10 Mid-Majors That Would Consistently Hold Their Own in Power Conferences
The line between college basketball’s power conferences and the best of its mid-major programs has never been thinner than it is right now. With one-and-done freshman departures thinning the rosters of the SEC and Big East Goliaths, the talented, veteran teams of the West Coast Conference or the Missouri Valley are serious threats in any game against their higher-profile cousins.
The distinction is blurred so far that many of the elite mid-major squads could handle themselves perfectly well in more daunting leagues. The New Mexico Lobos, champions of the Mountain West for the fourth time in five years, would have no trouble contending on a regular basis in the Pac-12 or Big 12.
Read on for more on New Mexico and nine more outstanding mid-majors who would turn in strong finishes regardless of what conference they found themselves in.
Note: For purposes of this discussion, the power conferences are the same as football’s BCS automatic qualifiers. The mid-major teams are drawn from any of the other conferences. The lone exception is the Atlantic 10, which was excluded because its latest expansion gave it so many top teams that it would have crowded out many other worthy candidates.
10. Northern Iowa
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Although conference rival Wichita State is in ascendance at the moment, Northern Iowa has an even stronger track record than the Shockers over the past decade.
That span has seen the Panthers earn five NCAA tournament bids (to WSU’s two) and win 20 games in seven different seasons.
A strong showing in this year’s Missouri Valley tournament could raise that latter figure to eight, even in what’s been a relative down year for the Panthers.
When a program that isn’t playing at its best can come within five points of both Louisville and Memphis on a neutral court (at the Battle 4 Atlantis), it should be more than capable of making some noise in a bigger league when things are going well.
9. Murray State
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Murray State is one of the few programs in the country that’s turned out more recognizable coaches than it has players.
Current head man Steve Prohm’s two most recent predecessors—Mick Cronin and Billy Kennedy—parlayed their performance at the Racers’ helm into power-conference jobs at Cincinnati and Texas A&M, a good indication that Murray State has been winning a lot of games for quite a few seasons.
This year’s squad, which went 2-1 against power-conference opposition on a neutral court at the Charleston Classic, certainly hasn’t backed down from tough competition.
However, it’s last year’s team—with its 23-game winning streak and its rise to the national top 10—that will provide the biggest boost to recruiting, an edge that would help the Racers survive in a bigger league where nearby rivals such as Belmont might not.
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They’re not getting as much press in their second season post-Jimmer, but the Cougars are still entirely capable of competing with any team in the country.
This year’s Tyler Haws-led squad didn’t fare as well in nonconference action as many recent Brigham Young teams, but it still took down longtime rival Utah as well as Virginia Tech.
BYU already has its eighth 20-win season in as many tries under coach Dave Rose, who has also guided the team to six consecutive NCAA tournament bids.
Add in the school’s national name recognition, and even power-conference opposition wouldn’t prevent the Cougars from recruiting big-time talent and winning plenty of games.
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Although Davidson didn’t show up on the national radar until a few seasons ago, veteran coach Bob McKillop has guided the Wildcats to a dozen Southern Conference championships.
That ability not just to win games but to win titles in a weaker league is a terrific indicator that Davidson would be able to adapt to stronger competition.
Its chances are even better thanks to the free recruiting help provided by the program’s most famous alum, Golden State star Steph Curry.
Having a Davidson product excel at the NBA level is the best publicity McKillop could hope for, and Curry’s continued success will help keep his alma mater at the top of the mid-major ranks for years to come.
6. San Diego State
There are plenty of outstanding coaches on this list, but none has the kind of experience Steve Fisher accrued in guiding Michigan to two national title games.
Fisher’s familiarity with the rigors of a power conference would be one of the Aztecs’ biggest assets if they moved up in competition.
Of course, Fisher has also built a team at his current program that’s handling power-conference squads in its own right, toppling UCLA and USC this year and losing by a single point to then-unbeaten Arizona.
The former basketball backwater is headed for its fourth straight NCAA tournament and, quite possibly, its fifth straight 25-win season.
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The Missouri Valley Conference has rotated many teams through the national spotlight, but none have managed to reach the Big Dance as regularly as Creighton.
The Bluejays have eight NCAA tournament appearances since 1998-99, and they’ve been ranked in the preseason AP poll—a rare feat for their league—twice in that span.
Although the Bluejays don’t have an NBA star to hang their recruiting pitches on, they’ve managed to bring in devastating college players (from Kyle Korver to Doug McDermott) often enough to keep reminding people that this is a serious hoops program.
If in-state rival Nebraska belongs in a major conference, who’s going to tell Creighton that it’s out of its league?
4. New Mexico
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After a long dry spell dating to the creation of the Mountain West in 1999, New Mexico is finally back in national contention thanks to Steve Alford. The rising coach with the high-profile name has the Lobos winning MWC titles as a matter of course.
In Alford’s five full seasons at the helm, New Mexico has won at least 22 games every year, and they’ve already clinched a fourth league title this season.
Another bonus for the Lobos if they joined a bigger league would be their home-court advantage at The Pit, which is already the envy of many power-conference arenas.
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For the first time since the glory days of Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV appears to be bound for a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Even if they don’t look likely to win another national title anytime soon, the Rebels are decidedly equipped to handle an even stronger conference than the already-tough Mountain West.
Five times in the past six seasons, UNLV has won 25 games, and this year will almost certainly make it six of seven.
Perhaps the best indication of how strong the program is right now comes from one of its opponents: UNLV is the best team that North Carolina has beaten all season.
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Of all the teams on this list, only the Tigers will have an opportunity to prove what they can actually do against a new level of competition.
Memphis joins the Big East (or whatever it’s ultimately going to be called) next year after running roughshod over Conference USA for the last decade.
The Tigers are on the very short list of teams from outside the power conferences to play for the national title in the 64-team era (in 2008 with Derrick Rose), and for all practical purposes they’ve been a major team in a mid-major league since John Calipari arrived in 2000-01.
Memphis’ ability to recruit top-notch athletes on an annual basis has brought it current stars such as Adonis Thomas and Joe Jackson, and will continue bringing it 20-win seasons in abundance, whatever league it may be playing in.
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The amazing thing about Gonzaga’s program, in retrospect, is how quickly it’s become a household name. The Zags’ first NCAA tournament win didn’t come until 1998-99, and 14 years later they’re a fixture in the national rankings.
This year alone, the top-ranked Bulldogs have won five games against Big 12 teams, including a road victory at Oklahoma State.
The program has gotten so strong that the Zags would be in position not just to compete in a power conference, but to win titles there on a regular basis.