Mid-Major Power Rankings: The Top 15

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

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The definition of what, exactly, makes a “mid-major” program is one of the more contentious debates in college basketball.

Is it simply every program outside of the six conferences associated with the BCS? Does it have to do with the amount of money spent on the program? Or the history of successes of the program? Or the size of the fan base? Or who they are able to recruit?

To simplify things, we eliminated everyone from the BCS leagues, the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West, Conference USA and the top three programs — BYU, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — out of the WCC. We feel it is more important to celebrate some of the little guys than it is to include teams on a list they — and their fans — want no part of.

So without further ado, here are our Mid-major Power Rankings:

1. Creighton: The Bluejays should not be a secret to anyone heading into the season. They are going to be ranked in every national poll that has any credibility and have a preseason NBCSports.com First Team All-American on the roster in Doug McDermott. Offensively, Creighton is one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch, as they pass and shoot the ball as well as anyone in the country. But will they be able to get stops? Creighton ranked 178th in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom, last season.

  • Player to know: Sophomore forward Doug McDermott averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: Creighton kicks off the season against the No. 2 team in these rankings on Nov. 9th, but dates with Wisconsin (Nov. 23rd) and St. Joseph’s (Dec. 1st) are worth your time as well.

2. North Texas: Tony Mitchell is the reason that the Mean Green will have plenty of chances to play in front of NBA scouts this season, but there is more to this team than simply a potential lottery pick. Chris Jones and Jordan Williams should both be eligible after missing the second half of last season due to academics. Alzee Williams returns for another season, as does Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin. New head coach Tony Benford also adds former Marquette and Oklahoma-signee TJ Taylor. There’s a lot of talent here.

  • Player to know: Sophomore forward Tony Mitchell averaged 14.7 points, 10.0 boards and 3.0 blocks last year. He’ll be a first round draft pick.
  • Can’t-miss game: Mitchell vs. McDermott on Nov. 9th will be fun, as will a date with St. Louis on Dec. 5th.

3. Drexel: The Dragons were arguably the best team left on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament’s bubble last year, as they won 25 of their last 26 games after getting their full team on the floor only to be toppled by VCU in the CAA tournament title game. The Dragons will have to replace the burly Samme Givens inside, but they will once again be a physical, defensive-minded team that will leave their opponent’s bruised and beat up.

  • Player to know: Junior guard Frantz Massenat (13.7 points, 4.5 assists) is their leader, but sophomore wing Damion Lee (12.0 points, 4.4 boards) is a future CAA Player of the Year in his own right.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Dragons have a tough slate of mid-major foes, but their two biggest non-conference games come at St. Mary’s (Nov. 22nd) and at home against St. Joseph’s (Dec. 31st).

4. South Dakota State: Last year, SDSU was able to snag the Summit’s auto-bid when Oral Roberts was upset in the conference tournament, and they gave Baylor a fight in the opening round. The Jackrabbits bring back all but one player from that team, including one of the nation’s best fantasy players in Nate Wolters. Three-point shooting is the name of the game for Scott Nagy’s club, as he surrounds Wolters with a group of guys that don’t miss when they’re open.

  • Player to know: Senior guard Nate Wolters averaged 21.2 points, 5.1 boards and 5.9 assists last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Jackrabbits play a number of road games against potential tournament teams before conference play begins, but the two to keep an eye on are Dec. 4th at Minnesota and Dec. 22nd at New Mexico.

5. Davidson: This is the best Davidson team that Bob McKillop has had since Steph Curry led the Wildcats to within a Jason Richards three of the 2008 Final Four. The Wildcats are coming off of a season where they rolled through the SoCon with a 16-2 record and went into Kansas City and knocked off the national runners-up in Kansas. Oh, and they bring back every single player that was on that team.

  • Player to know: Forwards De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen combined to average 30.0 points and 12.3 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: Davidson will play at New Mexico at 2 a.m. on Nov. 13th during ESPN’s Kickoff Marathon, but they’ll have a chance of landing an upset in Cameron Indoor against Duke on Jan. 2nd.

6. Murray State: Murray State was America’s darling last season, winning their first 23 games of the season. And while they bring back an all-american in Isaiah Canaan, the loss of three key role players will be difficult to overcome.

  • Player to know: Senior guard Isaiah Canaan is a preseason NBCSports.com First Team All-American after averaging 19.0 points, 3.6 assists and shooting 45.6% from three.
  • Can’t-miss game: Murray State heads to Dayton on Dec. 22nd and hosts Valpo a week later, but their best games might end up being league dates with Belmont and Tennessee State.

