By Kevin Sweeney
The nature of mid-major basketball is a cyclic one. Since mid-major programs typically rely on the development of players over 4 seasons to form winning teams, it is natural to have good and bad years. In some cases, this cyclic nature can lead to entire conferences being “down” or “up” depending on the year. As rosters begin to be finalized for the 2017-18 season, it is a good time take a look at which mid-major conferences look strong for the coming season and which leagues won’t reach the level they have in years past.
While there has been perhaps no conference more decimated by realignment than the C-USA, it should finally take a turn for the better this season. The biggest riser is Western Kentucky, who will be the most talented mid-major in the country this season. Rick Stansbury has brought in a top-10 recruiting class along with multiple key transfers to completely overhaul the WKU roster. In addition, UAB is expected to rebound from a rough 2016-17 thanks to the return of several key contributors and the introduction of a very strong recruiting class in its own right. Combine those two rising teams with squads like Middle Tennessee, LA Tech, and Old Dominion that should be extremely good, and you get a Conference USA that will assert itself as one the top mid-major leagues in the country.
Gone are the days that drawing an Ivy League opponent in the NCAA Tournament was good news for the blue-blood playing them. The Ivy has become one of the most dangerous “giant-killer” conferences in college basketball, and the league will be even stronger this season. Harvard continues to kill it on the recruiting trail and brings back a ton of talent from last season. Yale gets back a guy in Makai Mason who may be the favorite for Ivy League Player of the Year after missing last season with a foot injury. Princeton brings back a solid nucleus of talent highlighted by rising junior guard Devin Cannady, and Columbia and Penn could take the next step into being title contenders this season. The battle to just get into the conference tournament will be a difficult one, and whoever earns the Ivy’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament will be a team no high-major will want to face.
West Coast Conference
Much has been made about the WCC having the least parity of any conference in college basketball. Gonzaga and St. Mary’s dominate every season, while BYU is also often an NCAA Tournament contender. Finally, the rest of the league is showing signs of life. Kyle Smith did an outstanding job in his first season at San Francisco, and he has the Dons headed in the right direction with a young, talented core. Pacific gets a trio of talented transfers eligible as they look to overhaul their roster and move up the standings in the WCC. Santa Clara added one of the best available grad transfers in Henry Caruso (Princeton) and bring back 3 starters, including a potential all-league player in KJ Feagin. While the 2 typical powers will still likely dominate the league, the WCC will be much more competitive top-to-bottom than it has been in years past.
When thinking about which conferences will be down from last season, the first league that comes to mind is the MAAC. Going through things, its hard to find a team that DOESN’T lose a lot of production from last season. Monmouth, Rider, and Siena each lose 4 starters, while a number of other squads saw 3 starters depart to graduation or transferring. Just 5 of the 15 members of the all-conference teams return to the MAAC for this season. Iona is the early favorite despite losing its top 3 scorers from last season, as they bring back star point guard Rickey McGill to head what should be a loaded backcourt. Still, a host of question marks face the majority of MAAC squads, making it a league that I project won’t be quite as good as it typically is.
The Missouri Valley loses its premier program in Wichita State and its top returning program in Illinois State saw its roster decimated by transfers. Because of this, the MVC is clearly in for a down year. While Valparaiso was a solid addition to the conference who will be competitive in year one, it seems highly unlikely that “The Valley” can return to form as a multi-bid league this season. As of now, I’d call the favorites to be Loyola (Chicago), Missouri State, and Northern Iowa, but things are wide open in the Missouri Valley this coming season.
It’s hard to consider a season a “down” year when you will likely still be ranked the same as you were the previous year. Still, I’d make an argument that the NEC will be down this season from the standpoint of what it could have been without transfers. It has been well-publicized (by me at least) the transfer epidemic that has hit the NEC this offseason, with talented players announcing their intent to transfer one after another. Just as you think the league is done taking hits, you are blindsided by yet another name stating that they too will be leaving for greener pastures. Teams like Mount St. Mary’s and Bryant could have asserted themselves as mid-majors to watch this season. Instead, they’ve seen their talented youngsters leave, and the NEC appears to once again be a “16-seed league”.