Ahead of Schedule: Mid-Majors Surprisingly Competing This Year

By Kevin Sweeney

As hard as it may be to believe, Senior Day’s are starting to come around, with many teams honoring the backbones of their teams as they gear up for one last run at March Madness glory. However, some teams already in position to compete this season should return their current core next season. Many of these teams entered the season with little to no fanfare, but now have a chance to burst onto the scene in March a year or 2 before most thought they might. Here are a few clubs to watch not only this March, but for years to come.

Rider: MAAC

The Broncs entered the 2017-18 season as a bit of an afterthought in the MAAC, as with 4 starters graduating from last year’s club, the preseason selection of 7th by the MAAC coaches seemed reasonable. But man, has Kevin Baggett’s club been tough this season. Winners of 10 in a row and in sole possession of first in the MAAC, the Broncs start 3 freshmen (all of whom redshirted for various reasons a season ago) and 2 sophomores. The engine that makes this club go is sophomore PG Stevie Jordan, an excellent table-setter who stuffs the stat sheet with averages of 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Baggett surrounds him with an extremely athletic group of wing/forwards who can do a lot of different things, like Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott, as well as an elite shooter in Jordan Allen. The scariest part? Rider will add 2 talented transfers to their ranks next season in addition to this core, with wing Ahmad Gilbert (Minnesota) and guard Jihar Williams (FIU) joining the fray. To me, they are the clear top dog in the MAAC right now and have a chacne to put together a special run if they hold onto all this talent.

Ball State: MAC

The Cardinals made headlines early this season with a stunning upset win over Notre Dame, and BSU should be here to stay as one of the top mid-majors in the country. 4 starters will return from this season’s club, including a pair of uber-talented juniors in point guard Taylor Persons and versatile big man Trey Moses. They’ll also bring back Tahjai Teague, an athletic forward that fits perfectly next to Moses. Combine that with the potential of the current freshman class (Ishmael El-Amin and Zach Gunn combined for 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in a recent win over division leaders Toledo) and the potential for James Whitford’s club is endless going forward.

Northeastern: CAA

Beneficiaries of the one of the biggest breakout transfers in college basketball this season, Bill Coen and the Huskies are 12-4 in the CAA and very much in the picture for an NCAA Tournament berth. Vasa Pusica went from being a rotation guard on a bad San Diego team in the WCC to one of the most indispensable players in the CAA, averaging more than 17 points and 5 assists per game while shooting greater than 50% from the field and 40% from downtown. Combine him with solid core of sophomores in Shawn Occeus, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace, as well as talented freshman big Tomas Murphy, and optimism about the future of this program. And let’s not forget about Jordan Roland, a combo guard who is sitting out this season after transferring from George Washington, where he averaged 7 points per game a season ago.

Hartford: America East

John Gallagher entered this season thought by many to be on the hot seat. Coming off 2 consecutive 20-loss campaigns, the Hawks were picked near the bottom of the A-East by nearly every preseason prognosticator. Now, the Hawks look like one of the top contenders, if not the favorite, for the A-East title next year, with a chance to really make noise in conference tournament play this season. The junior trio of PG JR Lynch, SG Jason Dunne, and PF John Carroll combines to average over 40 points per game, and fits extremely well together. In a recent win over Vermont, it was Dunne who lit it up, scoring 28 points in a monumental win for the Hawks and the Catamounts’ first conference loss in over 2 years. The loss of rim protector Hassan Atia will definitely hurt next season, but the pieces are in place for Gallagher and company to make some noise next season.

New Mexico: Mountain West

From the beginning, I loved the Paul Weir hire at New Mexico. I just didn’t realize how quickly his impact would be felt in Albuquerque, both on the court and on the recruiting trail. It’s easy to look ahead to 2018-19, when the Lobos will add transfers Vance Jackson (UConn), JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State), and Isaiah Maurice (Kansas State) along with 4-star PG Drue Drinnon, but UNM has been sneaky-good this season. Anthony Mathis has taken huge steps forward under Weir, while freshman wing Makuach Maluach has impressed this season and has limitless upside as he develops his skills and gets stronger. The Lobos have already proven their ability to compete with the Mountain West’s elite, taking both Nevada and Boise State to the wire in matchups earlier this season, so I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Lobos steal a bid to the Big Dance if they get hot at the right time.

CBB Central Podcast: Episode 1

Kevin Sweeney and Brad Cavallaro will be co-hosting the newest must-listen podcast in college basketball: the CBB Central Podcast. In episode 1, we share our vision for the podcast and talk bubble teams, Northwestern, overrated/underrated clubs, and break down Duke/UNC and UCLA/Arizona tomorrow.

Bubble Watch: Mid-Major Edition

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s early February, and that means it’s officially Bubble Watch season, a time in which my Twitter mentions are loaded with questions of whether a team has any chance of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. While the list of mid-majors with legitimate at-large chances isn’t all that long, there are several teams with some intriguing resumes that will be very interesting to monitor over the coming weeks.

Atlantic 10:

LOCKS: Rhode Island

The Rams have dominated a down A10, sitting at 19-3 overall and 11-0 in conference play. They have some quality wins, no bad losses, and sit #6 in the RPI. Save an epic collapse down the stretch, Rhode Island will be dancing in March.

Bubble: Saint Bonaventure

The Bonnies don’t have the resume of an NCAA Tournament team at this point, though high-level wins over Syracuse and Maryland keep them in the conversation for now. However, 4 losses outside the top 100 of the RPI, including 2 outside the top 150, are resume-crushers. If they can win out (including a home game to Rhode Island) and lose to URI in the conference championship game, SBU might just sneak into the dance. However, their best chance remains to win the conference tournament.

