With the Christmas break over, the college basketball season turns towards the upcoming start of conference play. The non-conference season brought us many marquee games and lots of debate about various topics, but league play is the meat and potatoes of the season, the heart and soul of college basketball. Everyone has discussed the top teams and players from the "big six" conferences, but little has been made of the mid-majors this season, other than a few mentions here and there. With that in mind, and conference play coming up, I decided to take a look at some of the smaller conferences and the top contenders in those leagues, as well as various mid-major squads that could be bracket busters come March.
Everyone knows about George Washington and their undefeated season. Actually, you probably don't. The unbeaten seasons of Duke, Connecticut, Illinois and Villanova have been well-documented, and the surprising starts of Florida and Ohio State have also been discussed in-depth. Most people even know about Indiana State's undefeated season. However, GW has flown under the radar, mainly because they haven't played too many games of note. Their best win was against Maryland, and they are winning their games by an average of more than 22 points per game. The Colonials have five double-figure starters, and only figure to get better with the addition of LSU transfer Regis Koundija.
LaSalle has also been solid in the Atlantic-10, with their only loss coming to Villanova. Steven Smith is one of the best players in the country, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds per game. Xavier figures to make a run at an at-large bid, as they only have losses on the road to Illinois and Creighton. Stanley Burrell and Brian Thornton form a nice inside-outside combo. Temple is 6-3, with wins over Miami and Alabama. Mardy Collins' numbers are down from a year ago, but he is still one of the best players in the conference. Charlotte has disappointed tremendously, and without a dominant conference season, I can't see them making the NCAA Tournament. Right now, George Washington and Xavier look like solid choices to make the Big Dance.
Ranked fourth in the nation in conference RPI, the MVC has six teams fighting for bids to the NCAA Tournament. Northern Iowa has been the best mid-major in the country, going 10-1 with wins over LSU and Iowa. Four players average double-figures, led by Ben Jacobson, a mid-major All-American (if there is such a thing). Indiana State is undefeated at 8-0, with their lone big win against Indiana. David Moss may be the best all-around player in the conference with averages of 19.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Missouri State is 7-1, with the only loss to Arkansas. Blake Ahearn has been one of the best scorers in the country, averaging over 20 points per game. The Bears are one of the best scoring offenses in the nation, putting up 89 points per game.
Creighton figured to fall a little bit once star Nate Funk went down with an injury, but they actually put together back-to-back wins over Nebraska and Xaver after the loss of their star. Johnny Mathies and Anthony Tolliver form a very good inside-outside duo. Wichita State nearly upset Illinois back in November and has only lost to Michigan State since then. The 9-2 Shockers are led by the frontcourt duo of Paul Wilson and Kyle Miller. Bradley has wins at DePaul and home against Western Kentucky but is the least likely of these to get an at-large bid. Marcellus Sommerville has the ability to dominate the MVC. Three bids are likely from this conference.
This league has been a bit disappointing this season, with only Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Loyola-Chicago more than one game above .500. UWM is 6-3, with their best wins over Hawaii and Saint Louis. Joah Tucker is one of the best players in the conference, while guard Boo Davis and forward Adrian Tigert are two very good options. Loyola-Chicago is 8-2, with wins over Bradley and Purdue. The Ramblers are led by the best player in the conference, Blake Schlib. He is averaging 17.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 3.7 apg. Five players score in double-figures. Butler and Illinois-Chicago also figure to be in the mix in the league race down the line.
The OVC has already played up to four league games per team, which has given us some extra insight about each team. Tennessee Tech is 8-2, 3-0 in conference. Eleven players average double-figure minutes for the Golden Eagles, led by guard Anthony Fisher. Murray State is led by the forward trio of Issian Redding, Shawn Witherspoon, and Justin Orr. They stand at 5-3, 3-1 in conference. The preseason co-favorite, Eastern Kentucky, has been a disappointment at 4-6 overall and 2-2 in conference. The guard duo of Matt Witt and Jason McLeish is one of the best in the conference. Austin Peay is 6-4, 2-1 in conference. They have won four in a row and have one of the best inside-outside duos in the league in Maurice Hampton and Zac Schlader.
