College Basketball Handicapping: 11 Mid-Majors That Could Dance
by Trevor Whenham - 02/17/2009
The mid-majors aren't nearly as impressive as we have grown used to them being in recent years in college basketball. Lesser schools from smaller conferences haven't been winning as many big games and opening as many eyes as they have in the past. There are still some good teams out there, and perhaps a couple of very good ones, but the major conferences won't be kept awake by as many nightmares as they have been in the past. Here's a quick look at 11 mid-majors who are likely to be dancing, and which stand the best chance of making some noise:
Xavier - The recent power of the A-10 is back for more this year. They are sitting at 16th in the AP poll, and are tied for the lead in the A-10. They don't need to get the conference's automatic bid to make the tournament. There are a couple of concerns, though. First, they dropped two games last week. The loss to Dayton was okay, but the one to Duquesne really wasn't. That's the second time they have lost back-to-back games. They can't afford that kind of slip in concentration in March. They are also in an ugly position at point guard. Terrell Holloway is their only true option, but there are two knocks against him - he's just a freshman, and he's not very durable. A good point guard is pretty much crucial in the dance.
Gonzaga - We can hardly call these guys a mid-major any more because they have been around so long. They are on their way back to the tournament yet again. They have some nice spots on their schedule - they have beaten Tennessee twice on the road, and they played UConn tight. Against Memphis, though, their problems were exposed for a national audience. The Tigers ripped them apart, and showed just how many problems this team has. They are good, but they are far from great. This could be the last run for this version of this squad, too - there are always rumors that Mark Few could be targeted for a new job, but the rumors out of Oregon are stronger than ever, and the change would make a lot of sense for Few.
Davidson - Stephen Curry is an absolute machine, and he has proven that repeatedly this year. He's also proven, though, that one great player matched with several decent mid-major level ones isn't enough for the big time. Despite one sloppy loss in the Southern Conference, they will earn their automatic bid with ease. Not that they need it. It's very doubtful that they will measure up to the best when March rolls around, though. The three best teams they have played are Oklahoma, Purdue and Duke. They lost all three games. I just hope they stick around long enough for Curry to write another chapter or two in his book of tournament heroics.
Butler - The Bulldogs are very young, and this year was supposed to be a rebuilding year. A few things have led to this being a better-than-expected year, though - good play from freshman, a soft Horizon League, and a reasonably easy non-conference schedule. Their best win is over Xavier, and the Musketeers had been beaten up by Duke just three days earlier. They have a Bracket Buster game against Davidson on Saturday that will be a big test for both programs. I'm not at all convinced that their youth and lack of big tests will serve them well in March.
Utah, UNLV, BYU, San Diego State, New Mexico - We'll deal with these five Mountain West squads at once. The MWC has become perhaps the best mid-major in the country, and any of these teams still has legitimate tourney dreams. They likely all won't make it, but right now New Mexico is the only one that's sitting outside of my bracket. Besides getting better by beating up on each other in tough conference play, this conference has some impressive non-conference scores. Utah has beaten Oregon, Gonzaga, and LSU. BYU played Arizona State and Wake Forest tight. UNLV beat Arizona and Louisville. New Mexico clobbered Ole Miss. If a mid-major is going to make a deep run this year then the best bet is that this is where it will come from.
Siena - The Saints are going to dance, but they aren't nearly as good as they were tabbed to be when they were a sexy preseason pick of many experts. Every time they have faced a big challenge they haven't held up - they've lost to Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pitt and Kansas. The MAAC isn't nearly strong enough to get them ready for a deep run. I don't expect a meaningful run of any kind.
Utah State - The Aggies have a very shiny 23-2 record. There is really only one thing you need to know about this team, though - their non-conference strength of schedule in only the 235th best of the 343 teams. In other words, they haven't played anyone. Their only two real challenges have been against in-state rivals Utah and BYU. They lost to the Cougars and slipped past the Utes. Beyond that, there isn't much too like. Their record will get them a higher seed than they probably deserve, but I don't see how that is enough to earn them a deep run.