As conference composition shifts and basketball programs rise and fall, the definition of “mid-major” shifts with it. Once upon a time, the American Conference had a case to be considered among the “power conferences.” Back in 2011, it featured the national champion (UConn), plus two top-15 schools (Louisville, Cincinnati), along with perennial contenders Memphis and a rising SMU.
Louisville has since departed for the greener (in all senses of the word) pastures of the ACC, and the conference didn’t have a single team in the top-25 of the final Coaches Poll last season. Ten weeks into this season, only the Bearcats (no. 22) are a top-25 team.
Where the American has fallen off, the Big East has soared. Villanova, Butler, Xavier, and Creighton are as strong a top-four in any conference save the ACC. This year, you have to group the Big East with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 in the “power conference” cohort. You also have to keep the SEC in that mix because Kentucky. That leaves us with a handful of true mid-major conferences, like the A-10, Missouri Valley, West Coast, and, yes, the American.
In a season being dominated by freshmen sensations – see Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Markelle Fultz (Washington), Jayson Tatum (Duke), Jonathan Isaac (Florida St.), Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky) – could we see any veteran-laden mid-majors challenge for the national championship? In years past, exceptional, experienced guards allowed Wichita State to bang with the big boys. Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker have finally aged out of the college ranks (after what felt like a decade), but there is at least one mid-major with the talent to contend.
Randy Bennett has basically his entire team back from last year, a team which boasted one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. The Gaels (a.k.a. Team Australia) were upset at home by UT-Arlington back in December, but that’s their only loss of the year. Emmett Naar and Jock Landale give them top-notch scorers and veteran experience in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. They’re the WCC’s kid brother, sure; that’s not an insult when big bro is Gonzaga.
The Bearcats have two losses on the year. One came on the road to Butler, a place where Villanova also lost. The other came against Rhode Island, a preseason top-25 team (albeit one that’s not living up to expectations). Sophomore guard Jacob Evans and his 6’6″ frame present matchup problems for a lot of opponents, especially now that he’s upped his three-point percentage to 45.5 (versus 33.3 last year). Senior Troy Caupain does a nice job running the point and will provide that veteran leadership which so often comes up huge in March.
Seniors Sterling Brown and Ben Moore were expected to carry the Mustangs’ scoring. They’ve been good, but it’s been the emergence of Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye (17.9 PPG) that’s taken SMU from an American contender to the conference co-favorite. After losing three of its first four, Tim Jankovich’s crew has rattled off ten in a row, including nice wins over Memphis and a surprisingly respectable TCU.
The Flyers always seem to be there come March. Archie Miller knows how to get his team to the dance. He’s got a good shot to do it again this year. All three of the Flyers’ losses are respectable (St. Mary’s, Nebraska, Northwestern) and they’re 5-3 overall against the RPI’s top-100. Most of the names you’d recognize from tourneys past are gone, except the best name of all: Scoochie Smith. The senior point guard is averaging nearly 14 points and four dimes per game. They have Round of 32 potential, but not much more than that.
The Colonial’s top team can score with the best, averaging 86.8 PPG and boasting four players (including two seniors) who average over 13 PPG. But they really haven’t beaten anyone yet. They only own one top-100 win in terms of RPI and are 0-2 against teams in the top-50.
Photo credit: Max Goldberg (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].
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