Offseason buzz in college basketball naturally focuses on the highest-profile programs, but sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and looking at just how many great teams are lurking outside the power conferences. As Wichita State proved in last year’s NCAA tournament, a strong mid-major team can be a dangerous matchup for any opponent.
One such squad that’s looking to redeem a disappointing finish from last season is the New Mexico Lobos. Rising senior Kendall Williams leads an experienced and talent-rich team that’s out for blood after an embarrassing loss to Harvard in March.
Read on for more on the Lobos and the rest of the 20 most intriguing teams from the mid-major ranks. For purposes of this list, the six BCS football conferences and the new AAC were treated as major conferences and excluded, but everything else was fair game.
South Alabama’s Augustine Rubit stands a good chance of becoming this season’s answer to Kenneth Faried. Like the young Nuggets standout, Rubit is a double-double machine despite his modest size (6’7”, 230 lbs).
He might also have enough help around him to make some NCAA tournament noise, as Faried did in his senior campaign at Morehead State.
The Jaguars return top three-point threat Antoine Allen (formerly of Miami) as well as swingman Mychal Ammons, their next-best scoring option after Rubit's 19.4 points per game.
If you’re looking for a big man primed for a breakout year, Western Michigan’s Shayne Whittington is an excellent choice.
The 6’10” rising senior looked solid in his first season as a starter, but was overshadowed on the mid-major scene by conference rival Zeke Marshall of Akron.
While Whittington led the Broncos in scoring, rebounding and blocks, his supporting cast does have some solid contributors.
SG David Brown averaged 1.5 steals per game, while point guard Austin Richie knocked down 38.7 percent of his three-point tries.
2013 saw some unusually competitive performances from No. 16 seeds in March, notably including the Southern Jaguars.
The nation’s No. 12 scoring defense put a scare into Gonzaga, and plenty of the same weapons return for another shot at Big Dance success.
Javan Mitchell is a mobile, aggressive low-post defender at 6’9”, 250 lbs. For offense, Southern turns to rising senior Malcolm Miller, who shot .452 from beyond the arc and averaged 15.5 point a night as a star sixth man last season.
The college game tends to be a haven for undersized point guards, and the nation’s best in that category for 2013-14 will be Chaz Williams of UMass.
The 5’9” rising senior ranked fifth in the country with 7.3 assists per game while also racking up 15.5 points and 2.0 steals a night.
Williams is far from the only returning weapon for the Minutemen, who also bring back 6’10”, 250-pound Cady Lalanne (7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest) up front.
Meanwhile, Williams’ backcourt mate, Jesse Morgan, ranks second on the roster in scoring, assists and steals.
Fans of basketball, hockey and track will all find something to like with Northwestern State. Coach Mike McConathy’s blistering up-and-down offensive pace necessitates five-man line changes rather than typical piecemeal substitutions.
The Demons led the nation last season by scoring 81 points a game, and six members of that 10-man rotation return.
The 6’7” scoring leader DeQuan Hicks provides some interior toughness, while PG Jalan West (5.2 assists and 2.3 steals a night) keys a fleet-footed backcourt.
Rhode Island is going to have something of an Iowa State East vibe next season, as the Rams rebuild around a host of key transfers.
Dan Hurley, one of the most celebrated young coaches in the game, could have the nation’s most improved team behind such newcomers as ex-Rutgers forward Gilvydas Biruta.
The big name among Hurley’s returnees is Xavier Munford, whose 17.4 points a game are the top mark for any returning Atlantic 10 player.
The 6’2” Munford will also get some help up front from redshirt freshman Ifeanyi Onyekaba, whose 6’8”, 240-pound bulk will help Biruta shore up what had been an underpowered frontcourt.
The bad news for Harvard is that the country’s 14th-worst rebounding team probably won’t get much better next season. The good news is that the backcourt has so much firepower that it may not matter.
The Crimson return four starters from the team that knocked off New Mexico in March, a group led by swingman Wesley Saunders (16.2 points and 1.8 steals per game).
As with so many height-challenged teams, Harvard makes up for a lack of frontcourt bulk by raining three-pointers, especially from Laurent Rivard (.402 accuracy from deep) and standout PG Siyani Chambers (.424).
The explosive arrival of sophomore Tyler Haws kept BYU among the nation’s most productive offenses last season. The 6’5” SG is no Jimmer Fredette—he shoots “only” .381 from long range—but he did ring up 21.7 points and 4.6 boards a night.
Steady point guard Matt Carlino, heading into his third year as the starter, returns to set up Haws.
Carlino also anchors the defense with 1.8 steals per game. He could get some help on that end, though, if 6’10” Nate Austin blossoms as a shot-blocker with some of the extra minutes vacated by star PF Brandon Davies.
If there was any question about Conference USA having slipped down into mid-major territory before, the departure of perennial champion Memphis leaves the league firmly in that category.
The first winner of the revamped C-USA could well be a UTEP squad that won the conference's recruiting battle with one high-profile shot.
McDonald’s All-American Isaac Hamilton immediately becomes the favorite to lead the Miners (and quite possibly the league) in scoring with a jump shot that has devastating range when he gets on a roll.
The freshman will be complemented inside by 6’10” rising senior John Bohannon (the team’s toughest defender) and gritty PF Julian Washburn.
Much of the Mountain West is in for a down year, with UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State all losing most of their key personnel.
The Boise State Broncos are poised to capitalize on the turmoil at the top of the standings with five starters returning from a 21-win team.
