Ranking the Best Mid-Major Programs in College Basketball

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2016

Ranking the Best Mid-Major Programs in College Basketball

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    College basketball is just as dominated by the power programs as any other NCAA sport, though the little guys tend to make a lot more noise on the court than they do in football or other sports. Upset wins and deep runs by mid-major programs in the NCAA tournament are an annual rite of passage, and while new Cinderellas pop up each year, there are some schools that seem to make noise more frequently.

    These are college basketball's best mid-major programs—the ones that power teams try to avoid during the regular season and dread having to face in March. Most will never be able to rise to the level of the big boys, in terms of resources or national following, but they've still managed to stand out in their own way.

    For the purposes of this ranking, we're considering a team to be “mid-major” if it plays in any Division I conference other than the ACC, American, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC.

    These rankings are based mostly on teams' performance since the 2009-10 season, though schools that have been making waves for longer get extra credit.

20. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 2

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 2013

    It came down to Florida Gulf Coast and South Dakota State for this first spot on the list—a pair of recent additions to Division I who have both achieved recent NCAA tourney success. We ended up siding with the Eagles over the Jackrabbits, though, mostly because South Dakota State was an established Division II power before moving up in 2004, while FGCU started its program from scratch in 2002.

    Oh, and because of Dunk City.

    FGCU's 2013 team, guided by current USC coach Andy Enfield, used its high-flying style to knock off Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first (and only) No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16. That was after being below .500 the season before, and since then it's been nothing but 20-win teams.

    The Eagles made a second NCAA tourney this March, but instead of a dunk-filled upset, they lost by 16 to eventual national runner-up North Carolina following a First Four win over Fairleigh Dickinson.

19. Weber State Wildcats

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 2

    Best recent result: Round of 32 in 1999

    Nine former players making either the ABA or NBA might not seem like much, but it's pretty good for a mid-major program from Ogden, Utah, that's spent all 53 years at the Division I level in the Big Sky Conference. That group includes Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who happened to be there during one of Weber's longest stretches without an NCAA tourney appearance.

    Weber has gone dancing 16 times, including two of the last three seasons. Lillard's teams from 2008-12 when they won a combined 84 games but ended up in the NIT (twice), the CBI and the CIT.

    The 2012-13 team won 30 games, losing in the CIT final, when potential 2016 NBA draft pick Joel Bolomboy was a freshman.

18. Albany Great Danes

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Won First Four game in 2014

    Albany is tied with Vermont for the most America East tournament titles among teams that are still in the league. The Great Danes didn't join the league until 2001-02, though, and all five of their championships (and their accompanying NCAA tourney bids) have come since 2006.

    They made the America East final in three straight years, from 2013-15, winning 110 games over the past five seasons, making seven postseason appearances in the last 11 years.

    Albany's top achievement came when it won its only NCAA tourney game two years ago, taking out Mount St. Mary's in the First Four before losing by 12 to eventual Final Four qualifier Florida.

17. Harvard Crimson

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 4

    Best recent result: Round of 32 in 2013 and 2014

    When Harvard reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 it ended a 66-year drought since its previous appearance—the longest in Division I history. The Crimson made sure not to wait as long for the next appearance, representing the Ivy League four seasons in a row.

    And all four of those trips have been productive, with upsets of New Mexico in 2013 and Cincinnati in 2014 and only one loss by more than nine points.

    Tommy Amaker's squad went through a rebuilding year in 2015-16, having graduated seven seniors and losing top player Siyani Chambers to a torn ACL. Harvard should be back in the hunt for the Ivy bid this season. Harvard's seven-man recruiting class is ranked 23rd in the nation by 247Sports, trailing only Gonzaga among mid-major teams.

16. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Round of 32 in 2014 and 2016

    Both the architect of Stephen F. Austin's recent run of superiority in the Southland Conference and its best player have moved on, so it's unclear whether the Lumberjacks will continue to dominate in 2016-17 as they have the past three years. If they do, expect SFA to be higher on this list next time we put it together.

    SFA's first NCAA bid came in 2009 and not again until the first of three straight in 2014. That was at the start of an amazing stretch of near-perfection in the Southland Conference under Brad Underwood, who went 89-14 overall and 59-1 against league competition. The Southland isn't exactly full of world-beaters, ranking 29th out of 32 Division I leagues in RPI, but still...game respect game.

    The team before Underwood took over, in 2012-13, went 27-5 and won 17 of 20 Southland games.

