tested and should be one of the toughest mid-majors in the country to face this March.