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Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Who will be March's mid-major darling?

By Jason King
ESPN.com

The basketball budgets are leaner, the arenas don't offer as much glitz and glamour, and appearances on national television occur only once or twice a year -- if that.

Still, in places like Moraga, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y., the term "mid-major" is taboo.

"It doesn't matter what school you play for or what conference you're in," Murray State forward Ed Daniel said. "We're all humans. We've all got the same hearts."

And in some cases, the same potential.

As the gap between college basketball's haves and have-nots continues to narrow, no one would be surprised if multiple teams from mid-major leagues had success in next month's NCAA tournament. Heck, in the wake of last weekend's BracketBusters games, we should probably expect it.

With schools such as Wichita State and Murray State in the top 20 and standouts such as Creighton's Doug McDermott contending for first-team All-America honors, there is hardly a shortage of teams with legitimate hopes of becoming the next Butler.

Brad Stevens' squad advanced to the NCAA title game the past two seasons, and although few would be bold enough to predict a similar feat from one of the following teams, all of them have a chance to do something special.

I should know. During the past 2½ months I've watched each of these five schools play in person. After comparing them to the rest of the projected field, I feel strongly that you'll see at least one of them -- and maybe more -- in the Elite Eight.

With the beginning of the NCAA tournament just three weeks away, here's everything you need to know about what I think are the top five mid-major teams in America:

(Editor's note: ESPN.com does not group teams from the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 or Conference USA in this category.)

Long Beach State 49ers

Why they'll have success: The 49ers won't be intimidated by the big stage -- or by big-name opponents. They lost by single digits in front of sellout crowds at Kansas, North Carolina and San Diego State and won at Pittsburgh. Credit Long Beach State's experience as a reason for the poise.

Caspar Ware
LBSU's Casper Ware is a score-first point guard and among the nation's best at his position.

Five of its top seven players are seniors. Point guard Casper Ware is one of 11 finalists for the Cousy Award. Forward T.J. Robinson is the school's all-time leading rebounder.

Why they won't: Dan Monson's squad is by no means tiny, but the 49ers' post players aren't exactly behemoths either. Robinson is the tallest starter at 6-foot-8, but at 205 pounds, he's not strong enough to bang with bigger, more physical post players.

LBSU gets most of its offense from Ware, a score-first point guard who averages 17.3 points, and wing Larry Anderson (14.9 ppg). Also, early in the season, Monson grew frustrated with his team's habit of allowing big opening runs to its opponent and then having to play catch-up the rest of the game.

Potential March hero: He stands just 5-10 and weighs only 175 pounds, but that hasn't stopped Ware from emerging as one of the country's best at his position. The senior from Cerritos, Calif., has averaged more than 29 minutes a game in each of his four seasons.

Recent NCAA history: Long Beach State hasn't appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2007. Its last win was in 1973.

In the NCAA tournament they'll: Lose in their second game. Even though its talent is comparable, Long Beach State probably won't receive as high a seed as teams such as Murray State or Wichita State. ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi predicts the 49ers will be a No. 11, so even if they defeated a No. 6 seed in the opening round, the 49ers would likely have to play a No. 3 seed two days later.

Creighton Bluejays

Why they'll have success: Doug McDermott commands most of the headlines and rightfully so. But not nearly enough has been made of how well-coached this team is. Each Bluejay knows his role and rarely strays from it. They take pride in running a crisp offense that emphasizes making the extra pass, which is evidenced by their national-best 51.1 field goal percentage.

McDermott
Led by father-son duo Greg McDermott, right, and Doug, Creighton may be a tough out come NCAA tournament time.

Forward Greg Echenique plays with aggression and fire in the paint, point guard Antoine Young is at his best in close games and combo guard Grant Gibbs is the team's steadying force. Again, this is a smart, well-disciplined team.

Why they won't: The Bluejays aren't very good defensively, a flaw that has been exposed in recent weeks by quicker, more athletic teams such as Wichita State and Long Beach State, each of which sliced through Creighton defenders and basically scored at will.

