College Basketball Preview: 7 Under-the-Radar Mid-Majors to Watch for in 2012-13

Jesse Kramer@Jesse_KramerCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2012

College Basketball Preview: 7 Under-the-Radar Mid-Majors to Watch for in 2012-13

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    This college basketball season, there are a number of mid-major teams that have received plenty of national attention. As expected, West Coast schools like Gonzaga, St. Mary's and BYU have caught people's eyes, and then there are other schools expected to make noise in March like Creighton, Ohio, Drexel and Lehigh.

    However, there are also a few very good mid-majors that are not getting all of the attention that they deserve. Every season, there are schools that do not get a lot of attention during the regular season and then make noise in the postseason; look at Ohio and Lehigh in the 2011-12 season.

    Here is a list of seven of mid-major programs that are flying under the radar heading into the 2012-13 season.

Delaware Blue Hens

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    When we think of the CAA, we think of George Mason, Drexel, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth (although the Rams are now in the Atlantic 10). But this year, the Delaware Blue Hens will be in the mix, and they are probably the second-best team in the conference.

    For starters, they have one of the best mid-major big men in Jamelle Hagins. Hagins averaged a double-double last year with 12.4 points and 11.1 rebounds in addition to three blocks and 54.8 percent shooting from the field. He had 15 or more rebounds in seven games and four or more blocks in 13 games.

    The Blue Hens also have Devon Saddler, a junior who was No. 2 in the CAA in scoring last year with 19.1 points per game. However, he was not the most efficient player, shooting 39.1 percent from the field with 3.2 turnovers per game.

    Sophomore Jarvis Threatt returns to complement Saddler in the backcourt. He averaged 10.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals as a freshman, and those numbers should improve as he makes the jump to his second season.

    Head coach Monte Ross returns another pair of key players in guard Kyle Anderson and forward Josh Brinkley. Anderson posted 8.9 points per game last season, and Brinkley grabbed 4.7 boards per game and shot 52.8 percent from the field.

    Assuming there are no injuries or suspensions this year, Delaware will have the best starting five in the CAA.

Robert Morris Colonials

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    Robert Morris sat behind LIU-Brooklyn and Wagner in the NEC last year, so what most people do not know is that the Colonials have now gone to four consecutive NEC championship games, although they have lost the last two. This year, they should find themselves back in the championship, and this time, they should win it.

    Robert Morris returns almost everyone from last year's team, including all five starters. The only exception is Lawrence Bridges, who averaged only 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds.

    The Colonials return Velton Jones, who led the team with 16 points and 4.5 assists per game. He is possibly the best player in the NEC this year.

    Also back are Coron Williams (10.8 points per game), Russell Johnson (8.5 points, 5.7 rebounds), Lucky Jones (8.5 points, 6.1 rebounds), Mike McFadden (8.4 points, 4.3 rebounds), Lijah Thompson (7.3 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Anthony Myers (6.2 points, three assists).

    This team has extreme depth, and that is vital for a mid-major program.

    However, the Colonials do not have a lot of size. McFadden is their only consistent contributor who stands at 6'8" or taller, but there are a bunch of players standing at 6'6" and 6'7". With players of these heights, they may struggle to control the inside, but they will be able to create some mismatches on the wings.

    Robert Morris might have some trouble getting to the NCAA tournament with other solid teams such as Wagner and Quinnipiac also competing for the conference title. However, if the Colonials do get to March as a No. 15 or No. 14 seed, they have the talent to pull off an upset or two.

Illinois State Redbirds

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    Creighton has gotten the most attention of any Missouri Valley team this preseason, and Northern Iowa has gotten its share, too. But almost nobody is talking about Illinois State, although the Redbirds are easily a top-three team and a conference title competitor in the nation's best mid-major conference.

    The Redbirds, who lost to Creighton in the MVC championship game last season, lost only Nic Moore from the rotation. Jackie Carmichael, Jon Ekey and John Wilkins all return in the frontcourt. Carmichael averaged 13.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, and he is the second-best player in the conference behind Creighton's Doug McDermott.

    Ekey averaged nine points and 4.9 rebounds last year while Wilkins posted 7.3 points and 4.3 boards.

    In the backcourt, they return Tyler Brown, Bryant Allen and Anthony Cousin. Brown and Cousin will share time at the point guard spot as both averaged more than two assists per game.

    Allen will stick to off-ball guard. He proved himself as a shooter last year, making more than 40 percent of his three-pointers.

    Even though Creighton and Northern Iowa are getting all the hype as the top two teams in the Valley, make sure to keep an eye on Illinois State as well.

Manhattan Jaspers

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    Manhattan had the biggest turnaround in Division I basketball with an increase of 15 wins in 2011-12. The Jaspers finished 21-13—third in the MAAC—and advanced to the CIT for their first postseason appearance since 2005-06.

