The mid-major conferences have garnered a lot of attention in recent years by making deep runs into March Madness. Teams such as George Mason, Butler, UW-Milwaukee, and others have made their respective mark on college basketball by upsetting numerous big-name schools throughout the past few seasons. This season should be no different, as there are numerous mid-majors with a chance to shake up the college hoops scene. In part one of the mid-major preview, I'm going to take a look at the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, Horizon, and Colonial conferences. There is one team in this group that has a legitimate shot at winning it all, and there are a few others with Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight aspirations.
The Muskateers nearly upset national runner-up Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament last season, but they came up a little short. Things should be just as exciting this season for Sean Miller's squad. The backcourt of Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell is the best in the Atlantic 10 and will keep this team in contention all season. While the backcourt is solid, Xavier must find a way to replace Justin Cage and Justin Doellman in the frontcourt. C.J. Anderson, a transfer from Manhattan, will step in and play a huge role. Anderson averaged 18.8 points two seasons ago, so the talent is definitely in place. He will join senior Josh Duncan up front for the Musketeers. Duncan will probably play 20-25 minutes a game and will provide some senior leadership. The fifth guy in the mix is sophomore Derrick Brown. Brown is a high-flying athlete who will be called upon to finish around the rim and play solid defense.
The starting five is very solid, but Xavier will need to get at least a little production from their bench. B.J. Raymond and Adrion Graves will help provide depth in the backcourt, while junior college transfer Charles Bronson should help in the frontcourt. The Musketeers are the consensus preseason favorite in the Atlantic 10, and they should play a couple games in the NCAA Tournament. However, there are other teams in their rear-view mirror capable of stealing the conference crown.
The Rams shocked some people last year by finishing in the upper tier of the conference. This season, those results will be expected. They return all but one player from a season ago which gives them a legitimate shot to battle Xavier for the conference title. Rhode Island's go-to-guy is senior forward Will Daniels. Daniels led the team in scoring last season and was second in rebounding. He will be joined up front by Kahiem Seawright. Seawright will be a double-double threat each and every time out. The backcourt duo of Jimmy Baron and Parfait Bitee have opposite games, but both are proven players. Baron, the coach's son, is a solid long-range shooter and scorer, while Bitee's strength is on the defensive side of the ball. The Rams may not be the most talented team in the Atlantic 10, but they may be the most well-rounded.
Phil Martelli's team missed the postseason last year for the first time in six seasons, but they should make their way to at least the NIT this season, if not farther. Like Rhode Island, St. Joe's returns all but one player from a year ago. Things will begin and end with the Hawks' frontcourt this year, the best in the Atlantic 10. The group is led by all-conference performer Ahmad Nivins. Nivins led the team in scoring and rebounding last season. He will be aided up front by Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson. Calathes has a solid inside-outside game, while Ferguson is more of a bruiser. While the frontcourt should be good, there are still some question marks in the backcourt. Darrin Govens will get a chance to run the show from the point, and he will be joined at the guard positions by D.J. Rivera and Garrett Williamson. Tasheed Carr, a transfer from Iowa State, will also get plenty of chances to make an impact in the Hawks' backcourt.
The Billikens had an 8-8 conference record last season, and they return all but one player from that squad. That being said, the most exciting news surrounds their new coach. Rick Majerus took the job in the offseason and brings instant credibility to the Saint Louis program. Majerus will undoubtedly build this program in the next few years, but he already has a solid team to start with. The backcourt duo of Tommy Liddell III and Kevin Lisch provides a great scoring punch for the Billikens and will keep them in a lot of games at home and on the road. The team's biggest challenge is to find someone to replace Ian Vouyoukas in the frontcourt. Barry Eberhardt, a junior college transfer, will step into the starting lineup from day one and should provide a much-needed spark. Other than Eberhardt, Majerus will look to Bryce Husak and Adam Knollmeyer for key minutes. The Billikens will more than likely play with three or four guards at a time until Majerus can build the program. If this team gets anything at all up front, they will make some waves in the Atlantic 10.
