Ranking the 10 Most Dangerous Mid-Majors in College Basketball Right Now

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Dangerous Mid-Majors in College Basketball Right Now

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    Four teams from mid-major conferences have reached the Final Four the past four years, so it is obvious those schools can be dangerous in single-elimination events like the NCAA tournament.

    Ever since George Mason got to the Final Four in 2006, it has become common for at least one mid-major team to pull off a major surprise. Last season, it was Florida Gulf Coast, which came out of the Atlantic Sun Conference and beat Georgetown and San Diego State to reach the round of 16, and Wichita State, a Missouri Valley Conference squad that got to the Final Four.

    Determining which schools should be classified as mid-majors is a problem. Wichita State and Gonzaga certainly don't seem like mid-major programs, but, by our parameters, they qualify as such.

    For our purposes, a mid-major team is any program that is not a member of one of the following nine conferences: Pacific-12, Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern, Atlantic 10, American Athletic, Atlantic Coast, Big East and Mountain West.

    There was debate about whether the Mountain West Conference should be included, but since it was No. 1 in the final RPI conference rankings last season, when it had five teams in the NCAA tournament, it seemed silly to consider it a mid-major conference.

    Toledo, Mercer, North Dakota State and Delaware received consideration for our list, but did not make the cut for the 10 most dangerous mid-major teams, some of which probably will not make the NCAA tournament field.



10. North Carolina Central

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    Teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference generally are not considered dangerous. North Carolina Central may be different.

    The Eagles are 22-5 and have won 14 games in a row, all but two by double-digit margins. Granted, the level of competition is a bit suspect, but that kind of consistency means something. More persuasive is the fact that North Carolina Central owns a road victory over North Carolina State.

    All five of the Eagles' losses came on the road, and they were competitive in road losses to Cincinnati and Wichita State. Eagles guard Jeremy Ingram scored 37 points against Wichita State and is averaging better than 20 points per game for the season.

    North Carolina Central's strength is its defense. It is yielding only 59.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the country, and is allowing opponents to shoot just 37.6 percent from the field, which ranks fourth in the country.

    One other thing: A No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2 seed seven times in the NCAA tournament. Three of those upsets were achieved by MEAC teams—Norfolk State (2012), Hampton (2001) and Coppin State (1997).


9. Stephen F. Austin

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    Stephen F. Austin is an interesting study, eliciting conflicting opinions about whether the Lumberjacks represent a legitimate threat to teams from power conferences.

    The fact that the Lumberjacks are unranked despite a 25-2 record heading into Thursday's game against New Orleans shows the lack of respect voters have for the Southland Conference.

    It's easy to see why.

    The Lumberjacks' strength of schedule ranks 320th of 351 Division I teams, according to ESPN.com, and they don't have a single victory over a team currently ranked among the top 100 teams in the RPI ratings. Nearly losing at home to Northwestern State on Saturday suggests the Lumberjacks' record is the product of a weak schedule.

    On the other hand, the Lumberjacks have won 22 games in a row, the second-longest winning streak in the country. That kind of consistency, even against Southland Conference competition, indicates Stephen F. Austin has the tools to make things difficult for any opponent.

    The most persuasive evidence that SFA could pose a problem in the postseason was its game against Texas way back in November.

    The Lumberjacks lost that game by 10 points, but they led the Longhorns by four points with eight minutes left and were tied with three minutes to go. That was on the home court of a Texas team that is now tied for second place in the Big 12.

    In all likelihood, the Lumberjacks will fall meekly in the NCAA tournament if they get there, but they have done enough to provide the appearance of being a dangerous team.


8. Middle Tennessee

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    Middle Tennessee has won nine straight games heading into Thursday's road game against Louisiana Tech. Although Conference USA has lost considerable prestige with the departure of several teams, most notably Memphis, it remains a decent league.

    The Blue Raiders caused a bit of controversy last year when they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament out of the lowly Sun Belt Conference, then lost to St. Mary's by 13 points in one of the four first-round games.

