Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

2017 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who is staying and who is going?

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RETURNING TO SCHOOL

Jalen Adams, UConn
Grayson Allen, Duke (story)
Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Marques Bolden, Duke
Mikal Bridges (story)
Miles Bridges, Michigan State (story)
Bruce Brown, Miami
Jalen Brunson (story)
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State (story)
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas (story)
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Shake Milton, SMU
Chimezie Metu, USC
Allonzo Trier, Arizona (story)
Robert Williams, Texas A&M (story)

DECLARING, SIGNING WITH AN AGENT

Jarrett Allen, Texas (story)
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA (story)
O.G. Anunoby, Indiana (story)
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State (story)
Lonzo Ball, UCLA (story)
Jordan Bell, Oregon (story)
Antonio Blakeney, LSU (story)
John Collins, Wake Forest
Zach Collins, Gonzaga (story)
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon (story)
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina (story)
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (story)
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (story)
Markelle Fultz, Washington (story)
Harry Giles III, Duke (story)
Isaac Humphries, Kentucky (story)
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State (story)
Justin Jackson, North Carolina (story)
Luke Kennard, Duke (story)
T.J. Leaf, UCLA (story)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse (story)
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona (story)
Malik Monk, Kentucky (story)
Austin Nichols, Virginia
Justin Patton, Creighton (story)
L.J. Peak, Georgetown
Ivan Rabb, California (story)
Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State
Devin Robinson, Florida
Kobi Simmons, Arizona (story)
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State (story)
Edmond Sumner, Xavier (story)
Jayson Tatum, Duke (story)
Melo Trimble, Maryland (story)
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga (story)

DECLARING WITHOUT AN AGENT

Shaqquan Aaron, USC
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky (story)
Deng Adel, Louisville
Jashaun Agosto, LIU-Brooklyn
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Mark Alstork, Wright State
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
James Blackmon, Indiana
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Tony Bradley, North Carolina
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Thomas Bryant, Indiana (story)
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State
Jason Chartouny, Fordham
Donte Clark, UMass (story)
Chance Comanche, Arizona
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky (story)
Vince Edwards, Purdue
John Egbunu, Florida
Jon Elmore, Marshall
Obi Enechionyia, Temple
Drew Eubanks, Oregon State
Tacko Fall, UCF
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU
Isaac Haas, Purdue
Aaron Holiday, UCLA
Chandler Hutchinson, Boise State
Frank Jackson, Duke (story)
B.J. Johnson, La Salle
Darin Johnson, CSUN
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville
Robert Johnson, Indiana
Andrew Jones, Texas
Kerem Kanter, Green Bay
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan
Braxton Key, Alabama
Kyle Kuzma, Utah
William Lee, UAB
Daryl Macon, Arkansas
Yante Maten, Georgia
Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Eric Mika, BYU
Johnathan Motley, Baylor (story)
Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas (story)
Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Cam Oliver, Nevada
Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah
Maverick Rowan, N.C. State
Corey Sanders, Rutgers
Jaaron Simmons, Ohio
Jaren Sina, George Washington
Elijah Stewart, USC
Caleb Swanigan (story)
Stevie Thompson, Oregon State
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State
Mo Wagner, Michigan
Thomas Welsh, UCLA
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan
D.J. Wilson, Michigan
Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State

YET TO DECIDE

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Jacob Evans, Cincinnati
Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt
Jessie Govan, Georgetown
Donta Hall, Alabama
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M
Justin Jackson, Maryland
V.J. King, Louisville
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Anas Mahmoud, Louisville
De’Anthony Melton, USC
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
Jerome Robinson, Boston College

Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo declares for NBA Draft

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Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo is declaring for the NBA Draft, although he is not signing with an agent to retain his collegiate eligibility.

Diallo was originally a member of the Class of 2017, but he spent half of last season at a prep school and enrolled at Kentucky in January as a redshirt. Being a year removed from his high school graduation and 19 years old, he is allowed to declare for the draft.

“When I decided to enroll in school in January, my plan was to come to Kentucky to work on my game and to focus on school,” Diallo said. “At the end of the season, I knew I wanted to see where I was in the draft process and go through that so I could get a proper evaluation.”

“That plan hasn’t changed and that’s why I am declaring for the NBA Draft. I want to see where my game is and explore my options.”

Diallo, a top ten player in the class, is as explosive of an athlete as you are going to find. He should be an elite defender, but he will be drafted based mostly on his potential offensively.

Since Diallo is not signing with an agent, he will be able to return to school without penalty. He’s currently projected as a late second round pick in the 2018 draft, but he’s likely a second round pick in a deeper draft this year.

Reports: Duke’s Frank Jackson to declare for draft

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Frank Jackson will declare for the draft but will not be signing with an agent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Previous reports had indicated that Jackson “planned” to return to school, and that still may end up proving true. But the combination of Trevon Duval potentially enrolling at Duke combined with the fact that there is zero downside to going through the draft process, it makes sense for Jackson to declare.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points and shot 39.5 percent from three. He’s projected as a mid-first round pick in 2018 by Draft Express, but at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to play the two in the NBA and has yet to prove he can be a point guard.

Jackson is the fourth Duke player to declare, following Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Luke Kennard. All three signed with an agent. Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are both returning to school.

VIDEO: Top 2018 recruits Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford go head-to-head at adidas

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This weekend is the first live evaluation period of the spring recruiting calendar as college coaches from all over the country are scouting (and babysitting) the top recruits in the Class of 2018 and 2019.

Friday night the adidas Gauntlet in Dallas opened with a marquee matchup of two star players as five-star forward Zion Williamson and five-star guard Romeo Langford went head-to-head in what should be one of the best games of the spring.

Most scouting services have Williamson and Langford as the No. 2 and No. 3 overall prospects in the Class of 2018 as the duo didn’t disappoint in front of the huge crowd in Fort Worth.

Williamson helped his team to a win with 26 points and seven rebounds while Langford had 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. You’ll be hearing plenty about both of these guys over the next few months as both are still wide open in the recruting process.

(H/t: Ball is Life)

Report: Coppin State hires Juan Dixon as new head coach

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Coppin State has hired former Maryland star guard Juan Dixon to be its next head coach, according to a report from Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun.

The 38-year-old Dixon is best known for leading Maryland to the 2002 national championship as he was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four that year. Now Dixon will have a chance to lead a Division I program for the first time.

Dixon spent seven years in the NBA and also played professionally in Europe before joining the Maryland coaching staff in 2013 as a special assistant to head coach Mark Turgeon. Not retained by Maryland after the 2015-16 season, Dixon took the head coaching job for the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia last season as the Division II program finished only  3-25.

Coppin State finished last season with an 8-24 record after losing its first 12 games of the season. While Dixon will generate some positive local buzz given his background, he’s going to have an uphill battle trying to rebuild that program.