As we continue our look at the mid-major conferences, our focus shifts to the Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Western Athletic, and West Coast Conferences. Last season, Southern Illinois and UNLV carried the March banner for these conferences, as both made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. However, both teams lost key players in the Salukis' Jamaal Tatum and the Rebels’ Wendell White and Kevin Kruger, head coach Lon Kruger’s son. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that a Final Four team will emerge from any of these mid-majors, and if one does, you will have to look to the WCC, probably the weakest of the four conferences and its favorite Gonzaga. The Zags have a solid core of players and a star in Josh Heytvelt. The question is how battle tested they will be when March arrives.
Here is a complete preview of the aforementioned conferences.
The Salukis will have a tough act to follow after last season’s Sweet Sixteen run, especially considering they need to replace guards Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young. SIU does, however, bring back a core that should not only win the MVC, but potentially could make a repeat visit to the round of sixteen. The team will turn a frontcourt which features MVC player of the year candidate Randal Falker, 6’7 Forward Matt Shaw, and freshman Carlton Fay for stability. Returning starter Bryan Mullins will need assistance in the backcourt from junior Wesley Clemmons and sophomore Josh Bone if they want to duplicate last season’s success.
This season’s surprise team from the mid-major ranks very well could be the Redbirds of Illinois State. With four returning starters and a balanced attack, first year head coach Tim Jankovich has a wealth of talent on a roster that did not seem quite ready to compete with a very good MVC last season. A year later, though, look to Sophomore Osiris Eldridge, a 6’3 guard, as a player who has the ability to make this team a MVC contender and an unenviable opponent come March.
All conference candidates Daniel Ruffin and Jeremy Crouch give coach Jim Les and the Braves much hope for the upcoming season. Together they potentially form the best backcourt in the conference, but it will be their supporting cast that determines whether this is a postseason contender or not. Matt Salley and Rashad Austin are two players who could help make this a tournament team.
Creighton will be the greatest unknown entering the MVC season, but an unknown that could be very dangerous. Senior Dane Watts is the only returning starter from a team losing three double digit scorers. But it is the newcomers that will make this an interesting season in Omaha. P’Allen Stinnett, a top 100 recruit, and Louisville transfer Chad Millard will be the difference makers for Dana Altman, who returns for his fourteenth year as the Blue Jays' headman.
Missouri State, Indana State and Northern Iowa all return some nice talent, but lack the overall depth and athleticism of the previously mentioned teams to be considered preseason contenders, but do not be shocked to see these teams make some noise throughout the season. Wichita State, Evansville, and Drake round out what looks to be a very competitive Missouri Valley Conference.
G: Jeremy Crouch, Bradley
The Cowboys should enter this season with higher hopes than in seasons past. And those hopes should not be too modest as they feature a backcourt quite capable of carrying Wyoming to a Mountain West title. Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones can compete with any guard tandem in the country and should give their team an immediate advantage in every conference matchup. The player who could make this season special for first year coach Heath Schroyer will be seven-footer Mikhail Linskens of Belguim, who nearly averaged double digits for his country’s U-20 team.
Head Coach Lon Kruger landed the conference’s biggest recruiting prize in Beas Hagma, a seven-foot freshman who will make an immediate impact for the Runnin’ Rebs on the defensive end. Offensively, the team will turn to Wink Adams for both scoring and getting his teammates involved. This is a good team, but a follow-up to last season’s Sweet Sixteen appearance may be unrealistic after losing five key players from a year ago.
San Diego State
Yes, the Aztecs lost two of their best players from last season, but expect Steve Fisher to have replacements ready for both Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar in junior college transfer Kelvin Davis, a Heath clone, and Jerome Habel, a 6’10 forward who asserted himself well on both ends of the court last season. Add in Lorrenzo Wade and Richie Williams, a pair of juniors who will ultimately be the tandem that determines whether or not this is a team worthy of postseason consideration, and you have what looks to be a very athletic team that will have the ability to create some matchup problems thanks to their versatility.
Although they may not have the talent to compete on the national level like they once did under Rick Majerus, Utah finally appears ready to contend for the Mountain West championship once again. Center Luke Nevill, a 7’1 Aussie, will combine with guard Johnnie Bryant to form a very potent inside-outside punch that should keep the Utes in every contest. Jim Boylen’s team will have to play smart and stay out of foul trouble as a lack of depth could be an issue of concern.