    SFA has also won a pair of NCAA tourney games in this recent stretch, beating VCU in 2014 and West Virginia this past year. The Lumberjacks and all-around star Thomas Walkup nearly became the first No. 14 seed since 1997 to make the Sweet 16 before losing to Notre Dame on a tip-in at the buzzer.

15. Iona Gaels

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Round of 32 in 1980

    Monmouth was the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association team that made all the headlines during this past regular season, what with its colorful and creative “bench mob” and upsets of several power teams drawing plenty of attention. But when push came to shove, it was Iona that again proved it was the class of that league, and it's the best representative for our top mid-majors list.

    The Gaels have made 11 NCAA tournaments, including three of the last five, with their 2012 bid coming via a surprise at-large bid.

    Iona's nine MAAC tourney titles are the most in league history, but it was the 1980 team (coached by Jim Valvano) that made the field as regular-season champion and won its only NCAA game.

14. New Mexico State Aggies

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 5

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 1992

    Don't judge the mid-major team by its conference, judge it by the sheer dominance of that league. New Mexico State can't help that it's not a desirable-enough school to warrant being invited to a better league, instead having to serve as the lone Western Athletic Conference holdover that was around before 2012.

    It hasn't mattered to the Aggies who they've faced over the past decade, during which they've won six of 10 WAC tournaments and the last two regular-season titles.

    All NMSU is missing is something to show for all that pre-NCAA tourney success. It's lost the last eight NCAA games, with the last victory coming over Nebraska in 1993's first round.

    If that happens in 2016-17, it will be under a new coach, as Marvin Menzies has moved on after nine years to take over UNLV's sliding program.

13. Belmont Bruins

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 4

    Best recent result: One-point loss to second-seeded Duke in 2008

    Belmont is still searching for its first-ever NCAA tourney win, having come up short in each of its seven appearances, but all signs point to it coming very soon. Let's just hope Rick Byrd, who has piloted the Bruins from the NAIA ranks to the Ohio Valley Conference during his 30 years on the job.

    All seven of Belmont's NCAA bids have come since 2006, with the last two coming since moving from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley in 2012-13. The Bruins have won or shared their division in the OVC in all four seasons, going 51-13 in regular-season league play, but they haven't been able to parlay that into postseason success.

    Give it time, though, maybe even next season. Belmont returns eight of their top nine scorers, and Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller has it down as a No. 14 seed in his super-early 2017 NCAA tourney projection.

12. Northern Iowa Panthers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 2010

    Northern Iowa has made the NCAA tournament eight times in 35 years of Division I play, all since 1990, and it seems like every trip they've made creates some sort of unexpected drama. Both good and bad, as the Panthers found out this past tourney.

    Four UNI teams have won at least one tourney game, with the 2010 team taking out top-seeded Kansas in the round of 32 on Ali Farokhmanesh's late-game heroics after he hit the game-winning three-pointer to beat UNLV in the previous game. Then the 2016 team decided it wanted to be even more dramatic.

    It started with Paul Jesperson effortlessly banking in a mid-court three at the buzzer to beat Texas, but then what followed was far less enjoyable. The Panthers managed to squander a 12-point lead in the final 44 seconds against Texas A&M, losing in double overtime.

11. Valparaiso Crusaders

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 2

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 1998

    Most college basketball fans first learned of Valparaiso in 1998, when the father-son duo of Homer and Bryce Drew gave us one of the greatest buzzer-beaters in NCAA history to upset Ole Miss. It's pretty much been a family affair that's kept the Crusaders among the best mid-major programs ever since, with Homer Drew coaching the team to seven NCAA tourney appearances and Bryce Drew taking them to their last two in 2013 and 2014.

    This upcoming season will be the first in which a member of the Drew family—including Scott Drew, who has been at Baylor since 2003—won't be coaching the team since 1987. The new coach is Matt Lottich, an assistant the previous three seasons under Bryce Drew who was promoted after Bryce left for Vanderbilt.

    Mid-major success isn't solely dependent on getting into or winning in the NCAA tourney, since teams from most non-power leagues usually have to win their conference tournament to get in. Valpo fell in the Horizon League final in March and missed the Big Dance but went on to reach the NIT final.

10. Davidson Wildcats

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Elite Eight in 2008

    Why yes, the reigning two-time NBA MVP (and the first-ever to be a unanimous winner) is a product of ultra-tiny Davidson College. But the Wildcats are so much more than just the answer to a Steph Curry trivia question; they're also a program that's been winning at the mid-major level for 50 years.