7. Valparaiso: The Crusaders will have one of the best frontlines at the mid-major level with Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk returning and Indiana transfer Bobby Capobianco becoming eligible. Valpo could have won the Horizon last season if it wasn’t for some bad luck with injuries and the flu.

  • Player to know: Broekhoff and Van Wijk combined for 29.0 points and 13.7 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Crusaders travel to New Mexico (Dec. 2nd) and St. Louis (Dec. 8th) within the span of a week, but their most interesting game might be dates with Cleveland State and Detroit in league play.

t-8. Bucknell and Lehigh: It’s almost impossible to separate these two teams. They’re by far the two favorites to win the Patriot League, and while most are going to remember CJ McCollum and the Mountainhawks thanks to their upset-win over Duke in the NCAA tournament, they’ll be overlooking the fact that the Bison also return their top four scorers, including former Patriot Player of the Year Mike Muscala.

  • Players to know: The senior big man Muscala averaged 17.0 points, 9.1 boards and 1.7 blocks last season and will be one of the nation’s best mid-major big men. McCollum is a preseason all-american this season after averaging
  • Can’t-miss game: Lehigh plays at Baylor while Bucknell plays at Purdue on Nov. 9th. Then, on Jan. 5th, Lehigh is at VCU and Bucknell is at Missouri. But circle Jan. 23rd and Feb. 20th on your calender; that’s when these two square off.

10. Montana: Losing Will Cherry to a broken foot hurts a lot, but he’ll be back by league play and back to 100% by the NCAA tournament.

  • Player to know: Cherry is a potential star, but in his absence watch out for junior guard Kareem Jamar (13.6 points, 5.6 boards, 3.7 assists, 44.1% threes).
  • Can’t-miss game: Unfortunately, Cherry will be out against Colorado State and BYU, and maybe even against South Dakota State on Dec. 15th.

11. Ohio: The Bobcats return every player of consequence from last season’s team that won the MAC and took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.

  • Player to know: It seems like so long go that senior guard DJ Cooper (14.7 points, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals) led Ohio to an upset of No. 3 Georgetown in the 2009 NCAA tournament.
  • Can’t-miss game: Dec. 5th at Memphis will be a terrific matchup, as will Dec. 19th at UMass.

12. Long Island: The Blackbirds avoided a disaster as four of their players — including star big men Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere — were reinstated to the team and given two game suspensions for their involvement in an on-campus fight.

  • Players to know: Olasewere and Boyd get all the publicity, but it is point guard Jason Brickman (9.6 points, 7.3 assists) who is this team’s Kendall Marshall.
  • Can’t-miss game: The third and fourth games on LIU’s schedule: Maryland and Kentucky. Good thing their bigs will be back.

13. Northern Iowa: The Panthers are a sleeper in the MVC, as they bring back seven of their top eight players from last season. Leading returning scorer Anthony James will miss the first three games of the regular season after being suspended.

  • Player to know: Senior forward Jake Koch (8.5 points, 5.4 boards, 2.7 assists) is back from what feels like the 27th straight season UNI has had a Koch on their roster.
  • Can’t-miss game: Beyond the entire MVC schedule? Louisville (Nov. 22nd), at UNLV (Dec. 19th) and St. Mary’s (Dec. 22nd).

14. Detroit: Detroit will be one of the favorites to win the Horizon as Ray McCallum, one of the most talented players at the mid-major level, is back for another season. He’ll likely be the the league’s Preseason Player of the Year.

  • Player to know: McCallum is an easy pick, but keep an eye on uber-athletic wing Doug Anderson, who does things like this.
  • Can’t-miss game: Detroit plays a loaded schedule, but the highlight will probably be at trip to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse on Dec. 17th.

15. LBSU: With all that the 49ers lost last season, including all-everything guard Casper Ware, it’s easy to forget that Big West Player of the Year candidate James Ennis returns, as does potential star Michael Caffey. They’ll be joined by a handful of talented transfers, headlined by former top 25 recruit Keala King.

  • Player to know: Caffey, a sophomore, had some really promising performances spelling Ware at the point a year ago.
  • Can’t-miss game: The 49ers play every: at USC, at home against UNC, at Arizona, at Syracuse, at Ohio State, at UCLA.

Keep an eye on: Belmont, George Mason, Harvard, Illinois State, Iona, Manhattan, Princeton, Tennessee State, Utah State, Wichita State

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.