The Shockers and 49ers both shot 58 percent against the Bluejays in Omaha and combined to average 84 points. Creighton will be in trouble if it encounters a similar team in the NCAA tournament. Another concern is that Creighton played a relatively soft nonconference schedule. Unless you count Northwestern (which I don't), its most impressive win came at San Diego State.

Potential March hero: McDermott was generating national player of the year buzz before a slide that saw the Jays lose three straight games. Still, McDermott's talents are hard to deny. He ranks third in the nation with 23.2 points per game and also averages 8.3 rebounds. The 6-7 sophomore can score from anywhere on the court and has a variety of moves that make him a threat in the paint.

Recent NCAA history: Creighton went to the NCAA tournament seven times from 1999 to 2007 but hasn't been back since. Its last win was in 2002. The Bluejays have never won back-to-back tournament games.

In the NCAA tournament they'll: Win back-to-back tournament games before losing in the Sweet 16. As a No. 6 or a No. 7 seed, Creighton will likely be better than its opening-round opponent. And whoever it plays in the second round won't have any answer for a player the caliber of McDermott.

Murray State Racers

Why they'll have success: The Racers have something to prove. Even after its 23-0 start, Steve Prohm's squad had a large number of doubters who questioned whether Murray State was for real. Never mind that the Racers touted wins against teams such as Southern Miss, Dayton and Memphis.

Moments after Saturday's win over Saint Mary's, there were still reporters who asked Prohm if he thought he had an NCAA tournament-caliber team. Murray State will have plenty of reasons for motivation -- and it also helps that the Racers have one of the nation's top point guards in Isaiah Canaan, who is Kemba Walker-like in his ability to take over games.

Canaan/Prohm
Murray State has a game-changer in Isaiah Canaan but do the Racers have a strong enough supporting cast for a deep March run?

Why they won't: Although it's solid, Murray State's supporting cast may not be good enough for a lengthy NCAA tournament run. Good coaches will be able to devise plans to put added pressure on Canaan, and the Racers will be in trouble if someone else doesn't step up and capitalize. Beating teams such as Memphis is definitely impressive, but the Racers haven't played enough of those opponents to prepare them for what they could face in March. Nerves might also be an issue, which would be understandable for a team that will be under pressure to live up to its lofty billing.

Potential March hero: Canaan is a first-team All-America candidate who averages 19.3 points and shoots 48 percent from the field. His ability to shoot it from deep on one possession and then slash toward the basket on the next makes him one of most feared perimeter players in the country. Most true point guards simply don't shoot it as well as Canaan, who is making 48 percent of his 3-pointers. He's good enough to win games by himself.

Recent postseason history: Former coach Billy Kennedy, who is now at Texas A&M, led Murray State to a 66-65 victory over Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. The victory was the school's first in the Big Dance since 1988. The Racers fell to eventual NCAA runner-up Butler 54-52 in the second round.

In the NCAA tournament they'll: Lose their second game. That's certainly not an insult. This is a well-coached team that plays excellent defense and features one of the premier players in the nation. The Racers, though, haven't played quite as well down the stretch and haven't faced a high-level opponent since winning at Memphis on Dec. 11. Saturday's win over Saint Mary's was impressive, but the Gaels were banged up.

Saint Mary's Gaels

Why they'll have success: Some of the Gaels' top players (Matthew Dellavedova, Clint Steindl, Jorden Page) were groomed overseas at the Australian Institute of Sport.

Saint Mary's Australians
Saint Mary's Australian contingent has the Gaels poised for a return to the NCAA tournament.

Their focus is on playing team-oriented, mistake-free basketball, which explains why they shoot a collective 47.2 percent from the field. Saint Mary's averages just 12 turnovers per game and ranks 10th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Its weaknesses in other areas are masked by its smart, efficient play and strong fundamentals. Saint Mary's needs two more wins to clinch the West Coast Conference title outright. It's an impressive feat considering Gonzaga has won at least a share of the last 11 conference crowns.

Why they won't: Injuries are taking a toll on Randy Bennett's team. Dellavedova, the starting point guard, almost missed Saturday's game against Murray State because of ankle problems. Third-leading scorer and defensive stalwart Stephen Holt is out for at least two more games with an injured knee.