    Manhattan returns four starters, returns four of its main reserves and adds a potential MAAC Freshman of the Year in point guard C.J. Jones. Yet the popular pick for the conference title is defending champion Loyola (MD), which also returns four starters.

    Even if Manhattan is the second-best team in the MAAC, it is still a dangerous one.

    George Beamon, Manhattan's starting shooting guard, led the conference in scoring last year with 19 points per game. He also worked on rounding out his game, averaging 5.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 steals. Beamon was also the No. 4 three-point shooter in the MAAC at 42.8 percent.

    Also returning in the backcourt are point guard Mike Alvarado and point-forward Emmy Andujar. Alvarado and Andujar each averaged 3.2 assists per game last season. Andujar made the conference's All-Freshman team, and Alvarado made the All-MAAC third team.

    In the frontcourt, the Jaspers return Roberto Colonette, Rhamel Brown and Ryan McCoy.

    Colonette was a defensive force in the post but often struggled with foul trouble. His experience as a fifth-year senior will add a lot to a Jasper team that will rely on a number of underclassmen.

    Brown was the best shot-blocker in the conference with 2.5 per game and won MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He is in even better shape this year and has worked more on his offensive game.

    A potential addition for this year is Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey, who applied for a hardship waiver from the NCAA so that he can play immediately. Pankey averaged 4.7 points and 4.9 rebounds as a redshirt freshman for the Terps last season. His addition would give Manhattan the deepest frontcourt in the MAAC.

Denver Pioneers

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    Denver flew under the radar last year in the Sun Belt with Middle Tennessee winning the regular season title and Western Kentucky winning the postseason tournament. The Pioneers wound up winning 22 games and then bolted for the WAC.

    This year, the WAC is up for grabs. Nevada, which won the regular season with only one loss, departed for the Mountain West, and New Mexico State, which went to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, lost a few starters, making Denver one of the top teams in the league.

    Denver returns four starters, losing only Brian Stafford and role players Rob Lewis, Justin Coughlin and Travis Hallam. 

    The Pioneers thrived with a balanced lineup last season. Five guys averaged two or more assists per game, and two others fell just shy of that mark.

    Chris Udofia, a junior who led the team in assists, is the top returning player. He tied Stafford as the Pioneers' leading scorer with 14.5 points per game and was second on the team with 5.2 rebounds. At 6'6", he also led the team in blocks with 2.3 per game.

USC Upstate Spartans

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    Mercer is the favorite in the Atlantic Sun this year, but USC Upstate is not that far behind. The Spartans, who won 21 games and had the second-largest turnaround in Division I, finished tied for second place in the conference and now return their top seven scorers, including all five starters.

    The Spartans have an all-conference player in Torrey Craig. Craig posted 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore. He scored 20 or more points in a game 12 times, and over the course of the season, he recorded eight double-doubles.

    Craig has a strong supporting cast, including four returning starters and three reserves.

    The Spartans have a pair of sophomores who will start in the backcourt. Ty Greene and Mario Blessing, who started last year, make up the best tandem in the Atlantic Sun. Greene averaged 11.4 points and a team-best 2.4 assists while Blessing posted 4.7 points in 22.9 minutes per game. These two team up with sophomore Adrian Rodgers, who contributed 8.2 points in 20 minutes per game.

    In the frontcourt, the Spartans will have Ricardo Glenn, Jodd Maxey and Babatunde Olumuyiwa alongside Craig. Glenn had six games with 10 or more rebounds last season.

Long Beach State 49ers

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    Long Beach State had a great season last year despite falling in its first NCAA tournament game to New Mexico. The 49ers lost four of their top five scorers, but they return James Ennis and Mike Caffey while adding a number of transfers who will make an immediate impact.

    Ennis and Caffey make up the best backcourt in the Big West. Ennis, while playing behind Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson last year, averaged 10 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Caffey, who contributed 5.9 points and 2.2 assists per game as a freshman, is poised for a breakout season as he replaces Ware.

    Among the 49ers' newcomers are three BCS transfers: Tony Freeland, Keala King and Dan Jennings.

    Freeland, who transferred from DePaul, averaged 9.6 points and five rebounds as a sophomore. He struggled during the second half of the season, but in November and December, he averaged 11.7 points. 

    King, before leaving Arizona State mid-year, led the Sun Devils in scoring with 13.7 points per game. And although Jennings averaged only 2.1 points per game at West Virginia, he is expected to make an impact now that he is at a mid-major school.

    On their non-conference schedule, the 49ers have five games against Top 15 teams, and four are on the road. They might not have the talent to pull off any of these major upsets, but this experience will prove to be valuable if they win their conference once again and go to the NCAA Tournament.