The four teams listed above will contend for the conference title, but don't be surprised to see the Dayton Flyers and Fordham Rams shake things up as well. The Flyers lose a couple key contributors from last year's squad, but a solid recruiting class should help things out. The Rams return everyone from a season in which they finished 10-6 in the conference. George Washington, Temple, and UMASS are all well-established college basketball programs, and each is capable of making a move this season. George Washington has a great scorer in Maureece Rice, while Temple has the best scoring tandem in the Atlantic 10 in Mark Tyndale and Dionte Christmas. The Minutemen lost Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme, but Gary Forbes and Chris Lowe should help ease the pain a little. The remaining Atlantic 10 hopefuls include Charlotte, Duquesne, La Salle, Richmond, and St. Bonaventure.
G: Brian Roberts, Dayton
John Calipari has led the Memphis Tigers to two consecutive Elite Eight appearances, and anything less than that this season will be a huge disappointment. In fact, the Tigers have a solid shot at making a Final Four and National Championship run. The great play starts with Chris Douglas-Roberts, the leader of the team and best player in Conference USA. Douglas-Roberts led the team in scoring last season, and he will probably be even better this year with the addition of freshman phenom Derrick Rose. Rose may only be at Memphis for one year, but it will be a special one nonetheless. His pass-first style will fit perfectly on a team filled with great finishers. Junior Antonio Anderson will join Douglas-Roberts and Rose in Calipari's three-guard system. Anderson is a solid all-around player on and off the court. There is plenty of backcourt firepower off the bench as well. Willie Kemp, Andre Allen, and Doneal Mack all have experience and are all capable of setting the tone off the pine. These six guards will enable the Tigers to press opposing teams until they break.
The backcourt gets all the attention, but the frontcourt may be the difference this season. Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier make up one of the best forward tandems in the country. Dorsey was the league's Defensive Player of the Year last season and will undoubtedly continue to change games on that side of the ball. Dozier hasn't fully lived up to his potential, but he should be much more assertive this season. He showed signs of brilliance last season, and Memphis is looking for more of that this year. Dorsey and Dozier are both lacking a little on the offensive side of the ball, but they can still change the outcome of games in multiple ways. Their consistency and ability to stay out of foul trouble will go a long way in keeping Memphis alive in next year's NCAA Tournament. Shawn Taggart, a transfer from Iowa State, and Pierre Niles will need to step up as well to give Dorsey and Dozier an occasional break.
On paper, Memphis looks as good as any other team in the country. Unfortunately for the Tigers, paper isn't what matters when March Madness rolls around. This team has a lot of tough non-conference games, and it will be interesting to see how they fare in those contests. They will once again dominate Conference USA play and will head into the NCAA Tournament as a one or two seed. If Derrick Rose plays up to the hype, and if the frontcourt shows the consistency expected of them, Memphis could very well end up cutting the nets down next April.
The Blazers are coming off a disappointing season, but things are definitely looking up for UAB. Coach Mike Davis has a solid one-two punch returning in Paul Delaney III and Lawrence Kinnard. Delaney III led the team in scoring, assists, and steals last season and will once again lead the team from the point. He will be joined in the backcourt by a duo of transfers, Robert Vaden and Channing Toney. Vaden, who followed Davis to UAB from Indiana, is a guard/forward combo and a very solid scorer. Toney won't join the team until December, but he will give the Blazers another solid option. The frontcourt leader is Kinnard, who led the team in rebounding last season and was third in scoring. He will be joined by Mississippi State transfer Walter Sharpe. Sharpe has had some off-court issues, but he also has a ton of talent. UAB has a very solid core of players, but their bench will have to provide some help as well. Ed Berrios and Aaron Johnson will provide help in the backcourt, while Frank Holmes and Jeremy Mayfield will help up front. The Blazers are very talented, but it remains to be seen whether or not all the newcomers can gel together in time to make an NCAA run. However, they definitely look like an NCAA team at the moment.