    Davidson's first NCAA tourney appearance, in 1966, was its first of four Sweet 16s. The most recent of those came eight years ago, when Curry got the Wildcats into the Elite Eight before losing by two to eventual national champion Kansas.

    Since then, though, Davidson has continued to win albeit without as much attention since Curry turned pro in 2009. It made three NCAA tourneys between 2012-15, with the last of those coming in its first season since moving from the Southern Conference to the Atlantic 10, and during that span the Wildcats won four consecutive regular-season league titles.

    At the helm for the past 27 seasons has been Bob McKillop—the fifth-longest tenured Division I coach.

9. BYU Cougars

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 5

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 2011

    While BYU's football program is trying to find itself a spot in a power conference after a few years of independent play, the Cougars' basketball team would make a fine addition to a top-tier league. For now, though, they're doing just fine in the West Coast Conference where since joining 2011-12 they've continued their long run of solid teams.

    The Cougars' 29 NCAA tourney appearances are tied with in-state rival Utah for 23rd-most all time and more than any non-power program. That includes the last three years and eight of nine, all during Dave Rose's time as head coach.

    BYU has produced two national players of the year in Danny Ainge (1981) and Jimmer Fredette (2011), and those standouts were responsible for the Cougars' last two Sweet 16 appearances.

8. Saint Joseph's Hawks

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 2

    Best recent result: Elite Eight in 2004

    Saint Joseph's has had a firm place in college basketball history for some time—a member of the famed Big Five group of Philadelphia-area colleges that play each other annually. Its 21 NCAA tournament appearances are six more than the most famous of those Philly schools, Villanova, though the Hawks don't have a national title (or two) to lay claim to.

    Seven of those NCAA bids have come under Phil Martelli, who has been on the job since 1995-96 and is tied with Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon and Michigan State's Tom Izzo for the sixth-longest tenured coach in Division I. None of the coaches he's tied with or trailing in terms of longevity have the kind of personality Martelli has, though. It's a self-deprecating style that has endeared him to fans and the media and made him a great story each time he puts together a strong team.

    The best of that lot came 12 years ago, when future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led St. Joe's to an unbeaten regular season and its first Elite Eight since 1991. Another potential pro duo, DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles, were key to this past season's Hawks team winning 28 games and nearly knocking off Oregon in the round of 32.

7. UNLV Runnin' Rebels

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 4

    Best recent result: Won national title in 1990

    UNLV might currently be a shell of its former self, what with a fractured 2015-16 season followed by the need to hire not one but two different head coaches this spring, but when things are going well in Las Vegas, the Runnin' Rebels are as good as any non-power program around. At times they've been better than most power teams, particularly during the Jerry Tarkanian era.

    Tarkanian won an NCAA title—the only one by a team not currently in a power conference since UTEP's 1966 crown—and had two other Final Four appearances between 1987-91, with the 1990-91 team starting 34-0 before falling to Duke in the semifinals. The next 15 years only produced two NCAA appearances, but then Lon Kruger boosted UNLV back up with a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007.

    That was the start of six trips in seven years for the Runnin' Rebels, with the last coming in 2013. The last three seasons have seen a marked drop-off in performance, with coach Dave Rice resigning in early January. The school hired Arkansas-Little Rock's Chris Beard but then had to find another coach after he left for Texas Tech 19 days later. New Mexico State's Marvin Menzies ended up with the job.

6. Saint Mary's Gaels

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 2010

    Saint Mary's is a tiny private school in the equally tiny town of Moraga, California, just east of Oakland. There are roughly 4,100 students enrolled, more than enough to fill the Gaels' quaint 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion.

    But it's not such a friendly place for opponents to play, as Saint Mary's owns a strong home court advantage that has helped it become a mainstay among the perennial mid-major powers.

    Five of Saint Mary's eight NCAA tournament appearance have come since 2005, all under Randy Bennett, who through an Australian pipeline—which has produced NBA standouts such as Matthew Dellavadova and Patty Mills—has won 20 or more games nine straight times.

    The Gaels have missed out on the NCAA the last three years, but they've also made a pair of trips to the NIT quarterfinals since 2009.

5. Dayton Flyers

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 3

    Best recent result: Elite Eight in 2014

    Dayton has made a trip to the NCAA tournament every decade since the 1950s, including three straight and four out of five years in the 1960s. If head coach Archie Miller can get the Flyers to go dancing next season, it will mark their fourth consecutive NCAA appearance and solidify him as one of the most successful coaches in program history.

