One of the best parts of being a college basketball fan is that the power-conference schools don’t hold all the trump cards. In any given season, a program from the Missouri Valley or Conference USA can have everything fall into place and put together a team that can upstage the traditional powers in March.
One team that’s poised for an outstanding run this year is the St. Louis Billikens. After coming within four points of knocking off Michigan State in last season's Big Dance, St. Louis returns four starters from one of the country’s toughest defenses.
Read on for more on the Billikens and (with apologies to such sub-mid-major standouts as Lehigh and Murray State) the rest of the 10 best mid-major teams in the country for 2012-13.
If the Gaels hadn’t lost star power forward Rob Jones to graduation, they’d have a real shot at cracking the Top 25 for the second year in a row.
As it is, they’ll be a serious threat in March thanks to the return of senior point guard Matthew Dellavedova.
Dellavedova, who also competed for Australia at this summer’s Olympics, averaged 15.5 points and 6.4 assists per game for last season’s Gaels.
With a strong showing from returning wings Jorden Page and Stephen Holt, St. Mary’s could even make a run at its second straight WCC title.
Just two years removed from its back-to-back trips to the national championship game, Butler should find itself back in the NCAA Tournament spotlight this season.
The Bulldogs’ move to the Atlantic 10 coincides with the arrival of a solution to the team’s biggest problem: the lack of a go-to offensive weapon.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke is one of the top pure shooters in college hoops, and after posting 15.2 points per game on 43.8 percent long-range shooting with the 2010-11 Razorbacks, he’s a safe bet to rank among the A-10’s top scorers.
He’ll complement Brad Stevens’ always-tough defense, which will have plenty of size inside thanks to 6’11” senior Andrew Smith and 6’8” sophomore Kameron Woods.
There isn’t a player in the West Coast Conference who looks more like an NBA prospect than Gonzaga senior Elias Harris.
The versatile 6’7” forward led last year’s Bulldogs in rebounding (8.7 boards a night) and finished second in scoring (13.8 points per game).
With Harris up front and a deep backcourt led by Kevin Pangos (13.8 points and 3.4 assists per game), Gonzaga will be the class of the WCC, and it’s never a good idea to bet against the Zags come March Madness.
Mark Few’s squad will also be battle-tested by the time it gets to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a brutal schedule that features Butler (on the road), Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia.
After knocking off fourth-seeded Michigan in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Ohio isn’t likely to sneak up on anybody in 2012-13. Of course, with all five starters back from that Sweet 16 team, they won’t need to.
The Bobcats’ main man is 5’11” senior D.J. Cooper, a sensational two-way point guard who led the team in points (14.7), assists (5.7) and steals (2.3) last year.
Among Cooper’s supporting cast, the man to watch is Nick Kellogg (son of former Ohio State star Clark), who’s drained 40-plus percent of his three-point tries in each of his first two seasons.
VCU trades one powerhouse mid-major conference for another, leaving the CAA to join the Atlantic 10. Fortunately for the Rams, Shaka Smart’s ferocious full-court press will win plenty of games in any conference.
Although VCU has more height than it's often given credit for (led by 6’9” junior Jovonte Reddic), this team is all about the backcourt.
Sharpshooting senior Troy Daniels (94 three-pointers on 38.1 percent shooting) will spearhead the offense, while the frenetic D will rely on Darius Theus and Briante Weber (4.1 steals per game combined).
After a very quiet 26-8 campaign, the Billikens should be set for a breakout season with four returning starters.
Fan-favorite coach Rick Majerus will miss the year while battling heart problems, but the punishing defense he built a season ago will once again rank among the country’s best.
The Billikens allowed just 57.6 points per game, eighth-best in the nation, behind physical forwards such as 6’8”, 240-pound Cody Ellis. St. Louis has some offensive punch, too, highlighted by senior PG Kwamain Mitchell (12.4 points and 3.7 assists a game).
After sharing the backcourt spotlight with Oscar Bellfield last season, Anthony Marshall (4.5 assists per game) takes over as the full-time point guard in Vegas.
He couldn’t have picked a better time, because the Rebels’ frontcourt is getting a massive upgrade for 2012-13.
Freshman Anthony Bennett is a national top-10 recruit with impressive scoring punch, while transfers Khem Birch (Pitt) and Roscoe Smith (UConn) will provide Big East-caliber defensive muscle.
Of course, the top forward on the UNLV roster is still 6’8” rebounding machine Mike Moser, the team leader in points (14.1) and boards (10.6) a season ago.
The Aztecs have their vulnerabilities up front, but for sheer backcourt talent, San Diego State can make a great case for being the single best team in the country.
Steve Fisher’s squad brings back a combined 43.3 points per game among three returning starters (two juniors and a senior) on the perimeter.
The leader of that core is 6’5” Jamaal Franklin, who paced the Aztecs with 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season.
Xavier Thames takes care of the ball-handling chores (4.1 assists a night), while 6’3” Chase Tapley is the three-point specialist (43.3 percent from deep) and also uses his impressive wingspan to spark the defense (a team-high 1.8 steals per contest).
Will Barton is gone for the NBA, but that just means that the terrific ensemble cast he had around him will get to shine in its own right.
Memphis doesn’t have a ton of height, but there are plenty of power-conference programs who would love to have the Tigers’ depth and athleticism.
Even with Barton gone, this is a team built from the outside in, with quick, aggressive wings such as Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson (a combined 20.1 points and 3.0 steals per game).
Down low, powerful but foul-prone Tarik Black will be joined by the jewel of Josh Pastner’s recruiting class: 6’8”, 245-pound William “Shaq” Goodwin.
Mid-major programs and legitimate Wooden Award candidates don’t usually go together, but Creighton has the real deal in Doug McDermott.
The nation’s only returning first-team All-American, McDermott finished third in the country with 22.9 points per game as a sophomore.
The 6’8” McDermott had plenty of help in putting the Blue Jays' high-octane offense in the national top 10 in scoring, assists and field-goal percentage a season ago.
With PG Grant Gibbs (team highs of 5.0 assists and 1.1 steals a night) back to run the show and 6’9”, 270-pound Gregory Echenique patrolling the middle, Creighton has the experience and talent to challenge any team in college basketball.