BYU and New Mexico both feature all conference level players in Trent Plaisted and J.R. Giddens, but depth could prove to be a problem at BYU, while the injury to Tony Danridge could spoil the Lobos’ season. Colorado State could be dangerous with two key returning seniors, while Air Force and TCU more than likely will be found at the bottom of the standings.
G: J.R. Giddens, New Mexico
New Mexico State
Marvin Menzies enters his first season as a head coach and finds himself in what appears to be quite a promising situation. The Aggies return Justin Hawkins and two other starters from a 25 win team that looks to be the class of the WAC. Freshman Herb Pope may only spend one season in Las Cruces, but his addition gives New Mexico State a big and athletic starting five that could find itself in the national rankings at some point during the season.
After 23 wins a season ago, Utah State returns three starters, including Jaycee Carroll, perhaps the conference’s top returning player. The Aggies appear to be New Mexico State’s chief threat for a WAC title thanks large in part to a promising group of newcomers in Jaxon Myaer, DeUndrae Spraggins, Brayden Bell, and Gary Wilkinson.
The Nick Fazekas era in Reno has come to an end, Nevada fans’ hopes now rest with Marcelus Kemp, a 6’5 guard who can fill up the scoring column every time out. However, after Kemp, Mike Fox’s options look slim, and as a result, players like Javale McGee and David Ellis will need to step up if a return trip to the postseason is on the horizon.
Granted, Boise State does lose their top player in Coby Karl, but they also return every other player from a roster that managed to find victory on seventeen occasions last season, so there should be reason for optimism. Forwards Matt Nelson and Reggie Leary will be the catalyst if a successful season is in the cards for Greg Graham’s Broncos.
Fresno State figures to have a chance to knock off some of the conference’s big boys, but will have to rely on a pair of transfers in Rekalin Sims and Bryan Harvey to replace its two best players from last season. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, and San Jose State are the remaining WAC members and figure to finish at the bottom portion of the standings and have little postseason hope.
G: Jaycee Carroll, Utah State
The Zags expect to find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen and could be a threat to reach the last weekend of the season with a few breaks. Josh Heytvelt’s return is the key to Mark Few’s ninth campaign in Spokane, and keeping the 6’11 versatile forward on the court and out of the police blogs is important. Joining Heytvelt is Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, David Pendergraft, and Micah Downs, all of whom have significant experience that should ease the losses of Derek Ravio and Sean Mallon. A player to keep an eye on is freshman big man Robert Sacre, who will provide Gonzaga with depth on the blocks.
Should Gonzaga somehow falter this season, the team likely to replace them atop the conference standings will be Saint Mary’s. Returning four players from a third place team that features a good amount of size and scoring balance could lead to this team sneaking up on a few unsuspecting favorites. Diamon Simpson is an all conference type player who the Gaels will turn to in tight situations.
Another team returning four starters is the University of San Diego. Among these four is Gyno Pomare, another all conference caliber forward who will be responsible for the bulk of his team’s scoring. A potential issue looks to be a lack of size, as well as the inconsistent shooting of point guard Brandon Johnson.
Perhaps not quite as much of the threat as Saint Mary’s and San Diego, the Broncos of Santa Clara will give every team, including the Zags, trouble in the paint with John Bryant, Mitch Henke, and Josh Higgins. Point guard Brody Angley will have to really get the supporting cast involved early in the season to build confidence or he will face a lot of pressure as the only perimeter threat.
Do not expect any other West Coast Conference teams to contend for the postseason, but keep an eye on San Francisco guard Manny Quezada, a Rutgers transfer who will cause fits for opposing backcourts, and a slew of newcomers at Pepperdine who could be dangerous come the end of the season providing that they gel as expected. Rounding out the WCC is Loyola-Marymount and Portland, who will find themselves on the wrong end of the box score pretty frequently.
G: Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
A team or two from the mid-majors will find glass slippers in their locker rooms each March. Although Gonzaga has not played the role of Cinderella for many years thanks to its emergence on the national scene, they figure to be the most highly touted mid-major behind Memphis, despite being the only tournament quality team in the WCC. Aside from the Zags, look for Southern Illinois, Bradley, and Illinois State to all find themselves as at-large hopefuls should they not win their conference tournament.
The Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences are both full of parity atop their respective leagues, but very well could find themselves battling for multiple NCAA berths. This could be quite difficult to come by with New Mexico State appearing to be the top team representing these two conferences, but if they do not take care of business in the WAC Tournament, they too could even find themselves sweating come March. Expect three berths between the two conferences.