The term mid-major has almost become taboo in college basketball, especially with all the conference realignment we have recently seen.
After all, is it really fair to call Gonzaga, who was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, or even the Mountain West, who challenged the big boys in the RPI rankings all year in 2012-13, mid-major?
The answer is probably no, but we are going to do it anyway here because some type of parameters must be set. This article will define mid-major as anything outside the traditional power conferences (or BCS leagues if you are a football fan) and the American Athletic Conference.
With that in mind, read on to see 20 mid-major stars to keep an eye on in 2013-14.
The University of South Alabama may be best known on the basketball court as the team for which a USA chant can have two meanings, but if the Jaguars land a couple more players like Augustine Rubit, they will have a legitimate shot at making some noise.
Rubit won the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year award last season on the back of 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds a night. He was completely dominant at times and, given his talent level and the competition he plays against, is one of the safest double-double bets on any given night.
Rubit also swatted better than a shot per game and shot nearly 80 percent from the free-throw stripe. He should be even more dominant in his senior season.
You probably haven’t heard much of Travis Bader because he plays for Oakland, but there are few players who score at a higher rate in the entire country.
Bader dropped 22.1 points a night in 2012-13 and was a lethal 87 percent from the free-throw line. The only issue with Bader’s game at this point is his efficiency level, as he shot less than 40 percent from the field and only averaged one assist a night from a guard position.
If he shares the ball a bit more this year and continues to hit three-pointers (no player in the country had more made three-point field goals than Bader), Oakland could contend in the Summit League.
It’s always entertaining to keep an eye on premier scorers, and that is exactly what Bader is on the floor.
Corey Hawkins is on the short list of candidates to lead the nation in scoring in the 2013-14 season after a year in which he averaged better than 20 points a night at California-Davis.
The former Arizona State Sun Devil made mincemeat of the easier competition in 2012-13 and, unlike Travis Bader at Oakland, was able to involve his teammates and shoot at a high percentage. Hawkins shot nearly 50 percent from the field and dished out better than three assists a game.
He also grabbed 5.6 rebounds a night and was a terrific defender (1.5 steals a contest).
Hawkins will be playing his third season of college basketball when he laces it up this winter, which is typically a time when players hit their stride. If he does, 25 points a night isn’t that unrealistic of a goal.
In just his first season of college basketball, Northwestern State’s DeQuan Hicks showed off his versatility and overall game.
Hicks may be a bit shorter than many of his opponents when he goes down low, but his strength and ability to use his body in effective ways allowed him to score 14 points a night and grab six rebounds a game. He is also a solid free-throw shooter and even facilitated some offense when extra defensive attention was directed his way.
Hicks shot 58 percent from the field as well. The Demons would probably be well-served to find more shots for Hicks this season with efficiency numbers like that.
The primary reason BYU has a chance to compete with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in 2013-14 is the excellent play of Tyler Haws.
Haws returned from his church mission that BYU players often go on to dominate the college basketball scene last year. He scored 21.7 points a night, shot 48 percent from the field and 88 percent from the free-throw line, was a solid defender and could hit from behind the three-point line.
His scoring proficiency was evident last year when he put up impressive showings against the likes of Virginia Tech, Florida State and Notre Dame. He also led the Cougars to the semifinals of the NIT by scoring nearly 30 points a game in the tournament.
BYU has a chance to return to the NCAA tournament this year, especially if Haws continues to develop into one of the best players in the nation.
Wichita State, which is replacing three of its top five scorers, probably won’t be returning to the Final Four this year (saving the nation from thousands of “the Shockers shock the nation” puns), but Cleanthony Early is still one of the better mid-major players in the nation.
Now that Doug McDermott is gone to the Big East, Early has a chance at Missouri Valley Player of the Year. This will be his second full season of college basketball, which means more consistency should follow. If the NCAA tournament was any indication, Early has turned a corner and is ready to take off.
Whether Early is ready to be the man for the Shockers over the course of the season is the key to Wichita State’s year. Expect him to thrive.
With no more Kelly Olynyk in place, Gonzaga may have missed a golden opportunity to finally reach the first Final Four in program history, but Kevin Pangos should have the Bulldogs playing at a high level once again in 2013-14.
