In Part 2 of my 2011 College Basketball Preview, I examine four mid-major teams that have a great chance at becoming the Butler or VCU of this upcoming season.
Over the past decade, a number of schools have come to define the term “mid-major” in college basketball. Gonzaga is always a threat to play deep into March and had dominated the WCC every year. Butler played in the past two national championship games. And VCU and George Mason have made the CAA a noteworthy conference by making improbable Final Four runs in the past five years. But this season will almost certainly bring rise to at least one mid-major that America is not yet familar with. Here are the teams I think can capture and break hearts in 2012.
Detroit Titans (Horizon)
Butler has always been the class of the Horizon League, but Detroit has a great chance to not only win the conference tournament, but also make a run in the Big Dance. The Titans have arguably the two most talented players in the conference in forward Eli Holman and point guard Ray McCallum Jr. McCallum was the newcomer of the year last season, and Holman averaged nearly a double-double. Don’t forget about senior wing Chase Simon, who averaged 13.5 points per game last season. With such a diverse and talented core, Detroit has all the tools to do damage late in the season.
But the Horizon League is not weak, by any stretch. Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee will both be competitive, though they each lost substantial pieces to graduation. The Bulldogs will depend heavily on big man Andrew Smith and wing Ronald Nored, as well as highly-touted freshman Roosevelt Jones. Milwaukee, on the other hand, returns guard Kaylon Willams and forward Tony Meier but, similar to Butler, has many holes to plug.
Wichita State Shockers (Missouri Valley)
The Missouri Valley Conference is barely a mid-major anymore, but if the Shockers advance beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it will be considered a… shock. Great things were expected last season, but Wichita State had to settle for an NIT championship. Every NIT matchup was a blowout, including an uneventful final against Alabama. Big man Garret Stutz will be counted on to patrol the paint for a team that lost a huge chunk of their interior scoring and rebounding. Ben Smith should see an increased role, as well – the 6’5″ forward won the conference’s Sixth Man Award last season. But the team will go as far as guard Toure’ Murry takes them – he has won the past two conference Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is the team’s returning leader in all major statistical categories.
The rest of the Valley is going to be incredibly tough: Creigton, Indiana State, and Northern Iowa will all be fighting for the conference title, but none appear as complete as the Shockers, which have all of the intangibles. Charles Koch Arena yields the greatest home court advantage in the MVC, and the team has a large chip on it’s shoulder after getting snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee in March. If Wichita State plays anything like they did in the NIT last season, they will be incredibly difficult to beat, especially at home.
UCF Knights (Conference USA)
The average college basketball fan only knows about Central Florida because of the breakout season by Marcus Jordan in 2011. But the team’s strengths go far beyond Air Jordan’s son. In fact, people seem to overlook Keith Clanton, who was an all-conference performer last season. At 6’8″ and almost 250lbs, Clanton is one of the most overlooked big men in the country. He shot 53% from the field last season, and improved over the course of the season. In fact, in the 2011 CBI Semifinal, Clanton was 9-12 from the field and 7-8 from the line in 34 minutes. Look for more of the same this season. Plus, sophomore Isaiah Sykes should provide a solid second scoring threat from the wing – he is super quick and not afraid to shoot the ball. And look out for transfers Tristan Spurlock and Josh Crittle; both stand 6’8″ and will bang inside with the best of the them.
Conference USA will be a difficult conference to win, however. Memphis is the perennial favorite, and Marshall has emerged as a dark horse contender. But UCF finally has the talent to compete with the Tigers. Three transfers from major schools (Spurlock, Crittle, and Marcus’s brother Jeff) bring a swagger to Orlando that has been missing for years. Even if Memphis runs away with C-USA, UCF will have talent and probably the resume to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they will be a very dangerous opponent.
Akron Zips (MAC)
Few remember that the Zips actually played in two of the past three NCAA Tournaments. The reason is because of the low seeding and subsequent matchup problems posed by teams like Notre Dame, who won by 13 points in the second round of last season’s tournament. But the six upperclassmen on this Akron roster have been there, done that, and are ready to play deeper into March. Skinny but agile 7-footer Zeke Marshall stands alone in the big man department, but will have a ton of help on the perimeter. Nikola Cvetinovic will need to score and help Marshall on the glass, and freshman Nick Harney is expected to help shoulder the load at forward, as well. In the backcourt, UMBC transfer Chauncey Gilliam joins 5’9″ point guard Alex Abreu and Brett McClanahan as they attempt to dominate a conference that is often dictated by guard play. But Marshall is the X-factor for this team, as he has performed below expectations in his first two years in Akron. If he can show the ability that made him a high-caliber recruit in high school, then Akron will be in the driver seat in the MAC.
Don’t count out the rest of the MAC, however. Western and Central Michigan each return several strong pieces and will give Akron all they can handle. Kent State may be the early conference favorite, having shown well in the NIT last season before losing to Colorado in a tight quarterfinals contest. Yet, it was Akron that played in the Big Dance in March, and they seem to always peak at the right time of the year. With a grueling non-conference schedule ahead of them, the Zips may look lackluster early on, but they should once again surge through the MAC. As long as they don’t find themselves as a #15 seed again, Akron will be extremely competitive in the NCAA Tournament.
Other teams to watch: Long Island Blackbirds (NEC), Harvard Crimson (Ivy League), and Florida Atlantic Owls (Sun Belt)