    A member of the Atlantic 10 since the mid-1990s, this past Dayton team was the first to win a piece of the league's regular-season title. It was also the third straight year with at least 24 wins, which hadn't happened since the 1950s.

    Dayton has played host to the NCAA tournament's First Four games since 2011, making an appearance in one of those play-in games in 2015, but the Flyers' recent success—including the 2014 run to the Elite Eight that saw them beat Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford—is making the team just as well-known as its arena.

4. San Diego State Aztecs

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 6

    Best recent result: Sweet 16 in 2011 and 2014

    If you ask San Diego State fans, particularly the rabid student section known as "The Show," the Aztecs aren't a mid-major team. They meet our criteria, though, and their prolonged success since head coach Steve Fisher resurrected the program makes them one of the best at that level.

    Fisher won a national title with Michigan and made two other NCAA finals with the Wolverines from 1988-97, but his far greater accomplishment came in the form of lifting SDSU from the ashes. A 4-22 team the year before he arrived in 1999, by 2002 Fisher had the Aztecs in their first NCAA tourney since the mid-1980s. A few years later, he began a run of unprecedented postseason success that's still going.

    SDSU made six straight NCAA tourneys before missing out this past season, but it still ended up reaching the NIT semifinals after running away with the Mountain West regular-season title. The Aztecs have won six league crowns under Fisher.

3. VCU Rams

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 6

    Best recent result: Final Four in 2011

    VCU has made a slow climb up the mid-major hierarchy since starting its program in the late 1960s, beginning as an independent and then moving to the Sun Belt, the Colonial Athletic Association and most recently the Atlantic 10. The Rams have been successful at every stop but made their biggest leap during the years Shaka Smart was running the show.

    Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant had parlayed NCAA tourney bids into power-conference jobs, going to Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively, before Smart was hired in 2009. And by the end of his second year, Smart had VCU in the Final Four after it barely made the tournament as part of the First Four.

    The Rams paved their way to the national semifinals by mowing down power teams in 2011, beating USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before falling to fellow mid-major Butler.

    VCU made the round of 32 the next two seasons, doing so amid a move from the Colonial to the A-10, and are on a run of six straight NCAA tourney appearances. The last was under first-year coach Will Wade, who also led the Rams to their first regular-season conference title since Grant's final year in 2009.

2. Wichita State Shockers

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 5

    Best recent result: Final Four in 2013

    Wichita State has been good at several points in its basketball history, producing notable players led by accomplished coaches, but it wasn't until Gregg Marshall came along that the Shockers began to rise among the mid-major ranks. And rise. And keep rising.

    Marshall arrived in 2007, and after leading Wichita State to the 2011 NIT title, he's had the team in the NCAA field every year since. The real arrival, though, happened in 2013, when the Shockers got hot at just the right time to make the Final Four.

    This wasn't a one-year thing, though. In 2013-14, Wichita State went unbeaten in the regular season and took that perfect mark into the NCAA tourney. If not for some unfortunate seeding—it had to face an ultra-talented (but underperforming) Kentucky team in the round of 32—WSU might have made consecutive Final Fours.

    Marshall's work with the Shockers has made him a hot commodity on the coaching market, yet he's stuck around. Last season, he became the school's winningest coach. To do that, he passed Ralph Miller, who coached from 1951-64 before moving on to bigger things at Iowa and Oregon State.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    NCAA tournament appearances since 2010: 7

    Best recent result: Elite Eight in 2015

    When you think of mid-major college basketball, it's nearly impossible not to include Gonzaga and make it a central part of the discussion. No other team outside of the power conferences has been as consistently good and for as long as the Bulldogs, and it's not even close.

    Sure, they haven't made it to the big time with a surprise Final Four appearance, but you can't ignore 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. That's tied with Wisconsin for the fourth-longest active streak.

    And it's not like Gonzaga is just making token appearances; it made the Sweet 16 this past season after reaching the Elite Eight the year before, winning at least one NCAA tourney game in 15 of those 18 appearances, including the past eight.

    While schools like Butler, Davidson and VCU used sustained success to move into better leagues, Gonzaga has remained a loyal member of the West Coast Conference throughout its run. This has required aggressive non-league scheduling to account for years (most of them) when the WCC isn't particularly strong, thus making it possible to earn an at-large bid if the Bulldogs don't win their conference tournament.

    At-large spots aren't handed out willy-nilly to non-power teams, yet during Gonzaga's run, it has earned such bids four times. All of those were under the guidance of Mark Few, who has been in charge for the last 17 NCAA trips.

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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