Pangos has gradually improved the longer he has been in Mark Few’s program, and now that he is a junior and the primary option in Spokane, he should explode onto the national scene. He is a solid three-point shooter, effective free-throw shooter, talented distributor and a better defender than he gets credit for.
The WCC is Gonzaga’s kingdom at this point, and any challenges from BYU or Saint Mary’s will have to go through the talented Pangos and the rest of the Bulldogs’ formidable backcourt.
There wasn’t a more disappointing performance in the NCAA tournament than New Mexico’s. The Lobos were dark-horse Final Four contenders, especially in a wide-open region, but No. 14 seed Harvard stunned the Mountain West’s best team.
That loss was not Alex Kirk’s fault, though. He dropped 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, foreshadowing what should be a special season in 2013-14.
The big man scored 12 points and totaled eight rebounds per game over the course of the regular season and should see those numbers improve in his third full season of college basketball. He is also an impressive free-throw shooter and can even occasionally hit the three.
If the Lobos want another high seed in the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Kirk to dominate the paint. He will do just that.
Jerrelle Benimon is one of those players who would absolutely be a household name among college basketball fans if he played in the Big Ten, ACC or Big East.
However, he is dominating at Towson instead, which doesn’t grant him a lot of national recognition but still doesn’t take away from his overall game. He was third in the nation in rebounding in 2012-13 (11.2 a game) and could end up leading the nation this year (not bad for an undersized big man).
Benimon started his career at Georgetown but transferred to Towson after two years. He took advantage of the weaker competition and scored better than 17 points a night last year. Those scoring and rebounding totals could improve this year with more experience under his belt.
If a young and unpolished Larry Sanders comes to mind when watching Juvonte Reddic dominate play inside for VCU, you wouldn’t be the only one seeing the parallels.
Reddic was a double-double machine for the Rams in the Atlantic-10 last year and will probably post even more in his senior season. He posted nearly 15 points a night in 2012-13 and grabbed better than eight rebounds a game.
He isn’t a liability at the free-throw line (which we can’t always say about big guys), and he hit nearly 60 percent of his field goals. VCU hopes to bounce back from a disappointing early exit in the NCAA tournament, and if Reddic’s interior defense begins to catch up to his offense, it will do just that.
The MAC is better known for making noise on the football field than the basketball court, but Shayne Whittington hopes to help Western Michigan register on a few radars this March.
The Broncos’ big man scored 13.2 points and grabbed nearly nine rebounds a night in 2012-13, which were both significant jumps from the two seasons before. If he continues that trajectory into his senior season, the MAC Player of the Year is certainly within reach.
Whittington is a threat to post a double-double every time he takes the floor, and he is also an excellent free-throw shooter (80 percent last year) and defender (nearly two blocks a night). Western Michigan will likely run its offense through Whittington this season as it replaces three of its top five scorers, so look for an impressive senior campaign.
Chase Fieler caught the nation’s attention along with the rest of his teammates at “Dunk City” with incredible dunks, flashy alley-oops and shocking upsets as Florida Gulf Coast played its way into the Sweet 16, but he was a legitimately great player all year.
He scored better than 12 points a night, grabbed better than five rebounds a game and posted solid block and steal totals on defense. Just for good measure, he was the one who flushed home the backbreaking alley-oop in the final minutes against Georgetown in the tournament win as well.
Fieler is the only senior this year, and on a team with a new coach, his leadership role will be important. Remember, this is a team that didn’t win its regular season conference crown, so there is still room for improvement despite the incredible March.
Fieler will look to spearhead those efforts.
Boise State made the NCAA tournament last year, but it hopes to stick around a bit longer this time. And who knows—with a couple more postseason berths and performances from the football team, like the one we saw against Washington, the basketball team will start to get more recognition on campus.
Anthony Drmic was second in the Mountain West in scoring last year at 17.7 points a night and flashed his offensive brilliance in the disappointing tournament loss to La Salle with 28 points. Drmic could contend for Mountain West Player of the Year (although he will have a challenger as a teammate in Derrick Marks) and could lead the league in scoring.
With the majority of the primary contributors back, it should be a special year for Boise State.
