Mid-Major Catchup: Who are the best teams from outside the top conferences?

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THE ‘ARE THEY STILL MID-MAJORS?’

Gonzaga: The Zags are going to have one of their best teams in recent memory next season, at least on paper. Kevin Pangos is back and healthy, teaming up in the back court with Gary Bell and USC transfer Byron Wesley. The front court will feature Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, seven-foot mountain Przemek Karnowski, Lithuanian star Domantas Sabonis and former Louisville forward Angel Nunez. This group is as talented and as versatile as anyone on the west coast not named Arizona. They will be a borderline top ten team entering the season and should be a contender to reach the Final Four if they can find a way to once again be a consistently good defensive team.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Wichita State: The Shockers may lose Cleanthony Early, but don’t expect this group to suffer too much of a drop next season. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton will once again be one of the nation’s best back courts, and while Early absence will cost the Shockers an elite level athlete and a matchup nightmare at the four, they should still have enough depth in their front court to be the best team in the Missouri Valley and a top 15 team nationally. Don’t expect another undefeated run from Gregg Marshall’s club, but don’t be surprised if they advance further in the tournament next season than they did last season.

BEST OF THE BEST

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Harvard: If the Crimson are ever going to be a team that makes a run in the NCAA tournament, the 2014-2015 season may be their final chance. Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith, Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis will all be seniors. Siyani Chambers will be a junior. That’s quite a bit of talent and experience for a team in the Ivy League, especially when you consider that the Crimson won a game in the 2013 tournament and led Michigan State late in the second half of the 2014 tournament.

Georgia State: Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter are back for another run, forming one of the nation’s most talented back courts regardless of level. There are going to be some holes to fill along the front line, but if Louisville transfer Kevin Ware gets a waiver to be eligible immediately, the Panthers are looking at winning a second straight Sun Belt conference title.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels lose Stephen Holt, but they should be able to replace him with Stanford transfer Aaron Bright, who will be eligible to play in 2014-2015. Throw in Washington transfer Desmond Simmons and the return of the underrated Brad Waldow, and St. Mary’s will have quite a bit of experienced, high-major talent.

Toledo: The Rockets are coming off of a season where they won the MAC regular season title, but after losing in the conference tournament, they were bounced out in the first round of the NIT. Even with those postseason struggles, they finished the season with a 27-7 record and will return five of their top six players, including star point guard Juice Brown. Toledo will be the favorite to win the always-competitive MAC.

UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos are coming off of a 21-9 season where they will return Alan Williams, one of the nation’s most underrated players. Williams averaged 21.4 points, 11.5 boards and 2.4 blocks a season ago. UCSB also returns the majority of their rotation players, and while the Big West looks like it will be pretty tough at the top next season, the Gauchos should be in the mix for the title.

TEN MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON:

  • Green Bay: The Phoenix lose Alec Brown to graduation, but they return the majority of their rotation players, including star point guard Kiefer Sykes, who is back for his senior season
  • Hofstra: This pick may seem weird on paper, but the Pride have a shot at being the best team in the CAA next year. Juan’ya Green, Brian Bernardi and Ameen Tanksley will all be eligible after transferring in and Joe Mihalich adds a solid recruiting class.
  • Louisiana Tech: Mike White will once again have a team capable of winning Conference USA, as he will bring back most of his rotation, including Alex Hamilton and a healthy Raheem Appleby.
  • Murray State: The Racers won 23 games last season and finished 13-3 in the Ohio Valley despite having a freshman (Cam Payne) lead them in scoring. The better news? Five of their top six players will be back for the 2014-2015 season.
  • Northern Iowa: The Panthers bring back their top six players from last season while adding Wyatt Haus and Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson to the mix.
  • Stephen F. Austin: At this point, you bet on Stephen F. Austin to win, regardless of the situation. They lose three of their top six, but they return their best players — Thomas Walkup — and, most importantly, head coach Brad Underwood.
  • UC Irvine: The Anteaters won 23 games last season and were the Big West champions. The league returns quite a bit of talent next year, but UCI will have four of their top five scorers back, including Mamadou N’Diaye and Luke Nelson, who will both be sophomores.
  • Wofford: The Terriers are coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and return their top eight players. Throw in the fact that Davidson is not in the SoCon anymore, and Wofford should enter the season as the favorites to win the league.
  • Yale: The Elis may have lost a part-time starter to an a cappella group, but they will bring back the majority of their rotation, including star forward Justin Sears. Yale has the size and athleticism to allow them to compete with Harvard.

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.