By Kevin Sweeney
If you call yourself a college basketball fan, chances are you know plenty about Gonzaga. After all, they may enter the season as the overall preseason #1 team in the country. The same could be said about Nevada and the expected top-10 team Eric Musselman has put together. You’ve probably heard about Rick Stansbury signing 5-stars at Western Kentucky, Loyola-Chicago bringing back a ton of talent from a Final Four club, and Mike Daum still mauling opponents in the Summit League.
Yet every year, the biggest storylines in mid-major basketball seem to come out of nowhere. Loyola went 8-10 in the Missouri Valley in 2016-17 before shocking the world this past season. Most of the nation’s eyeballs hadn’t focused on Nacogdoches, Texas to watch Stephen F. Austin until they came a fingertip away from the Sweet 16 the year before that. So, with colleges across the country getting underway and college basketball season just around the corner, I decided to highlight some sleeping giants across the mid-major landscape prepared for huge years in 2018-19.
Northeastern (23-10, 14-4 CAA)
Bill Coen remains one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball, and his 2018-19 Huskies roster has a chance to be his best one yet. Coming off a season in which they won 23 games and blew a huge lead in the CAA Championship game, Northeastern brings back more than 87% of its scoring and adds a talented transfer in George Washington transfer Jordan Roland. The Huskies play great defense, have a terrific point guard in redshirt senior Vasa Pusica, and shoot the ball very well. This team may not wow you with their athletes, but they have the talent & experience to win a game or more in the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois State (18-15, 10-8 MVC)
Loyola will receive the majority of the preseason notoriety in The Valley, and rightly so. But there’s another potential top-50 team coming out of the MVC, and that’s this Illinois State club. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented trio than Milik Yarbrough, Keyshawn Evans, and Phil Fayne in all of mid-major basketball. The trio fits together so perfectly– Yarbrough handles primary creation duties with a 41.4% assist percentage, pairing nicely with a scoring point guard like Evans while Fayne does the dirty work. WIth more depth and some talented newcomers joining the fray, ISU could have a special season.
East Tennessee State (25-9, 14-4 SoCon)
What Steve Forbes did last season with this ETSU club was remarkable. Despite losing 4 of their top 5 scorers from a 27-win NCAA Tournament team, Forbes led the Buccaneers to 25 wins in 2017-18. Forbes recruits physical athletes who can score and compete at both ends, helping put together elite defenses that make every basket tough to come by. This year’s club sees a fair amount of roster turnover once again, but Forbes has a pair of rising sophomores to build around in wing Bo Hodges and big man Mladen Armus, and a talent group of incoming freshmen and transfers should help ETSU remain near the top of the SoCon.
Rider (22-10, 15-3 MAAC)
Rider’s top 5 scorers last season were either redshirt freshmen or sophomores. That should inject immense fear into the rest of the MAAC, given the Broncs took home a share of the league title despite their youth. That top 5 forms a perfectly-designed core that allows them to create mismatches against any mid-major foe. Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott are a pair of multi-positional wings who possess the combination of strength, ball-handling, and shooting to intimidate opposing defenses. Jordan Allen is a pure shooter, and Tyere Marshall is a steady presence in the post. The glue holding it all together is Stevie Jordan, the rising junior point guard who led the MAAC in assists a season ago and gets to the rim at will.
Kevin Baggett’s MAAC tournament record is less than ideal (0-6 in last 6 MAAC quarterfinals, 0-3 as 1 or 2 seed), but the Broncs have the talent to get over the hump this year.
Harvard (18-14, 12-2 Ivy)
Non-conference play was a big disappointment for the Crimson last season, as they stumbled out of the gates to a 5-9 start. Despite losing star guard Bryce Aiken for much of the season due to a knee injury, Harvard turned things around during conference play behind the other members of Tommy Amaker’s elite 2016 recruiting class, with Seth Towns claiming Ivy League Player of the Year and Chris Lewis providing a strong frontcourt presence. That 2016 class gets a year older, and Amaker brings in yet another strong group this year that can help accentuate the strengths of the team’s current core. Top-200 point guard Spencer Freedman will allow Aiken to move off the ball and embrace his ability to score the ball, and I was impressed with do-it-all wing Noah Kirkwood during his time with the Canadian U19 national team. Look for the Crimson to find their way back to the Big Dance this season.