College Basketball: 5 Mid-Major Teams with Legitimate Final Four Hopes
Mid-major teams have been steadily climbing up the college basketball rankings ever since the George Mason Patriots’ improbable run to the Final Four in 2006.
There is less separation between the traditional powerhouses like the Duke Blue Devils and UCLA Bruins and mid-major teams like the Ohio Bobcats.
Following in George Mason’s footsteps, the Butler Bulldogs made it to two national championship games in a row in 2010 and 2011, narrowly losing both contests.
Joining Butler in 2011 were the VCU Rams, who made their own unexpected Final Four run before losing to the Bulldogs.
So why should next season be any different?
There are plenty of teams ready and waiting to make that leap into the national spotlight. And more than a few are capable of doing so.
Here are the mid-major college basketball teams that have a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four next season.
Last year’s 31-2 campaign was not a joke. Steve Prohm will have the Murray State Racers back in the national spotlight again next season.
Led by All-American guard Isaiah Canaan, Murray State will be a force not just in the Ohio Valley Conference, but in the national landscape.
Canaan is poised to have another record-breaking season as he becomes the unquestioned leader on the team.
Losing Donte Poole and Ivan Aska will not be easy for the Racers, but Zay Jackson is going to be a stud sophomore and players like Edward Daniel and Stacy Wilson were forced to step up last season when Aska was injured.
Murray State will also have the experience that came from being a highly ranked, national surprise last season, which will help them mightily in close games and in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
I would wager that one of the reasons Canaan decided to return to school rather than jump to the NBA is because of the sour taste the Racers’ loss to the Marquette Golden Eagles left in his mouth.
Canaan wants another chance at the Final Four and Murray State is ready to deliver.
As Brad Stevens has taught us, the Butler Bulldogs should never be counted out of a Final Four. Or a national championship game for that matter.
Somehow the Bulldogs are always peaking at the right time and play with absolutely no fear, no matter their opponent.
What doomed the Butler Bulldogs last season was their inability to score on the offensive end. The Bulldogs averaged just 63.3 points per game, which ranked 270th nationally.
That’s not a recipe for a championship.
But next season, Butler will bring in transfer Rotnei Clarke from the Arkansas Razorbacks, who averaged 15 points per game in his last two seasons and can shoot from deep.
Ever improving junior Khyle Marshall also comes back to anchor the frontcourt with Andrew Smith.
This season, the Bulldogs should have all the pieces in place to make yet another run through the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Virginia Commonwealth Rams have looked like the second coming of the Butler Bulldogs in recent years.
Coach Shaka Smart has turned down a number of major coaching jobs (yes, that’s you, Illinois) because he is winning just fine with the group he has, thank you.
Next season should be no different for VCU.
While leading scorer Bradford Burgess will graduate, Juvonte Reddic, the team’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder will be back and better than ever.
Reddic is ready for a breakout season and has the quickness and strength to be virtually unguardable in the low post.
Point guard Darius Theus had a great season last year and if he can continue to cut down his turnovers and score the ball consistently, he will be a great point guard and leader.
The Rams are an excellent defensive team and as Smart has jacked up the intensity of VCU’s non-conference schedule, the team has gotten the early challenges and practice it needs to truly contend in March.
Much like Butler, the Rams always seem to peak late in the season, just in time for their second Final Four berth in three years.
Simply put, when you have the possible Preseason National Player of the Year on your roster, thoughts of a Final Four should be floating through your head.
Star Doug McDermott returned for his junior season to build on the Creighton Bluejays' early tournament exit last year.
Despite the fact that McDermott poured in 22.9 points per game last season, no one could stop him, even when an entire team's defense was designed to do just that.
Being the coach’s son, McDermott will likely use the offseason to improve his offensive game even more, establishing more post moves and improving his handle. That's a scary prospect for all of Creighton's opponents.
McDermott will be joined by big man Gregory Echenique and guard Grant Gibbs, giving the team much needed experience going into the 2012-13 season.
Creighton will likely be the most highly scrutinized mid-major program in a while, but with a player like McDermott, the Bluejays deserve it.
The Missouri Valley Conference will give Creighton fairly decent competition heading into tournament play and if the team can keep up its intensity, the Final Four will not be far off.
Welcome back to the national stage, Rick Majerus.
The Saint Louis Billikens stayed fairly under the radar last season as bigger-name mid-majors such as the Wichita State Shockers and Creighton Bluejays were grabbing all the national headlines.
But come time for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Billikens proved that their regular season record of 25-7 was no joke.
In the first round of the tournament, Saint Louis beat the Memphis Tigers, a team most talking heads were discussing as a Final Four sleeper.
The team passes the ball well and defends like mad, two keys for a long postseason run.
While the loss of Brian Conklin will be unwelcome, the Billikens return Kwamain Mitchell as a senior point guard and Dwayne Evans to take over Conklin’s place down low.
Most of Majerus’ core will be back next year and Saint Louis will undoubtedly want to build on its finish from last season.