Conference USA:

Bubble: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee

Perhaps the most intriguing bubble teams come from the same conference, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee each have interesting resumes should they falter in the CUSA Tournament in March. Western Kentucky will have one of the best wins of any bubble team, with an early-season neutral site victory over likely #1 seed Purdue. However, as of now they have 2 losses to sub-200 RPI teams that could burst their bubble. A win at MTSU is imperative, and Marshall sneaking into the top 100 and UTSA getting into the top 200 would be helpful as well.

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee has the opposite problem of WKU. They virtually have no bad losses, as if Marshall sneaks into the top 100 the Blue Raiders won’t have a loss outside the top 100. However, a lack of top-tier wins is evident, as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are among the SEC’s worst and Western Kentucky is presently their only top 50 wins. A 10-1 road mark stands out to me, as does their #22 RPI and top-70 SOS, but the Blue Raiders are far from NCAA Tournament locks.

Bottom line is that neither can afford another bad loss if they have any hopes of an at-large bid. To me, MTSU is the league’s best chance at an at-large, but as we saw with their seeding last year despite a historic season, the margin of error is not large. As of now, I would put in MTSU as an at-large, while WKU would be on the outside looking in.

Missouri Valley:

Bubble: Loyola-Chicago

The Ramblers are a team that clearly pass the eye test for me, but their resume leaves a fair amount to be desired. A road win at Florida is a great starting point, but there isn’t a lot of meat on the bone otherwise. Another major hurdle is a head-to-head loss to another team I’ll mention later in Boise State, a game in which the Ramblers were trounced. That said, the Ramblers have lost just 1 game all season that starting guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson have played in, and a quick simulation on rpiforecast.com shows that the Ramblers could have an RPI in the 25-30 range if they were to win out and lose to a good opponent in the conference championship game. Still, I wouldn’t give Loyola much of a chance of an at-large bid.

 

Mountain West:

Bubble: Nevada, Boise State

I very much considered putting Nevada as a lock, but I decided there is just enough doubt with one more bad loss to keep them from lock territory. Should they not have a major slip-up, they should be fine, as the metrics like the Wolf Pack and a win over Rhode Island will look great come tournament time. But the resume isn’t deep, and a bad loss could haunt Nevada with their lack of quality wins.

As for Boise State, things are very much up in the air. On one hand, they have no bad losses. But wins over Oregon and Grand Canyon don’t look nearly as good as we thought they might, and there’s a real possibility the Broncos won’t have a top 50 win come March. A win over Nevada would absolutely move the needle, but they will continue to sit right near the cut line until Selection Sunday.

WAC:

Bubble: New Mexico State

A Diamond Head Classic win over Miami continues to make the Aggies’ resume look nice, and NMSU has steamrolled the WAC throughout conference play. However, if they do slip up in #WACVegas, they will be in an interesting position. How will the committee value the eye test and the continued dominance that the Aggies have displayed so far in conference play? Personally, I think they’d be the perfect team to send to the First Four if they falter in the conference tournament, but I’m not confident that the committee would reward a resume that otherwise lacks quality wins.

WCC:

Locks: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s

I’m fairly confident in putting both of these clubs into the NCAA Tournament as of now, though a bad loss or 2 could inject some doubt. Gonzaga has 4 top-50 wins, and Saint Mary’s has no losses if you forget that Thanksgiving weekend happened, where they fell to Georgia and Washington State at Wooden Legacy. Both teams are more than deserving to reach the NCAA Tournament, and should get in without too much trouble should they avoid a crushing loss to a lower-tier WCC team.

Loyola Continues MVC Ascension With Blowout Win over Missouri Stat

By Kevin Sweeney

The MVC has a clear top dog. Loyola dominated the preseason favorite Missouri State from the opening tip in a 97-75 victory Saturday afternoon at Gentile Arena. The Ramblers move to 19-5 on the season and 9-3 in MVC, with a 1 game lead in conference play. Here are 3 big things from this one:

Loyola is an elite offensive club:

The Ramblers shot a blistering 61% from the field in the game, putting 6 different players in double figures and had 24 assists on 39 made field goals. Porter Moser talked in his press conference about how he has emphasized “pace and space” in his recruiting and offensive style, and that has continued to come to fruition. Clayton Custer is the perfect man to cue up such an offense, as he posted his 3rd consecutive 20+ point game while adding 6 assists. “We really got out in transition and that got us rolling,” Marques Townes said postgame.

Home Court at Gentile Arena Continues to Improve:

“Why not us?” asked Porter Moser postgame in reference to bringing out huge crowds to Gentile Arena. “We want a major ticket problem”. The crowd was loud, with nearly 3,600 fans packing the arena for a “White-Out”. And those crowds seem to be helping the Ramblers as they come down the stretch of MVC play, as the Ramblers now lead the country in field goal percentage at home. With just 3 home games remaining for the Ramblers, Moser implored the fans and the City of Chicago to continue to come out and support the team as they try to win a MVC title.

Missouri State’s Struggles Continue:

It’s been a nightmare campaign for the preseason MVC favorites, and that continued this afternoon. The Bears have now lost 5 in a row and sit 5-7 in MVC play, a massive disappointment with this being the senior year for NBA prospect Alize Johnson (there were 13 NBA scouts in attendance for today’s game). Time is running out for MSU to turn things around, and if they don’t, Paul Lusk’s job could be in serious jeopardy. On a more positive note, Mustafa Lawrence had a breakout game for the Bears, posting 19 points and 3 steals on 5-9 from 3 despite coming into the game playing just 5 minutes a game. If he can build on that performance, it would be a major boost for Missouri State’s chances at Arch Madness next month.