The 2020/21 college basketball season is nearly a week into play, and I’ve saved the best college basketball preview for last – the mid-majors.
At the end of the day, most college basketball fans know that the team who will eventually be crowned the National Champion for that given season will almost assuredly come from one of the seven main conferences in the sport.
But college basketball also offers fans from throughout the country the opportunity to see their alma mater, or just favorite school in general, get to the 68-team NCAA Tournament for a shot at a national title. It’s truly the only sport in the United States that gives every college and university an equal shot at competing for a championship.
While there are 350 college basketball programs that make up Division I college basketball, there are only a select few from every conference that has a chance to take their swings at Goliath. Here’s a quick capsule of the off-the-radar teams you should keep an eye on throughout the season.
#1 Gonzaga (31-2, 15-1 WCC)
While we still technically categorize Gonzaga as a “mid-major”, the truth of the matter is that Gonzaga hasn’t been a mid-major program in quite some time. Yes, they play in the West Coast Conference and not a Power 5 Conference, but year in and year out Mark Few’s Bulldogs are a perennial Top 5 program in the country. This season is no different, as the Zags were the preseason #1 and odds-on favorite to win the first National Championship in school history.
Gonzaga has already started off the new season about as well as could be expected. In their season opener against 6th ranked Kansas, the Zags high-octane attack put up triple-digits on Bill Self’s Jayhawks in a 102-90 win that was never really as close as the final score indicated. They’d follow up that victory with a 90-67 blowout of rebuilding Auburn, and now have dates with #11 West Virginia and #2 Baylor in the second week of their season.
Essentially, the Zags aren’t only one of the best teams in college basketball, they’re one of the most fearless teams as well. They will play anybody, anywhere. In large part because the West Coast Conference is collectively a very weak conference outside of a handful of teams at the top, but also because Gonzaga is just that confident that they’re as good as advertised.
This could be the deepest team Mark Few has had yet, and that’s saying something considering the Bulldogs are typically one of the most balanced units in the country.
The crown jewel of Few’s recruiting class is that of five-star phenom Jalen Suggs (ESPN 100 #5 overall recruit), Suggs is a likely NBA lottery pick in the making and won’t be in Spokane for long, and joins Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris in Few’s best recruiting class to date.
While Gonzaga did lose top senior Killian Tillie to graduation and Filip Petrusev left to play professionally, they still return plenty of experience with senior Corey Kispert (13.9 ppg) and junior Joel Ayayi (10.6 ppg) coming back to play this season in Spokane. Southern Illinois grad-transfer Aaron Cook (15.0 ppg in 2019/20) figures to be the primary ball-handling option off the bench and could provide Few with a big scoring lift as well. Sophomore Drew Timme (9.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) also looks to play a big role on this Bulldogs team, as he looks to build off of a strong freshman season and provide Gonzaga with a formidable rim-protector.
All the pieces are in place for Gonzaga to stake claim to another #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make the push for the school’s first-ever National Championship. This is no longer a “Cinderella” team living a fun story, they’re a legitimate power program in college basketball and should be treated as such for the foreseeable future.
The Dangerous Dark Horses
Richmond (24-7, 14-4 A10)
Perhaps I should have penned this piece before the opening weekend because I could have warned John Calipari ahead of time that the Richmond Spiders have some (forgive the arachnid pun about to come your way) bite to them, but Kentucky found that out the hard way with a 76-64 loss at Rupp Arena on November 29, giving Richmond their first-ever road victory over a team ranked in the Top 10.
The upset wouldn’t have been as big of a surprise had you paid close attention to the makeup of this year’s Spiders team, however.
Richmond boasts one of the most experienced units in all of college basketball, as they return their top seven players in minutes-per-game from a season ago, and were poised to return their entire starting lineup from a year ago before guard Nick Sherod (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) had the horrible luck of suffering a preseason knee injury that ended his season.
Fortunately, the Spiders have enough experience and overall talent to where they should be able to absorb the injury to Sherod and still be an NCAA Tournament caliber team. The Spiders’ success is driven by their small, but explosive, senior-laden backcourt with 5’9” Jacob Gilyard (12.7 ppg) and 6’0” Blake Francis (17.7 ppg), and 5th-year senior Grant Golden gives Richmond a formidable presence in the paint (13.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) making Richmond one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
The A-10 may be the deepest non-power conference in all of college basketball this season and Richmond will be one of the biggest reasons why. While they’re not at the level of a Gonzaga, they’re still dangerous enough to play into the second weekend in the tournament.
Northern Iowa (25-6, 14-4 MVC)
Northern Iowa was on their way to a high seeding in the NIT when COVID-19 came thundering down to take away college basketball from us.
The Panthers weren’t happy with that NIT placement, but that’s where they were headed after a shocking 21-point first-round upset at the hands of Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament just eight months ago.
Fortunately, with the 2019/20 season now relegated to being cited as the first sport to be entirely canceled from the pandemic, Northern Iowa gets another crack to get back into the NCAA Tournament with one of the deepest rosters Ben Jacobson has ever got to coach in his 15 seasons with the school.
The Panthers will be led by junior sharpshooter and reigning MVC Player of the Year A.J. Green (19.7 ppg, 91 3PM, 39% from three-point range), guard Trae Berhow (12.5 ppg, 45% from three-point range), and senior big man Austin Phyfe (11.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg).
In addition to their trio of stars, the Panthers have a ton of depth highlighted by returning sophomores Noah Carter and Antwan Kimmons, along with the signings of freshmen Bowen Born (Mr. Basketball in Iowa in 2020), Nate Heise, and Cole Henry.
Northern Iowa did lose reigning MVC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Brown, so we’d be remiss not to mention that loss to their team as Jacobson doesn’t really have another lockdown defender on his team that could fill those shoes entirely, but the Panthers have more than enough talent to work past that loss and will contend once again for the Missouri Valley Conference title.
If they can avoid another quick exit in the conference tournament, this is a team that no Power 5 team is going to want to face in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t be overly concerned by the team’s 0-3 record to start the season.
San Diego State (30-2, 17-1 Mountain West)
San Diego State was in the midst of the best season in school history, and a very real shot at landing a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament when COVID-19 came down and canceled the entire season.
For much of the 2019/20 season, the question wasn’t if San Diego State could land a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it was whether or not they’d be undefeated when they entered that tournament.
That riddle would eventually have its answer when San Diego State suffered their first loss of the season on February 22 in a 66-63 home defeat at the hands of rival UNLV. The loss ended the Aztecs’ 26-game winning streak to start the season, with San Diego State eventually suffering their second loss of the year in the Mountain West Conference Tournament final (59-56 to Utah State).
San Diego State was poised to enter the NCAA Tournament with a 30-2 record. Instead, their season ended that fateful Vegas afternoon.
Now the Aztecs are forced to move on and try to not think about the season that could have been, and they get to do all of that without their best player, and Wooden Award Finalist, Malachi Flynn. Flynn departed the Aztecs to enter the NBA Draft after three years with the program.
Despite the massive loss of losing Flynn, the Aztecs remain in very good shape for the 2020/21 season, though it would be a huge shock if they finished the season with only two losses again.
Like Richmond and Northern Iowa before them, San Diego State boasts a senior-laden lineup with the right mix of young talent and key transfers. In Flynn’s absence, senior Matt Mitchell (12.2 ppg) figures to step into the leadership role on the team. Mitchell is your prototypical Aztec wing that is relentlessly annoying on the defensive end of the floor and a steady enough shooter to keep defenses honest.
To try to offset the loss of Flynn, Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher was able to lure Cal-State Northridge graduate transfer, Terrell Gomez, over to the 619. All Gomez did a season ago was lead the Big West Conference in scoring, field goals, three-point field goals, and free-throw percentage while landing 1st Team Big West All-Conference honors in the process. Gomez figures to be the glue before the reins are handed over to Dutcher’s top recruit Lamont Butler.
Once again, however, San Diego State has all the pieces in place to dominate the Mountain West and to emerge as a legitimate threat to play deep into the second weekend of the tournament. They won’t be 30-2 again, but they’ll be a very dangerous group all the same.