The Golden Eagles won 20 games last year, and coach Larry Eustachy has nearly all the key pieces returning for the 2007-2008 season. This team only has two seniors, and neither play very many minutes. Southern Miss is young and extremely talented. The sophomore backcourt duo of Jeremy Wise and Sai'Quon Stone combined for nearly 30 points per game last season. With an extra year of experience, both guys should be even better this year. The two sophomores will be joined in the backcourt by juniors Courtney Beasley and Craig Craft. Freshman guards R.L. Horton and Kevin Branch will also compete for playing time this season. The backcourt depth is above average for the Golden Eagles, but frontcourt questions loom very large. Gijo Bain, Andre Stephens, and Demar Dotson contributed last season, but nothing significant. These guys need to step up and provide a low-post threat to take some pressure off the guards. If none of the returning frontcourt players show any consistency, newcomers Brandon Cooks and Gustavo Lino may sneak in and steal their playing time. The Golden Eagles' backcourt will get the job done, but the overall record this season will be determined by the consistency up front.
The Houston Cougars have a lot of talent on campus this season, but they must replace Oliver Lafayette and Jahmar Thorpe. The two combined to score 25 points and grab 12 rebounds per game. The scoring load placed on Robert McKiver's shoulders will be even heavier this year. McKiver averaged a little over 19 points per game last season, and he is capable of putting up 30 on any given night. Senior Lanny Smith, who was lost for most of last season after an injury, will return this year to help McKiver in the backcourt. Smith's presence as the leader of the team will help coach Tom Penders' team dramatically. A couple transfers will help McKiver and Smith out in the backcourt. Kelvin Lewis, a transfer from Auburn, will provide a nice scoring lift off the bench. DaShaun Williams, a junior college transfer, will provide help on both ends of the floor. In the frontcourt, Penders will look to former Texas transfer Dion Dowell for scoring punch. Dowell is very talented and may finally have the breakout season everyone has been expecting. Nick Mosley and Tafari Toney return to help up front, and Seton Hall transfer Marcus Cousin may win the starting center spot before it's all said and done. The Cougars face a lot of questions going into the season, but the talent is definitely there to make a postseason run.
The top four teams in C-USA are pretty clear cut, but there are other teams that could make things interesting down the stretch. Tulsa is a team on the rise, led by a solid backcourt trio of Rod Earls, Ben Uzoh, and Brett McDade. Marshall is coming off another losing season, but they do possess one of the best duos in the conference in Markel Humphrey and Mark Dorris. Tulane returns four starters from last year's overachieving team, but they don't have enough depth to compete on a consistent basis. Like Tulsa, UCF and SMU are programs on the rise, but the experience simply isn't in place yet to make a serious run. The rest of the teams in C-USA include UTEP, East Carolina, and Rice.
G: Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis
The Rams upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, and they should return to the postseason this year. Coach Anthony Grant nearly bolted to Florida when Billy Donovan took the Orlando Magic job, but Donovan decided to return to campus. This kept Grant at VCU, and the team will benefit greatly. The coach has a solid nucleus returning, but he must find a way to replace guards Jesse Pellot-Rosa and B.A. Walker. The two combined to score nearly 30 points per contest a year ago. Luckily, Eric Maynor is still around. Maynor hit the game-winning shot against Duke in the postseason, and he comes into this season as the best player in the Colonial Athletic Association. Maynor will run the show for the Rams, and he will be joined in the backcourt by Jamal Shuler. Shuler will be asked to step into the starting lineup and score more for coach Grant. The lack of depth in the backcourt could prove to be a problem, so newcomers Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, and Brandon Rozzell must make their presence known.
VCU should be pretty solid up front, with seniors Will Fameni and Michael Anderson returning to the starting lineup this season. Fameni is the team's best low-power threat, while Anderson is a solid all-around performer. The two will be joined up front by sophomore T.J. Gwynn. Gwynn had a solid rookie season and will be asked to do even more this year. Franck Ndongo and freshman Larry Sanders will be the first frontcourt guys off the bench and will help the depth situation if nothing else. The Rams look a little shaky on paper when you break down the entire squad, but Eric Maynor being around is enough to make this team the conference favorite. Some of the other starters and bench players will have to play well down the stretch in order for VCU to make another memorable postseason run, but all the pieces are in place.
The Patriots had an unbelievable Final Four run two seasons ago, but they faced some growing pains last year. Coach Jim Larranaga has all but one player returning this season which gives the team a chance to win the Colonial Athletic Association. Four seniors and a junior make up a very experienced starting lineup for George Mason. The best player on the team is forward Will Thomas. Thomas led the team in rebounding last season and was second in scoring. He gives the team a solid player at both ends of the court. Folarin Campbell, a guard/forward combo, led the team in scoring last season and will combine with Thomas to form a nice one-two punch. Joining the two up front is senior Darryl Monroe. Off the bench, sophomore Louis Birdsong will give the team a great boost in the frontcourt. Jordan Carter, Dre Smith, and John Vaughan will battle it out for the two starting guard spots. All three are talented enough to start and have great experience. The one who doesn't start in the backcourt will be a great sixth man for the Patriots. Freshmen newcomers Isaiah Tate and Cameron Long will also have a chance to steal some minutes in the backcourt. George Mason isn't listed as the favorite in this article, but with nearly everyone returning from a year ago, they have what it takes to compete with VCU for the conference title.
The Monarchs lost their three leading scorers from a year ago, but they still have enough to be a top-tier team in the conference. Valdus Vasylius, Drew Williamson, and Arnaud Dahi combined to score 36 points a game last season, and all are gone. Coach Blaine Taylor will have to rely on senior guards Brandon Johnson, Abdi Lidonde, and Brian Henderson for the scoring punch and leadership. All three will likely start and are talented enough to replace last year's big three. In the frontcourt, Gerald Lee and Jonathan Adams will play the most minutes. Both guys have a ton of potential, and Old Dominion will need both to step up this year and reach it. Sophomore guard Marsharee Neely and big man Sam Harris will come off the bench like they did a year ago, but both will be asked to do a little more this campaign. Coach Taylor will also rely on a talented recruiting class to give a spark off the bench. The list of incoming guards include Ben Finney and Etoile Imama. The two incoming frontcourt players are Frank Hassell and Keyon Carter. Both Hassell and Carter will be asked to play minutes right away. The Monarchs have a laundry list of question marks going into the season, but they have proven in the past they can get the job done after losing considerable talent from the previous year. They can sneak up and compete for the conference title, but Coach Taylor will definitely have his hands full in doing so.
Hofstra lost two great players from a year ago, but the return of Antoine Agudio will make them dangerous. Drexel also lost a few key components from a year ago, but they return the best big man in the conference, Frank Elegar. Both Hofstra and Drexel are capable of shaking things up in the CAA. UNC-Wilmington was down last year, but the return of T.J. Carter elevates them to the upper half of the conference. Both Northeastern and William & Mary are teams on the rise after surprising a lot of folks last year. The rest of the conference includes James Madison, Delaware, Georgia State, and Towson. These four teams won't be a factor whatsoever this season.
G: Eric Maynor, VCU
The Bulldogs made serious waves in college basketball last season by winning the Preseason NIT in Madison Square Garden. Their coach a year ago, Todd Lickliter, took the job at Iowa in the offseason. However, the cupboard is far from bare for this team. New coach Brad Stevens has one of the best backcourt duos in the nation in senior guards A.J. Graves and Mike Green. Graves is the best player in the conference and will more than likely garner some All-America consideration. Green is a solid all-around player as well and will give the Bulldogs a second option down the stretch. Julian Betko is a guard/forward combo who will join Graves and Green in the starting lineup. Sophomore Willie Veasley returns as well and will give the team some depth in the backcourt.