    They have not done much of note this season. However, they did beat Murray State by 18 points on the road, and their recent run suggests they are getting hot at the right time.

    Their top four scorers are seniors with plenty of experience, so they know what to do when the pressure is on. Poise counts for a lot in the postseason.

    Finally, Middle Tennessee State has a point guard named Tweety Knight. He seldom scores, but that name has to count for something.



7. Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Louisiana-Lafayette is a unique case. The Ragin' Cajuns are only in fourth place in a mediocre conference, the Sun Belt, and are five games out of first place with three games left. They need to win the conference tournament just to get into the NCAA tournament. But if they get there, they could pull an upset.

    Two things make Louisiana-Lafayette dangerous:

    1. The Ragin' Cajuns are hot.

    They had won six games in a row before Saturday's three-point road loss to first-place Georgia State, which won the game on a three-point shot with two seconds left.

    2. Louisiana-Lafayette has two potential pros.

    Shawn Long, a 6'9" forward, is averaging 19.5 points and 10.4 rebounds while hitting 44.8 percent of his three-point shots. NBA teams will take a serious look at him, although he is not the hottest pro prospect on the team.

    That distinction belongs to point guard Elfrid Payton, who is averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.4 steals. Payton is not much of an outside shooter, but he does everything else well, which is why NBADraft.net projects that he will be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

    When a team with that kind of individual talent gets on a roll, it can create havoc.



6. Belmont

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    Belmont lost four games in a row in December, but the Bruins have straightened things out since then. Heading into their final regular-season game against Jacksonville State on Saturday, Belmont has won five in a row and 10 of its last 11.

    But the game that showed Belmont's true capabilities was its 83-80 road victory over North Carolina.

    Obviously, the Tar Heels are playing better now than they were back in November when they lost to Belmont, but opposing teams don't win games in Chapel Hill unless they are pretty good.

    Belmont's 12-point road victory over Middle Tennessee in December proved a point, too.

    Coach Rick Bird's Bruins are among the highest-scoring teams in the country, averaging better than 80 points a game. They rank second in the nation in field-goal percentage at 50.2 percent and 11th in three-point shooting percentage at 39.8 percent. That kind of scoring potential makes the Bruins scary.

    Guard Ian Clark, the 2013 co-player of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference, provided Belmont with some national attention last season. With Clark now gone, swingman J.J. Mann has become the offensive star. He scored more than 20 points in each game during the Bruins' current five-game winning streak, hitting 16-of-29 three-point shots in that span.



5. Green Bay

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    One result back on Dec. 7 showed how dangerous Green Bay can be: It knocked off Virginia 75-72.  

    When a Horizon League team owns a win over a team that currently stands alone atop the Atlantic Coast Conference, it makes an impression.

    The Phoenix also gave Wisconsin a scare, losing to the Badgers by just three points back in November. Both the Virginia and Wisconsin games were played early in the season, so they carry less relevance now. But they do demonstrate Green Bay's capabilities.

    The Phoenix have two star players than make them a threat against any opponent: guard Keifer Sykes and center Alec Brown. The 5'11" Sykes is a big-time scorer, and the 7'1" Brown is likely to be taken in the NBA draft. Brown is shooting 42.7 percent on three-point shots as of Feb. 27 and averages 3.3 blocks per game.

    Green Bay's Feb. 8 home loss to Milwaukee raised some concerns, but the Phoenix squashed those doubts by beating second-place Cleveland State by 14 points in a Feb. 15 road game.




4. BYU

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    It seems odd to put BYU in the mid-major class, but as a member of the West Coast Conference, that is where the Cougars belong.

    The Cougars' ability to score points makes them dangerous. As of Feb. 27, they rank third in the nation in scoring, averaging 85.1 points a game, and they have done it against quality competition. BYU scored 112 points in a road victory over Stanford without the aid of overtime, and they scored 96 in losses to Massachusetts and Oregon.

    BYU does not play a lot of defense, but any team that can score the way the Cougars do poses a threat.