As a result, SMC has lost three of its last four games and could be mentally fragile when NCAA tournament play opens next month. Bennett said he hopes the leadership provided by the Gaels' upperclassmen will prevent that from becoming the case.

Potential March hero: Even though he's a Cousy finalist, Dellavedova doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves. The 6-4 junior averages 15.5 points and 6.4 assists. He's averaged more than 35 minutes in each of the last three seasons and was a key reason for Saint Mary's' 2010 Sweet 16 run.

Recent NCAA history: SMC hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1959 before winning two games and advancing to the Sweet 16 two years ago. The Gaels played in the NIT last season.

In the NCAA tournament they'll: Lose their first game. This team may be as good as the one two seasons ago, but its recent batch of injuries could affect its seed -- and, of course, its play -- at the worst possible time.

Wichita State Shockers

Why they'll have success: Watch Gregg Marshall's team play, and it's hard to find a weakness. In Garrett Stutz, Wichita State has a mobile 7-footer who can score in the paint and rebound and also step out and shoot the 3.

Stutz
Seven-footer Garrett Stutz gives Wichita State an imposing presence in the paint.

Led by point guard Joe Ragland, the Shockers' backcourt loves to push the ball and is excellent in transition. Wichita State's top seven players are either seniors (five) or juniors (two). The Shockers -- who lead the Missouri Valley Conference in field goal percentage defense -- played a nonconference schedule that included Alabama, Temple and UNLV.

Why they won't: It's a tough question to answer, because there simply aren't a lot of negatives with this team. The Shockers rank at or near the top of the Valley in nearly every statistical category. They play hard and are extremely well-coached. In the end, it may come down to talent.

Ragland is good, but is he as good as Tyshawn Taylor or Kendall Marshall? Toure Murry is solid, but can he play with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Deshaun Thomas? How would Stutz fare against Fab Melo? There's a good chance we'll find out.

Potential March hero: Ragland has played the best basketball of his career in recent weeks. One week after erupting for 24 points against Creighton, he scored 30 in Saturday's victory at Davidson. A junior college transfer, Ragland had a season-high 31 points in a 19-point victory over UNLV on Dec. 4.

Recent postseason history: The Shockers have made just one tournament appearance since 1988. That came in 2006, when they defeated Seton Hall and Tennessee before losing to George Mason in the Sweet 16.

In the NCAA tournament they'll: Lose in the Elite Eight. Wichita State is every bit as good as the Butler and VCU teams that advanced to the Final Four last season. Actually, I think the Shockers are better. If they face a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the Elite Eight, they could be in trouble. But this team is playing with an edge. It's developed the type of swagger that's imperative for an NCAA tournament run. Nothing would surprise me.

Don't forget about

Belmont: The Bruins opened the season with a one-point loss at Duke and have been out of the national spotlight ever since. Still, this is a scary, scary team.

Iona: Some pundits think Gaels point guard Scott Machado is the best player in the country at his position. He averages 10.1 assists for a squad that leads the nation in scoring at 83.1 points per game.

Weber State: Junior Damian Lillard ranks second in the nation in scoring with 25.1 points per game. The Wildcats have just one loss since Dec. 16. Could Lillard recreate the Harold Arceneaux magic during March Madness?

Middle Tennessee State: The 24-4 Blue Raiders own victories over UCLA, Belmont and Ole Miss. Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy averages team highs in points (14.9) and rebounds (7.1).

Old Dominion, VCU, Drexel and George Mason: Will the CAA get more than one bid? Drexel and VCU are the leading candidates, but the Monarchs and Patriots are good enough to win the conference tournament, which is always a wild event in Richmond.

Harvard: The Crimson have appeared in just one NCAA tournament -- and that was in 1946. Tommy Amaker's squad had been a Top 25 mainstay until it lost at Princeton on Feb. 11.

Davidson: The Wildcats lost to Wichita State by 17 points at home Saturday. But remember, this is the team that beat Kansas in Kansas City in December.

Oral Roberts: This team hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1974. Dominique Morrison (20.1 points per game) hopes to change that.

Gonzaga: The Zags are in danger of having their 11-year streak of West Coast Conference titles snapped. But that doesn't mean they still aren't one of the most dangerous mid-major teams in the country.