Loyola-Chicago (21-11, 13-5 MVC)
If you couldn’t get enough of the Ramblers’ Final Four run three years ago, you’re in luck because Sister Jean’s favorite team is back in the spotlight and ready to make another run in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Porter Moser’s Ramblers’ stole the hearts of sports fans nationwide when they would go on a storied run to the Final Four in 2018. Freshman big man Cameron Krutwig was among the great stories to come from that run, and the big lefty is now the focal point (15.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg) of a senior-laden lineup that returns literally everybody from the team that finished as the runners-up in the Missouri Valley Conference just eight months ago.
Lucas Williamson was also a part of that Final Four run, now he’s considered the odds-on favorite to take home the MVC Defensive Player of the Year award. Seniors Keith Clemons (10.4 ppg, 45.7% three-point shooting) and Tate Hall (12.7 ppg, 42.6% three-point shooting) give Loyola a pair of assassins from outside, with sophomores Cooper Kaifes (46.5% 3PM), Paxson Wojcik (42.1% 3PM), and Marquise Kennedy (38% 3PM) giving Moser even more shooters from outside.
If there’s a bugaboo to follow with this team, they tend to struggle at the charity stripe, which seems odd considering how well they shoot the ball from outside. As a team, the Ramblers shot 63% from the stripe, making them the worst free-throw shooting team in the MVP by a significant margin (Indiana State was the next closest at 71%). This is obviously not ideal for close-game situations and will need to improve if the Ramblers are to go on another run in March.
The race between them and Northern Iowa for Missouri Valley Conference supremacy will be one of the best races in all of college basketball this season. The MVC may very well send both schools to the dance, and each of them is very capable of doing a lot of damage in the tournament.
Saint Louis (23-8, 12-6 A10)
In a similar manner to Loyola-Chicago, Saint Louis also returns practically everyone from last season with the Billikens top-eight scorers from the 2019/20 campaign all returning to play for coach Travis Ford.
The Billikens seemed to be finding their rhythm late last season as they finished the year on a tear, winning six of their last seven games to close out the season and gave Obi Toppin and the A10 Champion Dayton Flyers all they could handle, losing both matchups by a combined eight points.
As of this writing, the Billies began the new season a perfect 2-0 including a victory over LSU on November 28. Perhaps the most exciting development from those two opening victories to the new season is that they shot the ball noticeably better in each affair, including a blistering 55% from the floor against the aforementioned LSU Tigers.
Last season, shooting was a strain for Ford’s squad until late in the season. Not surprisingly, as soon as Saint Louis’ shooting improved, the wins started coming much easier.
The Billikens have long prided themselves on playing a ‘bully ball’ style of basketball dating back to the Rick Majerus days. While they still hope to defend the ever-living life out of A-10 opponents this season, they also do not want to be such a black hole on the offensive end of the floor either.
Scoring threats Javonte Perkins (15.0 ppg), Jordan Goodwin (15.5 ppg), and Gibson Jimerson (10.8 ppg) should help alleviate those concerns, with UNC Wilmington transfer Marten Linssen (10.5 ppg) also providing another scoring threat for Ford’s deep roster.
Unlike other foes in the A-10, while the Billikens have continuity it’s mostly in relation to freshmen becoming sophomores, but that doesn’t mean Saint Louis isn’t a legitimate threat to come out of a deep Atlantic 10 Conference either.
Keep an eye on Saint Louis to make a lot of noise out of the A-10 this season.
Projected Mid-Major Conference Winners 2020/21
Atlantic Sun Conference – Liberty
America East Conference – Vermont
Atlantic 10 Conference – Richmond
Big Sky Conference – Montana
Big South Conference – Winthrop
Big West Conference – UC Irvine
Colonial – Hofstra
Conference USA – Western Kentucky
Horizon League – Wright State
Ivy League – N/A (Will not play in 2020/21)
MAAC – Iona
Mid-American Conference – Bowling Green
MEAC – Norfolk State
Missouri Valley Conference – Northern Iowa
Mountain West Conference – San Diego State
Northeast Conference – Fairleigh Dickenson
Ohio Valley Conference – Murray State
Patriot League – Colgate
Southern Conference – Furman
Southland Conference – Stephen F. Austin
SWAC – Texas Southern
Summit League – South Dakota State
Sun Belt Conference – Georgia State
West Coast Conference – Gonzaga
Western Athletic Conference – New Mexico State