If we are keeping an eye on Anthony Drmic at Boise State this year, then we also need to watch his running mate Derrick Marks as well.
Marks scored better than 16 points a game in 2012-13 and formulated one of the best one-two scoring punches in the nation alongside Drmic. Marks was also a primary distributor from the backcourt and even mixed up down low to grab nearly four rebounds a night.
Marks is an impressive defender who tallied nearly two steals a game last year. Whether he or Drmic contends for the Mountain West Player of the Year Award isn’t as important for the Broncos as winning a conference crown is, but both will likely challenge for the award.
Their team will also be challenging some power-conference schools in March.
Now that Butler and Xavier are in the Big East, the Atlantic 10 could very well turn into VCU’s playground before the NCAA tournament begins.
Treveon Graham, along with the aforementioned Juvonte Reddic, is a primary reason why the Rams should return to the postseason and ideally last a bit longer than they did last year. Graham scored better than 15 points a night, grabbed about six rebounds a game and was a solid defender and three-point shooter on the perimeter.
Graham put up some of his best performances of the year in 2012-13 against elite competition, including impressive showings against Memphis, Duke and Belmont. That is a positive sign going forward for a team that hopes to recapture some of the March magic we have seen in the past.
The first thing that stands out about Chaz Williams is his height (or lack thereof), but he is much more than just the smallest player on the basketball floor.
The Massachusetts guard started his career at Hofstra but transferred after a fairly successful first season. He posted better than 15 points a night and better than seven assists a game last year and looks poised to improve on that as a senior.
Williams’ athleticism and overall quickness immediately jump out when watching the Minutemen. With the departures from the Atlantic 10, Massachusetts has a chance to make some noise this year.
The only way that happens is if Williams continues to score and dish out dimes at a formidable rate.
Jake Odum may not be Larry Bird, but Indiana State hopes to return to the NCAA tournament this year behind Odum’s excellent play and leadership.
The All-Missouri Valley selection did a little bit of everything last year for the Sycamores. He scored nearly 14 points a night, dished out 4.6 assists, grabbed 4.5 rebounds and tallied 1.5 steals a game. He also shot an impressive 48 percent from the field and was a solid free-throw shooter.
Look for Indiana State to make a charge at the postseason behind the return of seven of its top eight scorers. Odum and Co. could challenge Wichita State for the conference crown now that Creighton is no longer part of the equation.
The first thing that jumps out about Dwayne Evans is the fact that he spells his first name correctly, unlike Dwyane Wade.
Evans led Saint Louis to one of its most impressive regular seasons ever and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. He scored 14 points a night, grabbed nearly eight rebounds a game and was an impressive defender. He wasn’t much of a three-point shooter, but he shot 55 percent from the field and better than 75 percent from the charity stripe.
Evans’ play continued to improve over the stretch run of the season. He is certainly undersized for such an impressive rebounder, but he had no issues putting up impressive numbers against some of Saint Louis’ best opponents.
Look for that to continue in 2013-14.
Tony Snell or no Tony Snell, New Mexico should be plenty good this year and compete for a Mountain West title.
Kendall Williams is a primary reason why, as the senior returns after a year which saw him score 13.3 points, dish out 4.9 assists, grab 3.5 rebounds and tally 1.1 steals a night. He was also a solid free-throw and three-point shooter.
Williams flashed his superstar potential in a game at Colorado State last season when he scored an astounding 46 points behind a Mountain West record 10 made three-pointers. Look for Williams to be the primary scorer this year without Snell in place.
New Mexico and Boise State is one of the more underrated conference battles heading into the 2013-14 season. Williams and Alex Kirk versus Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks will be fun.
While America was busy falling in love with Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA tournament, La Salle sneaked into the Sweet 16 as an impressive Cinderella story as well, especially considering the fact that it started in the “First Four.”
With no more Ramon Galloway in place, Tyreek Duren figures to be the go-to guy for the Explorers in their follow-up effort in 2013-14.
Duren scored better than 14 points, dished out more than three assists, helped out in the rebounding department and was a formidable defender last year. He was also a passable three-point shooter and was solid from the free-throw stripe.
Look for La Salle to reach the NCAA tournament again, largely because of Duren’s impressive play.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.