Nevada: The Wolf Pack have a gaudy record but haven't really been tested in a weak Western Athletic Conference. Nevada lost at Iona in a BracketBusters game Saturday.

Valparaiso and Butler: Bryce Drew provided one of the memorable moments in school history as a player. Now he hopes to do it again as the Crusaders' first-year coach. Valpo surprisingly sits in first at 12-4 in the Horizon League, home of -- perhaps you've heard of them -- the Butler Bulldogs, who have quietly won four in a row as their favorite month approaches. Are you ready to count them out in the postseason? Not me.

As exciting as things have been at the mid-major level, there are plenty of storylines to follow involving the power conferences, too. As always, King's Court is here to bring you up to date, although this week's notes will be a bit abbreviated.

Questions for the King

Name three teams outside the top 10 that could end up in the Final Four.

That's more of a command than a question, but sure, I'll take a stab. How about Florida, Indiana and Wichita State? Other than Missouri, Florida may have the deepest, most talented backcourt in college basketball with Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal and Mike Rosario. The Gators, though, need to improve their defense in the paint, where they are undermanned. Indiana has tapered off a bit, but the Hoosiers are the only team with a win over Kentucky, and they've also defeated Ohio State. So we know they're capable of beating anyone. Wichita State is discussed at length in the section above.

Will Northwestern finally make the NCAA tournament?

Yes, I actually think we'll see the Wildcats in the Big Dance for the first time in school history. Northwestern has four regular-season games remaining: Penn State and Iowa on the road and Michigan and Ohio State at home. I think Bill Carmody's squad will be fine if it wins three of its next four and finishes 9-9 in the Big Ten. Granted, a team's league record and its place in the conference standings aren't important to the NCAA tournament selection committee, so nothing is a given. Still, Northwestern has a handful of decent wins (Seton Hall, Tulsa, Minnesota, Illinois) and one great one (Michigan State).

Any chance Thomas Robinson wins the Wooden Award but not Big 12 Player of the Year?

If that happened it would mean that Robinson's teammate, point guard Tyshawn Taylor, won the conference MVP honor. What a strange scenario that would be. Taylor has been slightly better statistically in league games with a 17.9-point scoring average compared to 17.7 for Robinson. And there's no question that Taylor's improved play -- he was wildly inconsistent before Christmas -- is the main reason the Jayhawks are tied with Missouri for first place in the Big 12 standings. Still, I expect Robinson to win the conference player of the year honors with ease. Voters usually go with the best player, and there's no question that that player is Robinson.

Report card

A: John Beilein: The Michigan coach doesn't get nearly enough credit for the job he's done with this team. At 10-4, the Wolverines are just one game behind league leader Michigan State in the Big Ten standings. Not bad for a team that lost last year's leading scorer (Darius Morris) to the NBA draft.

Beilein
Saturday's win over Ohio State moved Michigan into a second-place tie with the Buckeyes in the Big Ten standings.

B: Conference USA race: Southern Miss and Memphis each have three losses and Tulsa and Central Florida have four apiece. It should be an exciting finish in an underrated league that is stocked with good coaches.

C: Analysts: I'm including myself among the group of "experts" that has sold New Mexico short all season. The Lobos are 22-4 and fresh off double-digit wins against San Diego State and UNLV. They have a two-game lead over both teams in the Mountain West Conference standings thanks to standout Drew Gordon, who is averaging 22 points and 18.5 rebounds in his last two games.

D: Texas: The Longhorns squandered a golden chance to enhance their NCAA tournament résumé by blowing a 12-point lead in the second half of Monday's home loss to Baylor. Two days earlier Texas allowed Oklahoma State's Keiton Page to score 40 points in a 90-78 setback to the Cowboys in Stillwater. Texas, which is 7-8 in Big 12 play, has never missed the NCAA tournament under Rick Barnes.

F: NCAA tournament bubble: It seems as weak as it's been in years. As of Monday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had teams such as Northwestern, Seton Hall and Miami making the field, with Central Florida, Oregon, North Carolina State, Minnesota and Colorado State on the bubble. Yikes.