    BYU beat St. Mary's and Gonzaga in consecutive games Feb. 15 and 20 and seems to be playing its best basketball at the moment.

    Guard Tyler Haws is fifth in the country in scoring, averaging 23.3 points. However, the Cougars have prospered with him scoring less recently. During the Cougars' current three-game winning streak, Haws did not score more than 18 points in any game.

    Perhaps the scariest aspect of BYU is the unpredictability of guard Matt Carlino. He scored seven points or fewer in five of the Cougars' past nine games, but during that stretch he erupted for 28 points against Pacific and 30 against Portland. Not knowing when Carlino might go off makes the Cougars dangerous, too.





3. Harvard

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    Harvard looked a little shaky when it lost at home to Yale on Feb. 8. But the Crimson have won four straight since then, all on the road. Even in the Ivy League, that is impressive.

    Harvard returns three starters from the squad that upset New Mexico in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament. That includes Harvard's two most important players, point guard Siyani Chambers and swingman Wesley Saunders.

    Harvard has lost only four games this season, and the loss to Florida Atlantic was the only bad one. It beat Green Bay in Alaska and was competitive against Colorado and Connecticut in road losses.

    This Harvard team knows it is good and will not be intimidated by the surroundings, the moment or the opponent in the postseason. Its experience in last year's NCAA tournament as well as a pretty good nonconference schedule should serve Harvard well.

    The only problem for Harvard is that it has not yet locked up an NCAA berth. Road games against Yale and Brown on consecutive nights (March 7 and 8) will determine the Crimson's postseason fate. Anything other than an Ivy title will probably relegate the Crimson to the NIT.


2. Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga has not been particularly impressive lately, and it does not pose as great a threat as it has in past years. The Bulldogs barely edged out BYU, Harvard and Green Bay for the No. 2 spot on our list.

    Losses to Portland and San Diego and the absence of any victories over teams assured a spot in the NCAA tournament make Gonzaga look far less dangerous than expected.

    In fact, if the Bulldogs continue to fade and lose in the West Coast Conference tournament, they may be in jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament at all.

    Nonetheless, the Bulldogs' personnel suggests opponents should be wary of Gonzaga in the postseason.

    The backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. is formidable, and forward Sam Dower has shown he can score against any defense. Coach Mark Few put his team into the NCAA tournament in each of his 14 previous seasons as the Bulldogs' head coach, so he knows a little bit about postseason play.

    Gonzaga probably will get to the NCAA tournament for a 16th consecutive year, and the individuals on the Bulldogs' roster make them dangerous, even if their performance this season does not.

1. Wichita State

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    Wichita State is obviously the most dangerous mid-major team.

    It is ranked No. 2 in the country, with a good chance to be the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. The Shockers have been more dominant than the Wichita State squad that reached the Final Four last year, so a return trip to the national semifinals is well within reach.

    The Shockers no longer seem like a mid-major team, but two things require that classification.

    First, unless Wichita State is upset in the conference tournament, the Missouri Valley Conference is likely to get only one team into the NCAA tournament.

    Second, despite being unbeaten, the Shockers are ranked behind a team that has lost two games (Florida). That indicates a lack of respect for the Missouri Valley Conference. An undefeated team from any of the major conferences would be ranked No. 1, probably unanimously.

    Wichita State's performance on the court has been impeccable, thanks largely to the work of head coach Gregg Marshall. He made a winner out of nothing at Winthrop and made a national title contender out of Wichita State.

    The Shockers have three starters back from last season's 30-9 squad that lost to eventual national champion Louisville by four points in the NCAA tournament semifinals. Sophomore Fred VanVleet has provided what the Shockers needed at the point guard spot, and forward Cleanthony Early is likely to be the conference player of the year.

    Wichita State does everything well, but its strength is rebounding.

    Despite the criticism that it does not play a difficult schedule, Wichita State has wins over three teams with a chance to be in the NCAA tournament: Saint Louis, BYU and Tennessee. The road victory over Saint Louis, which is ranked No. 10 in the country, was particularly noteworthy.