Pete Campbell and Drew Streicher have the most experience when it comes to the frontcourt. Campbell is a solid inside-outside threat, hitting over 50% of his three-point attempts a season ago. He will need to step up and replace some of the scoring load left behind by Brandon Crone. Streicher will play 20-25 minutes a game and will be asked to do a little more this year. Alabama transfer Avery Jukes and freshman Matt Howard will get plenty of minutes up front as well, and either could win a starting spot before the season starts. Butler is the definite favorite in the Horizon League, but it remains to be seen if they can make another run like they did last season. They aren't going to sneak up on anyone this year, but the talent is still in place to have another great season. The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight aren't out of the question for the Bulldogs.
The Panthers had a couple great NCAA Tournament runs before last season, but they took some lumps a year ago. They went 6-10 in the conference and 9-22 overall. That won't be the case for Rob Jeter's team this year, however, as they return four starters and a few key transfers. Senior guard Avery Smith averaged over 15 points per game last year and is one of the best players in the Horizon League. Joining Smith in the backcourt will be Allan Hanson and Ricky Franklin. Both averaged around seven points a game last season and will get plenty of minutes at the guard positions. Charlie Swiggett returns from an injury-plagued season and will combine with Tulsa transfer Deion James as spark plugs off the bench. Up front, UW-Milwaukee will look to returning starter Paige Paulsen for scoring punch and leadership. Paulsen averaged over 11 points per contest last year. Oklahoma State transfer Torre Johnson will also make his mark in the frontcourt this season. Johnson is a very solid offensive player and should give the Panthers a third scoring option down the stretch. Junior transfer Joe Allen, along with freshman newcomers Tim Flowers and Kevin Johnson, should provide a lift up front off the bench. UW-Milwaukee wasn't a very solid team last year, but don't be surprised if they end up making another postseason appearance when March rolls around.
Last season, the Raiders played in their first NCAA Tournament since 1993, and coach Brad Brownell will be looking to do the same this year. Brownell must find a way to replace DaShaun Wood, last year's Horizon League Player of the Year. Sophomore guards Vaughn Duggins and Todd Brown will be very important this season. Both players are coming off solid rookie campaigns, but they will need to elevate their games to a new level with Wood no longer on campus. John David Gardner, a transfer from UNC-Wilmington, will get plenty of minutes at the guard position as well. Up front, the Raiders have a couple seniors in Jordan Pleiman and Scottie Wilson. Both guys are capable of putting up double-doubles on occasion. Junior college transfer Gavin Horne and Duquesne transfer Ronnie Thomas will both get a lot of playing time in the frontcourt. Like many other teams, the talent is in place for Wright State to make another postseason run. However, coach Brownell must find a way to replace last season's conference player of the year as well as helping all his newcomers gel together in a timely manner. If those things happen, the Raiders can challenge Butler and UW-Milwaukee for the Horizon League crown.
UW-Green Bay has an all-conference player in Mike Schachtner which will give them a chance to win every night. Loyola has won a lot of games over the last two seasons, but they lost four starters from a year ago. Illinois-Chicago has three starters returning, and Valparaiso has their top seven scorers returning. Both teams could be the surprise of the conference. Detroit has one of the best guards in the conference in Brandon Cotton, but that's about it. Cleveland State and Youngstown State round out the Horizon League.
G: A.J. Graves, Butler
The mid-major teams may not receive the attention the big-time conference teams get, but they are still capable of upsetting any team on any given night. And in Memphis's case, they are as good as any team in the country going into the season. The Tigers pretty much have the conference title wrapped up before the season even starts, but you never know in college basketball. The Atlantic 10, Colonial, and Horizon, on the other hand, are wide open races. Any of the contenders have a shot at getting hot and stealing the conference title. The mid-major conferences battles are once again going to provide fans with a lot of exciting games and memories in the 2007-2008 college basketball season. Enjoy the season everyone!