Thoughts from press row

1. I disagree with people who say there are a handful of elite teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in college basketball. There is only one elite team, and that's Kentucky. After that I don't think there's much difference between the teams ranked 2-10.

2. Speaking of Kentucky, I've said all along that its toughest SEC game will be Tuesday night's showdown against Mississippi State in Starkville. And, yes, I'm fully aware that the Bulldogs have dropped three straight games to bottom-tier teams. I just think that, in terms of personnel, Mississippi State is the only conference opponent that can come close to matching up with Kentucky. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney are big and strong enough to create problems for the Wildcats in the paint, and Wendell Lewis is no slouch off the bench. Dee Bost is one of the league's top guards, and Rodney Hood is one of the more underrated freshmen in the country. Still, it's going to take a Herculean effort for the Bulldogs to even stay close with Kentucky. And if Sidney (back spasms) doesn't play, it could get ugly.

3. I can't remember many regular-season games as highly anticipated as Saturday's tilt between Kansas and Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse. With Missouri leaving for the SEC, this could very well be the last time these rivals play during the regular season. Both teams are ranked in the top five, and Kansas wants to avenge a 74-71 loss to the Tigers on Feb. 4 in Columbia. A victory would also move the Jayhawks one step closer to their eighth straight Big 12 title. Kansas has won 89 of its last 90 games at Allen Fieldhouse. My prediction: Kansas 82-68.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Choosing this season's most influential Tar Heel is a tough task.

4. The ACC Player of the Year will almost certainly be a North Carolina Tar Heel. But which one do you pick? Harrison Barnes averages a team-high 18 points and Tyler Zeller ranks second in both points (15.6) and rebounds (9.5). John Henson averages a double-double (14 and 10.3) and is one of the top defensive players in the country. And then there's point guard Kendall Marshall, the most irreplaceable player on the roster. Marshall ranks second in the nation in assists with 9.7 per game. I'm going with Zeller for now but my opinion could change.

5. It will be interesting to see whether Ole Miss' recent struggles will land Andy Kennedy on the hot seat. The Rebels have lost four of their last five games -- including a 26-point home defeat against Vanderbilt on Thursday -- and are just 5-7 in league play. Ole Miss recently had to spend money to hire a football coach, so even if it wanted to fire Kennedy, it may not have the funds to pay the remainder of his contract. Kennedy is in his sixth season and has yet to take the Rebels to the NCAA tournament.

6. One of the more surprising stories in the Big East has been the play of South Florida, which improved to 10-4 in conference play with Sunday's win at Pittsburgh. Stan Heath was rumored to be on the hot seat entering the season, but at this point the fifth-year coach deserves nothing but praise. In eight of their 10 conference wins, the Bulls have held their opponents to less than 60 points. USF -- which went 7-6 in nonconference play -- is on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble, but there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to play their way in. South Florida was 3-15 in the Big East last season.

7. The decision by Purdue coach Matt Painter to kick Kelsey Barlow off the team following an altercation at a bar over the weekend certainly didn't seem to bother the Boilermakers. Guard Ryne Smith told the Indianapolis Star that losing Barlow was "addition by subtraction."

8. The recent criticism Baylor has received following blowout losses to Kansas and Missouri has been warranted. But it was hard not to be impressed with the Bears following their 77-72 come-from-behind win at Texas on Monday. Baylor trailed by as many as 12 points early in the second half before rallying behind Quincy Acy (22 points, 16 rebounds) and Pierre Jackson (25 points). Following a brutal first half, Baylor scored 51 points and committed just two turnovers after intermission. The win came despite a scoreless effort from freshman Quincy Miller, who has been battling an illness.

9. One thing that impresses me about Wichita State and Creighton is that they've managed to separate themselves from the pack in what I believe is a very strong Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita State is 14-2 in league play while Creighton is 12-4. The next-closest team is Missouri State at 9-7. Three other teams (Illinois State, Drake and Evansville) are 8-8.

10. One of the country's most improved teams is Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils are 15-0 in the SWAC and 16-11 overall. The team went 13-19 last season and 9-23 and 7-25 the two years prior to that. Mississippi Valley State is coached by former Kentucky standout Sean Woods.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.