Although the Broncos fell to La Salle in the First Four, they did earn the first at-large bid in program history behind coach Leon Rice’s four-guard lineup.
Point guard Derrick Marks (16.3 points and 1.8 steals per game) would be scary enough by himself.
When he sets up three-point gunners Anthony Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga (a combined 27.9 points per game and 164 treys), Boise State becomes a truly frightening offense.
They may be coming off a dismal 16-17 season, but the Golden Grizzlies of Oakland feature one of the most impressive backcourts of any team in the country.
Rising seniors Travis Bader and Duke Mondy both battled their way up the statistical leaderboards, with Bader finishing fifth nationally in scoring (22.1 points per game) and Mondy leading the country at 3.0 steals a night.
In all, Oakland returns four starters, a group that also includes 6’10”, 245-pound rebounding leader Corey Petros.
If its vaunted three-point shooting gets a little sharper this year—Mondy hit just .315 from deep, Ryan Bass .349—Oakland could be a giant-killer in March.
Towson PF Jerrelle Benimon is set to be one of the biggest bracket-buster stars of next year’s NCAA tournament. The 6’8” rising senior—a transfer from Georgetown—averaged 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in his Tiger debut.
In addition to Benimon, Towson returns three other starters from an intimidating defense. The Tigers led the CAA in field-goal percentage allowed (39.7) and nearly upset Benimon’s former Hoya teammates on the road in a 46-40 slugfest.
It would be easy to assume that the departure of Lamont “Momo” Jones will sink Iona back into also-ran status in the MAAC, but the Gaels had far more going for them than one lethal scorer.
Sean Armand returns to lead next season’s charge after averaging 16.6 points a game and nailing 40.9 percent of his three-pointers as Jones’ sidekick.
Armand is just one of three returning Gaels who hit better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Iona will also have a legitimate inside game thanks to 6’8”, 240-pound David Laury, who made his Gaels debut last year by averaging a double-double.
Largely overlooked in last year’s loaded Atlantic 10, La Salle still managed NCAA tournament wins over Boise State and Kansas State.
Although scoring star Ramon Galloway is gone, every other starter returns as the Explorers look to challenge conference champ Saint Louis.
The team's core still includes a couple of guards who can put points on the board in a hurry, Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland.
Not only did La Salle’s “other” backcourt stars combine for 27.3 points per game, they also added 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals a night. Those totals are sure to rise as Garland (presumably) takes over Galloway’s starting job.
It’s hard to think of powerhouse Gonzaga as a mid-major, but the West Coast Conference hasn’t risen above that level even with the Zags’ dominance.
Despite serious graduation losses, Mark Few’s team will be a Top 25 fixture again behind its versatile backcourt.
PG Kevin Pangos will be the star this time around, and the speedy rising junior should roar past the 11.9 points per game he averaged while feeding Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris (both off to the NBA).
Among the Zags’ other perimeter weapons are defensive ace David Stockton, three-point shooter Gary Bell Jr. and ex-Providence slasher Gerard Coleman.
In just its third season as a Division I program, Florida Gulf Coast became a national sensation with last year’s Sweet 16 run as a 15th seed.
Even more exciting for college hoops fans, Dunk City returns most of its top players for a shot at even bigger things in 2013-14.
PG Brett Comer (6.3 assists per game) sets up all the high-flying scorers, while forwards Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight do much of the finishing.
The Eagles also have some serious talent on defense, where Comer and rising junior Bernard Thompson combined for 4.4 steals per game last season.
Saint Louis ground out an Atlantic 10 championship on the strength of the nation’s No. 16 scoring defense, and next year’s edition promises more of the same.
Mike McCall Jr. anchors a harassing backcourt, but the headliner will continue to be power forward Dwayne Evans.
At just 6’5”, the rising senior is a 230-pound wrecking ball who averaged 7.7 rebounds and 14 points per game (leading the team in both categories).
He’ll get even more scoring chances next year with Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell gone, and having shot .547 from the field as a junior, he's a good bet to make them count.
The excitement of Wichita State’s Final Four trip didn’t just come from the Shockers’ underdog status, but from the hard-fought games they won along the way.
Gregg Marshall’s squad shouldn’t suffer any dropoff in clutch situations next year, because most of the team’s top shooters return to vie for the MVC title.
The best of that group is scoring leader Cleanthony Early, a combo forward who’s also the Shockers’ top returning rebounder.
Wichita State won’t be quite as loaded inside with Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe gone, but JUCO transfer Earl Watson will pick up some of that slack.
Any game involving Kendall Williams is worth watching for the chance that the streaky PG goes off for 40-plus points, as he did on the road against Colorado State last season.
The best news for the Lobos is that Williams may not even be the best player on New Mexico’s roster in 2013-14.
Rising junior Alex Kirk is finally starting to demonstrate productivity in line with his 7’0”, 250-pound frame. He and 6’9”, 250-pound Cameron Bairstow give New Mexico a front line that would be daunting in any conference.
There’s nothing in basketball today that’s quite like watching VCU’s Havoc press. The Rams’ scrambling, stealing antics have made them a perennial NCAA tournament threat and a leading contender for the Atlantic 10 crown.
The best of Shaka Smart’s gang of thieves in the backcourt is rising junior Briante Weber, likely to land a starting job after two seasons as a super-sub (including 2.7 steals per game last year).
On offense, Weber will get plenty of help from rising junior Treveon Graham outside and rising senior Juvonte Reddic inside (a combined 29.7 points per game).