This has been one of the best conferences in the country thus far, with up to 7 teams potentially challenging for a league title. Old Dominion has not lived up to the expectations of being one of the best mid-majors in the country, yet still has wins over Georgia and DePaul. Isaiah Hunter, Arnaud Dahi, and Alex Loughton all average 13 points per game. UNC-Wilmington has been a surprise team at 9-2. John Goldsberry is one of the better guards in the league, while Todd Hendley is a solid forward. Drexel got on the national map early with close losses to Duke and UCLA. They also beat Old Dominion. Guard Dominick Mejia leads four guys in double-figures.
Northeastern has one of the best point guards in the country, Jose Juan Barea, who is averaging 23 points (8th in the nation) and almost 10 assists (best in the country) per game. They are 6-2, 2-0 in conference. Virginia Commonwealth has a nice marquee win at Houston, as well as a blowout victory against Hofstra. The 7-2, 2-1 Rams are led by a solid trio in guards B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa and forward Nick George. Hofstra has a good win over St. John's, and two not-so-bad losses at Notre Dame and Virginia Commonwealth. The 7-2, 1-1 Pride is led by the guard trio of Antoine Agudio, Loren Stokes, and Carlos Rivera. George Mason does not have a true quality win to hang their hat on, but they have been a solid 7-3, 1-1 team. Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn form an excellent backcourt, while Jai Lewis is a force down low.
This is a league that is going to be dominated by Nevada, and everyone knows it. Led by All-American Nick Fazekas, the Wolfpack are 8-1, with only a road loss at UCLA in their way of an undefeated season. Mo Charlo and Marcellus Kemp are two excellent options on the wings that have helped Nevada gets wins over Georgia, at Kansas, and at Pacific.
Several teams will fight for second, though. Hawaii opened the season with a blowout win against Michigan State but has not done much since. Julian Sensley and Ahmet Gueye are a very good forward duo, while guard Matt Lojeski is the main perimeter option. Fresno State has wins over Oregon State and Iowa State and could contend for second place in the WAC. Wings Ja'Vance Coleman and double-double machine Quinton Hosley form one of the highest-scoring duos in the country. Utah State is 6-3, including a conference loss to Hawaii. Jaycee Carroll and Nate Harris work together as one of the better inside-outside duos in the league.
We are not going to discuss Gonzaga, as they are obviously the runaway favorite to win this league. However, the WCC received a second bid a season ago. It is unlikely that will happen again this year, but there are several teams that can make a run. San Diego is the best bet to contend with Gonzaga in the WCC, and they are the only other team at least two games above .500. The Toreros are 9-3, with wins over New Mexico and Fresno State. Big man Nick Lewis is one of the best post players on the West Coast, while Corey Belser is an All-WCC forward. St. Mary's (CA) has one of the best players in the league in forward Daniel Kickert, but they only have a 5-4 record right now. On a four-game winning streak, the Gaels need to use their eleven-deep group to get some wins heading into conference play.
The 7-1 Gaels have been one of the better mid-major teams in the country, with only a loss to Kentucky marring their resume. The marquee win for them was a 17-point victory at Iowa State, which put this team on the national radar. The backcourt of Steve Burtt and Ricky Soliver, who combine for over 41 points per game, along with forward Kiril Waschmann, has helped this team become "The King of New York."
The 10-1 Grizzlies are on a ten-game winning streak, with victories over the likes of Stanford and Drake. Guard Kevin Criswell and forward Andrew Strait form the Big Sky's best inside-outside duo, while wings Matt Martin and Virgil Matthews are two more solid options on the perimeter. This team could run through the conference with only one or two losses and should get a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The much-publicized Bison and their rise to Cinderella giant-killer are going to be a force in March. Already armed with wins over Syracuse, DePaul, and St. Joseph's, Bucknell has the potential to get an at-large bid if they go undefeated in league play but fail to win the conference tournament. Center Chris McNaughton anchors the inside, while Kevin Bettencourt and Charles Lee man the perimeter. Only a competitive loss to Villanova has prevented them from being 9-0.
After an early win at Marquette, people started touting this team as the next mid-major to make a Sweet Sixteen run in the NCAA Tournament. That talk has subsided a bit after losses to Alabama and South Carolina, but the Eagles are still one of the best mid-major teams in the country. Center Craig Bradshaw is the best big man in the Big South, while guards Torrell Martin and James Shuler form an excellent backcourt. Winthrop is deep and can use that depth to wear down teams within the conference.