Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball [Print without images]

Thursday, November 17, 2011
Mid-Major Report: Why the surprise?

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Most mid-majors seeking at-large consideration -- and hoping to avoid a must-win situation in their respective conference tournaments -- schedule tough nonconference slates. That philosophy has encouraged Long Beach State coach Dan Monson to assemble one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country for the past two seasons.

Monson, who resigned from his post at Minnesota in 2006 after seven seasons there following a stint at Gonzaga, missed the past two NCAA tournaments by losing to UC Santa Barbara in consecutive Big West tourney finals. LBSU's at-large potential, however, received a major boost with Wednesday's 86-76 victory over No. 9 Pitt, snapping a 58-game nonconference home winning streak for the Panthers.

"You do what you've had success with in your career," Monson told ESPN.com following the game. "It's what we did at Gonzaga to get on the map. If you're ever going to get a mid-major to elevate, you have to play those games to get there."

Casper Ware
Big West POY Casper Ware scored 28 points and dished out six assists in LBSU's win at Pittsburgh.

The 49ers will face Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier, too. Monson said he's told his team, which is anchored by four seniors, that it shouldn't be content just competing against some of the best teams in the country.

"We've had the No. 1 preseason schedule in America the last two years," Monson said. "We gotta quit playing the toughest schedule and start competing and winning with that schedule."

Tough scheduling has already favored multiple mid-majors. Cleveland State won at No. 7 Vanderbilt. Middle Tennessee hit its first nine 3s on its way to a 20-point blowout of UCLA. The Mid-American Conference took down the SEC and Big East with Akron's win at Mississippi State and Kent State's win at West Virginia.

The nation's most balanced mid-majors have experience and a fluid understanding of their systems, a trait that could result in more postseason glory for the under-the-radar programs.

"I think oftentimes the mid-majors have more experience, they've got more guys who've played in the same program than folks who are looking to play in the NBA as soon as they can," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said.

Even though Virginia Commonwealth and Butler earned a combined three trips to the Final Four over the past two seasons, it's still surprising to see some of the smaller programs pull off early upsets. But not to the coaches themselves.

"It's just gonna continue to happen," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "There's so many good players around the country."

Byrd disappointed by top-10 losses

Rick Byrd didn't talk about moral victories after Belmont's back-to-back losses to Duke and Memphis.

Belmont lost to the Blue Devils by a point Friday and suffered a 16-point loss against Memphis on Tuesday. Although his team played a tighter game against Duke, Byrd said he anticipated a better outing against the Tigers, a team he expected his squad to beat.

"Frankly, I was counting on them to make a few more mistakes," he said.

Belmont, which joined Michigan State as the first teams in seven years to open the season against a pair of top-10 squads, couldn't handle Memphis' athleticism and speed. Belmont was one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country last season, but it made just 30 percent of its shots from beyond the arc against the Tigers.

In its past three games, Belmont has faced Wisconsin (NCAA tournament), Duke and Memphis. Byrd said the losses hurt but he hopes the experiences have helped his team mature and recognize its potential.

"I hope that our team understands that they are absolutely competitive with teams at the highest level," he said.

Middle Tennessee State still in awe of UCLA win

Following a 20-point victory over UCLA on Tuesday, Middle Tennessee's players and coaches didn't have the strength for an elaborate celebration. But on the bus ride to the airport Wednesday morning, they couldn't hold back.

"Coach [Kermit Davis] was like 'We beat UCLA!' Everyone was like 'Yeah!'" said senior center LaRon Dendy, who led his team with 16 points.

Bruce Massey
After crushing UCLA, the Blue Raiders are 3-0 for the first time in a decade.

The Blue Raiders knocked down their first nine 3s and put the Bruins away early. Reeves Nelson didn't play for UCLA, but he might not have made a difference. Middle Tennessee hit a remarkable 71 percent of its shots.

Transfers Dendy (Iowa State) and Torin Walker (Oklahoma State) have enhanced MTSU's immediate outlook and it certainly looks like this team is ready to battle Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt's East division. Their 3-0 record, which also includes wins over Austin Peay and Loyola Marymount, is the program's best start in a decade.

"I was sitting there as all coaches do. You're just coaching possessions," Davis said. "[But then] you start kind of saying to yourself 'Wow, this is UCLA.'"

Mid-major Stars of the Week

Zeke Marshall, Akron: The Zips' 7-footer clogged the lane in his team's win over Mississippi State last week, recording five blocks. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he'll continue to be an anchor for Akron's defense.

Casper Ware, Long Beach State: The Big West's reigning player of the year scored 28 points in LBSU's upset at No. 9 Pitt on Wednesday.

Gerardo Suero, Albany: The Great Danes lost 94-78 at Syracuse on Tuesday, but Suero poured in 31 at the Carrier Dome. The Dominican Republic native is arguably the America East conference's top newcomer.

Matt Stainbrook, Western Michigan: The Broncos big man dropped a career-high 32 points in a season-opening loss to South Dakota State. He lost nearly 40 pounds last summer to make himself an asset for WMU. The offseason workload should continue to pay off for the Broncos.

Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit: In the Titans' tight loss at Notre Dame, the sophomore contributed 20 points. With Eli Holman still sidelined, Detroit will demand even more from the coach's son.

Samme Givens, Drexel: He scored 21 and grabbed seven rebounds in his team's season-opening victory over Rider. The fact he did it between the hours of 6 and 8 a.m. is all the more impressive.

Results of Note

• Stony Brook, contenders for this season's America East title, went just 5-for-20 from the 3-point line in a 96-66 loss to Indiana to open its season.
• Butler lost to Evansville 80-77 in an overtime thriller. The Bulldogs bounced back to win their next game, a 57-46 victory over Chattanooga.
• Kent State pulled off a 70-60 victory at West Virginia as part of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon. Four of the Golden Flashes scored in double figures.
• D'Aundray Brown scored 18 points in Cleveland State's upset at No. 7 Vanderbilt on Sunday.

Must-see Matchups

Fairfield at Minnesota (Thursday): The Stags are one of the top mid-majors in America and a contender in the MAAC. The Gophers have a young backcourt, while Sydney Johnson's Fairfield squad has four starters from last season's conference championship squad.
Texas Southern at Michigan State (Friday): Texas Southern is favored to win the SWAC. Based on the crazy travel schedule of the worn-out Spartans, might the Tigers be able to keep this one close?
Louisville at Butler (Saturday): The Bulldogs face a Louisville team that has caught the injury bug early. Can Butler take advantage and create some more Hinkle magic?
Creighton vs. Iowa (Sunday in Des Moines): Greg McDermott's Creighton squad just posted a nice win at UAB and now takes on an Iowa team that continues to grow under Fran McCaffery.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN