Commentary

What to expect from the mid-majors

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

This is the list that's often overlooked.

The "mid-major" label tends to encompass a host of schools that aren't supposed to matter until folks begin scouring their brackets for potential upsets in their efforts to win office pools.

But VCU and Butler changed everything. Last season forced the country to pay attention to those programs. They matter more than they ever have.

A school from one of the conferences mentioned below could end up in New Orleans. Perhaps it's best to track them now to avoid potential shock once March arrives.

[+] EnlargePartin
Mark D. Smith/US PresswireBU lost some key pieces from last season but it is in good hands with Darryl Partin.

America East
My pick: Boston University

Last season, Boston University topped Stony Brook in the America East tourney final and earned a trip to the Big Dance. Four of its five starters return this season. But the missing pieces are some big ones. John Holland is gone. He earned conference player of the year honors in 2010-11. The Terriers also were looking forward to the return of Jake O'Brien, who missed most of last season with a foot injury. However, he's out for this season after undergoing a second surgery on his left foot. All-conference player Darryl Partin is arguably the league's best. The team will have to adjust to new coach Joe Jones' approach to the game, although it won't be much different than his predecessor's. Both Jones and former coach Patrick Chambers, who left BU to take the Penn State post, were assistants under Jay Wright at Villanova. Boston University has the pieces to capture another league title. Why not go for the double? I'm picking the Terriers to win the regular-season and conference tournament championships.

Contenders: Vermont has been a staple in this league for a decade. But 2011-12 could be a rebuilding season. The loss of the squad's top scorers, Evan Fjeld and Joey Accaoui, could spell trouble for the 2010-11 regular-season champs. The good news: Four starters return.

Stony Brook overcame a variety of injuries to end the season in the conference tournament final. Point guard Bryan Dougher is back. Leonard Hayes came on strong in the conference tournament and will be asked to compete that way throughout the regular season. Tommy Brenton, who missed last season with a knee injury, also returns.

X factor: Injuries derailed Albany a year ago. But if the Great Danes can stay healthy, they're capable of a coup with Logan Aronhalt, the squad's top returning scorer, leading the way.

Preseason MVP: Darryl Partin, Boston University

Atlantic Sun
My pick: Belmont

The attributes that made Belmont's offense (79.7 ppg) one of the nation's best failed it during the NCAA tournament. The Bruins led the nation in scoring margin (17.5 ppg) and topped the Atlantic Sun with a 38 percent clip from the 3-point line. In their 72-58 NCAA tournament opening-round loss to Wisconsin, however, they went 6-for-22 from beyond the arc. Belmont's finish belied its strengths, many of which should be apparent during an opening stretch that features matchups at Duke and Memphis. Those squads could be in for early upsets if they're not prudent. Belmont's potent offense returns four starters. Ian Clark, last season's top scorer, is one of nine players returning from the 2010-11 roster.

Contenders: Jacksonville hopes to build on last season's third-place finish. The Dolphins return four starters from that squad but need to fill the giant void created by the departure of Ayron Hardy (reigning Atlantic Sun defensive player of the year and the team's leading scorer).

North Florida lost to Jacksonville (twice) and Belmont by single digits in one of their matchups. Tight losses plagued the Ospreys as much as their poor rebounding. But the majority of last season's key contributors are back, including double-digit scorers Jerron Granberry and Parker Smith.

X factor: East Tennessee State lost three scorers who averaged at least 10 points per game. But winning 24 games and ending up in the CollegeInsider.com tourney will serve as motivation for a Buccaneers team that won 80 percent of its conference games last season (16-4 record).

Preseason MVP: Mick Hedgepeth, Belmont

Big Sky
My pick: Weber State

Damian Lillard's foot injury squashed Weber State's goals of a conference championship and NCAA tournament bid last season. But he's back, and the offseason buzz suggested that he developed into a better competitor by playing against some of college basketball's best athletes during the summer. That's saying a lot for a player who averaged 19.7 points per game before his injury. Lillard's return coupled with the assistance of the players who were forced to make up for his loss last season equals a Big Sky title for Weber State. Head coach Randy Rahe returns four starters from a team that finished third in the conference last season.

Contenders: It's really Montana and Weber State in the Big Sky. Grizzlies reigning Big Sky defensive player of the year Brian Qvale is gone. But 7-footer Derek Selvig is a matchup nightmare with his ability to play all over the floor (39 percent 3-point shooter). How do you guard that?

X factor: Northern Colorado swept the league and conference tournament titles last season and made its first NCAA tournament. But it lost the four seniors who made that group click. Head coach B.J. Hill faces a great challenge, but at least he's guiding players who clearly matured during last season's remarkable run.

Preseason MVP: Damian Lillard, Weber State

Big South
My pick: UNC Asheville

It's fitting that the Bulldogs open their new facility, Kimmel Arena, this season. They're coming off a conference championship and a win in the First Four of the NCAA tournament. Great timing for a new building. J.P Primm and Matt Dickey are two of four returning starters.

Contenders: Liberty's title hopes rest on the shoulders of Big South player of the year Jesse Sanders.

X factor: Winthrop's Randy Peele is facing a lot of pressure with his team coming off a 13-win season. He's motivated, but can he get Winthrop back on track without Robbie Dreher, last season's leading scorer?

Preseason MVP: Jesse Sanders, Liberty

Big West
My pick: Long Beach State

Five years ago, the University of Minnesota dismissed coach Dan Monson after a troubling start to the 2006-07 season. Monson, who'd left Gonzaga for frigid Minneapolis, never established the continuity he had envisioned when he left the West Coast. But he's found a home in Long Beach, where he has built a respectable program in one of college basketball's hotbeds. This season, Monson's efforts should finally result in a trip to the NCAA tournament. The 49ers have lost to UC Santa Barbara in back-to-back conference tournament finals. But with Casper Ware and Larry Anderson on board, Monson's squad will erase that blemish this season.

Contenders: UC Santa Barbara has represented the Big West in the past two NCAA tournaments, proof that the Gauchos possess the moxie necessary to dominate the league. But last season's 8-8 regular-season mark was baffling despite the strong finish. Even with four starters returning -- including standout Orlando Johnson -- the Gauchos will have a hard time overcoming Long Beach State.

X factors: Omondi Amoke, a transfer from Cal who missed last season, has been ruled eligible by the NCAA. The 6-foot-7 forward should help Cal State Fullerton build on last year's 7-9 mark in conference play and put itself in contention in the coming months. Even if the squad misses out on the regular-season crown, it could pull a UC Santa Barbara and shock the field in the conference tournament, which is this league's only ticket to the NCAA postseason experience.

Preseason MVP: Casper Ware, Long Beach State

Colonial Athletic Association
My pick: Virginia Commonwealth

The energy that Shaka Smart displayed throughout his team's Final Four run last season was intoxicating. He tussled with players in physical drills. He collected quotes that he repeated to motivate the Rams during their is-this-really-happening trip through the NCAA tournament. And then, he turned down money and prestige offered by larger programs to continue his work with Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams will miss some of the key components from last season's team (Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez are gone), but who can bet against them given what they accomplished this past March and April? Plus, veteran Bradford Burgess will lead a squad that went from a fourth-place regular-season finish in the CAA to a Final Four run that enthralled the country.

Contenders: Drexel returns four starters from one of the best defensive units in the CAA. Samme Givens leads the rugged Dragons, who have the talent to dethrone the Rams. George Mason lost Cam Long but gained new head coach Paul Hewitt.

X factor: VCU was a middle-of-the-pack squad in its own league before its magical journey to the Final Four. Could head coach Mo Cassara make Hofstra this year's Rams? Conference scoring leader Charles Jenkins is gone, but four starters are back.

Preseason MVP: Bradford Burgess, VCU

[+] EnlargeAndrew Smith
AP Photo/Nick WassAndrew Smith and Butler will stay relevant in the Horizon League, but Detroit is the team to beat.

Horizon League
My pick: Detroit

This league demands immediate attention. In the past two seasons, Butler made consecutive, albeit improbable, runs to the NCAA title game. This season, Detroit is an intriguing squad with star power (Ray McCallum Jr.), strong support (all five starters return) and an X factor (center Eli Holman, who is on an indefinite leave of absence). Holman's presence -- or lack thereof -- could be huge down the stretch, but with Butler rebuilding, the Titans are positioned to win the Horizon League.

Contenders: Brad Stevens is the coaching fraternity's MacGyver. Give him a two-star recruit, a few walk-ons and a ball, and he'll produce an NCAA title contender, right? It has seemed that way in recent years. Butler, however, deserves more credit than that. Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward -- his program's stars in the past two seasons -- warranted NBA contracts. But Stevens' coaching was pivotal in their development. He lacks that raw talent this season, but Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith competed on two teams that were one victory from an NCAA title, so the team's expectations are quite high. Butler will find a way to remain relevant despite its losses.

UW Milwaukee has a strong nucleus, too. The Panthers went 13-5 in the conference last season and topped Butler twice during the regular season. Transfer James Haarsma was a starter for Evansville two seasons ago. He'll help the Panthers compete for the Horizon regular-season and tournament titles.

X factor: Norris Cole, last season's Horizon player of the year, is gone. But Cleveland State's Gary Waters signed a respectable recruiting class.

Preseason MVP: Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit

Ivy League
My pick: Harvard

Harvard went 12-2 in conference play to set up a memorable matchup against Princeton in a one-game playoff for the Ivy League crown. A last-second shot ended the Crimson's bid for an NCAA tournament spot, something that has eluded the program for more than 60 years. That heartbreak, however, shouldn't last long because Harvard has the goods to win the conference championship and advance to the NCAA tournament. Keith Wright, the squad's top rebounder and scorer last season, will take the team there.

Contenders: Former Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson left for Fairfield, but new coach Mitch Henderson has eight of his top 10 scorers returning to a team that nearly upset Kentucky in last season's NCAA tournament.

X factor: Yale's Greg Mangano, who withdrew from the NBA draft, is one of four returning starters.

Preseason MVP: Greg Mangano, Yale

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
My pick: Iona

Arizona transfer Lamont "MoMo" Jones has been cleared to play this season because of a hardship waiver. That's "Mo" problems for the rest of the MAAC. Jones joins guard Scott Machado and forward Michael Glover, making Iona one of the most intriguing sleepers in the country.

Contenders: New Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson brings the same enthusiasm that helped him lead Princeton to the NCAA tournament last season. Fairfield went 15-3 in league play last season, and all-conference guard Derek Needham returns.

X factor: Rider's Jeff Jones averaged 6.2 points and 1.6 rebounds per game during his three seasons at Virginia.

Preseason MVP: Michael Glover, Iona

Mid-American
My pick: Akron (East), Western Michigan (West)

Akron's Nikola Cvetinovic was the team's top scorer and rebounder last season. And Zeke Marshall's shot-blocking is a game-changer. The duo should lead Akron to its second consecutive NCAA tournament bid. In the West, Western Michigan will field a team that retained the bulk of last season's scoring threats.

Contenders: Kent State has one of the top players in the league in Justin Greene. Ball State has the experience to win the West.

X factor: Central Michigan's Trey Zeigler is one of the league's most talented players.

Preseason MVP: Nikola Cvetinovic, Akron

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
My pick: Hampton

The Pirates turned it on when it counted most. After a slow start, Hampton finished strong and won the MEAC tournament. The top two scorers from that squad -- Darrion Pellum and Kwame Morgan II -- return. Hampton is ready for the sweep.

Contenders: Todd Bozeman's Morgan State squad is rugged enough to challenge Hampton for the league title.

X factor: Coppin State has all five starters from a 16-14 squad.

Preseason MVP: Darrion Pellum, Hampton

Missouri Valley
My pick: Creighton

Creighton is stacked, with Doug McDermott on the verge of an All-American campaign in just his second season. He led Creighton in rebounding and scoring as a freshman -- even though he initially had expected to redshirt. Antoine Young is a talented ball handler (2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) who will steady the BlueJays in a tough conference.

Contenders: Wichita State won the NIT title -- and 29 games overall, a record for the program -- last season. The Shockers lost All-MVC player J.T. Durley, but the other top contributors return. A solid recruiting class should help them maintain their post as the conference's top offense, too. Forget Indiana State's blowout loss to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Sycamores weren't supposed to be there in the first place. After coaches picked Indiana State to finish in the bottom half of the league, it ran through the conference tourney to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Four starters from that squad are back.

X factor: Northern Iowa has had three consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins. That streak will continue if the Panthers fill the gaps created by the departures of Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Lucas O'Rear.

Preseason MVP: Doug McDermott, Creighton

Northeast Conference
My pick: Long Island

The most significant contributors to Long Island's potent fourth-ranked offense in the nation (82.7 ppg) return. Juniors Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere averaged 13.0 points per game last season for the Blackbirds, who are equipped to collect the NEC tournament title and earn another ticket to March Madness.

Contenders: The Blackbirds will have to get past a Robert Morris squad that has participated in the past two conference tournament finals. Four of its starters from last season are back.

X factor: Central Connecticut's Ken Horton is an offensive machine. If he gets more assistance this season, his squad could climb to the top of the conference.

Preseason MVP: Ken Horton, Central Connecticut

Ohio Valley
My pick: Tennessee Tech

Kevin Murphy leads four starters from last season's 20-13 squad. Longtime coach Mike Sutton has retired. But his replacement, Steve Payne, was an assistant under Sutton for nearly a decade. Look for the Golden Eagles to capture the conference's championship during the regular season and in the postseason tournament.

Contenders: Austin Peay has the league's top duo in TyShwan Edmondson and Anthony Campbell. Murray State has standout Isaiah Canaan. The Racers won the regular season title but stumbled in the conference tournament. New coach Steve Prohm's toughest task will be to ensure that his team is prepared for the rigors of March.

X factor: Tennessee Tech's Payne has the players, but is he experienced enough to guide the program to a championship over Austin Peay and Murray State in his first season as head coach?

Preseason MVP: Kevin Murphy, Tennessee Tech

[+] EnlargeMike Muscala
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMIBucknell's Mike Muscala is a matchup problem for opponents in the Patriot League.

Patriot League
My pick: Bucknell

Mike Muscala is a matchup nightmare for opposing post players in the Patriot League. The 6-11 forward averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for a Bucknell squad that earned an NCAA tournament slot. Four starters and multiple reserves return this season, one that should culminate with Bucknell's second consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

Contenders: Lehigh's C.J. McCollum was the 11th-best scorer in America last season. He's a legit star. But his team went 6-8 in conference play. He needs more help.

X factor: Holy Cross finished with a .500 record (7-7) in the Patriot League. But that mark is deceptive because the squad lost 10 games by four or fewer points.

Preseason MVP: Mike Muscala, Bucknell

Southern Conference
My pick: Davidson (South), Chattanooga (North)

Bob McKillop has a contender three seasons after Stephen Curry drew celebrities to Davidson's games. It's hard to envision a repeat of the 2007-08 campaign. But with seven of eight starters returning, including J.P. Kuhlman, the Wildcats should get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Curry left the scene. Chattanooga has four starters back from last season's squad.

Contenders: Charleston will challenge Davidson after adding highly touted recruit Adjehi Baru. In the North, Chattanooga will face tests from Western Carolina and Appalachian State.

X factors: Elon could be a sleeper this season.

Preseason MVP: J.P. Kuhlman, Davidson

Southland
My pick: Northwestern State (East), Texas-Arlington (West)

The Demons have the nation's top shot-blocker in William Mosley. But he shot just 34.6 percent from the free throw line and averaged 1.6 turnovers per game. If he can clean up those areas and become a more well-rounded player, the Demons shouldn't have an equal in the Southland Conference's East Division. Texas-Arlington hopes to take a West Division championship as a parting gift before it makes a move to the WAC.

Contenders: McNeese State should challenge Northwestern State in the East, and Texas-San Antonio should vie for the West title.

X factor: Lamar hired Pat Knight in the offseason after he lost his job as Texas Tech's head coach. He has five of the team's top scorers back from last season.

Preseason MVP: Patrick Richard, McNeese State

Southwestern Athletic Conference
My pick: Texas Southern

The Tigers captured the SWAC regular-season title and an NIT bid after winning 17 of their last 21 games. Travele Jones, the league's reigning player of the year, will be the center of a Tigers squad that should represent the league in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

Contenders: Alabama State won last season's conference title and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament. Three starters from that squad are back.

X factor: Jackson State's Jenirro Bush might be the best player in the conference. Can he carry his squad to the top of the league? It's possible.

Preseason MVP: Travele Jones, Texas Southern

Summit League
My pick: Oakland

Keith Benson is gone, so Oakland's Reggie Hamilton will carry the load. The Golden Grizzlies have won 51 games and earned back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons. They've played daunting nonconference schedules to prepare for the league slate, a formula that has worked in the past. With Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Tennessee and Arizona on this season's schedule, Oakland will be ready for anything its conference foes throw at it on its way to the league's championship.

Contenders: Oral Roberts is a dangerous squad that returns four starters. Led by Dominique Morrison, Oral Roberts went 13-5 in conference play last season. The Golden Eagles won't let Oakland walk away with the championship without a fight. But the loss of defensive standout Ken Holdman to an ACL tear earlier this week will affect their depth.

X factor: South Dakota State junior point guard Nate Wolters is a serious scoring threat.

Preseason MVP: Dominique Morrison, Oral Roberts

Sun Belt
My pick: Florida Atlantic (East), Arkansas State (West)

Two coaches who coached high-major programs have established themselves in the Sun Belt. Former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis leads Florida Atlantic, a squad with a reliable backcourt anchored by Raymond Taylor. Arkansas State's John Brady, the former LSU coach, has one of the league's top talents in Martavius Adams.

Contenders: Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Lafayette pose threats in their respective divisions.

X factor: Denver's Joe Scott has three motivated seniors.

Preseason MVP: Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic

West Coast Conference
My pick: Gonzaga

Let the fight begin. The West Coast Conference has three legitimate contenders who will fight for the league's title this season. But a Gonzaga team that has competed in 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments gets the nod. The Zags have the edge because of Elias Harris, the WCC's best player, and their beef inside (7-footer Harris and sophomore Sam Dower).

Contenders: Saint Mary's fell into the "snubbed" category when the Gaels missed out on a tourney bid despite 25 wins in 2010-11. They've lost top scorer Mickey McConnell, but Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones are a formidable pair on a team with upset potential. The league's newest member, BYU, didn't bring The Jimmer, but don't be fooled. The Cougars are tough, especially now that Brandon Davies has been reinstated after being dismissed from the program for a violation of the honor code last season.

X factor: Saint Mary's could be undefeated entering a matchup against Baylor on Dec. 22 in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. Will its easy nonconference slate prepare it for the competition in the WCC?

Preseason MVP: Elias Harris, Gonzaga

Western Athletic Conference
My pick: New Mexico State

The Aggies will have the services of Wendell McKines, a 6-6 forward who missed last season with a foot injury. His presence inside will boost the league's top scoring offense (72.5 ppg in conference play). The Aggies will miss Troy Gillenwater, their No. 1 scorer and rebounder last season, but McKines' return will minimize the pain.

Contenders: Utah State has won the past four WAC regular-season titles. But the Aggies have lost so much from last season's team. Four starters, including WAC player of the year Tai Wesley, are gone. Coach Stew Morrill always seems to find a way to win with this program. But this season, he'll have to succeed without experience.

X factor: Nevada's Olek Czyz gets to play a full season after missing the first semester in 2010-11 following his transfer from Duke. All five starters are back for the Wolf Pack.

Preseason MVP: Brockeith Pane, Utah State

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