Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)

Mid-Major Power Rankings: The best from the rest of the country

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The point of this post wasn’t to debate what the definition of “mid-major”, but since these rankings are based on what the best mid-major programs in the country are, I figured we’d share with you what our criteria was for eliminating teams from contention.

The schools from the Power 5 conferences were excluded, obviously, as well as any program in the Big East, the American, the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West. The WCC, with the exception of Gonzaga and BYU, were included, as was the Missouri Valley, with the exception of Wichita State. The Zags and the Shockers are top 25 programs nationally paying their head coaches many millions of dollars and recruiting like the big boys. And to me, BYU is still a Mountain West program that was forced to relocate because #football.

[MORE: Mid-Major All-Americans]

This is my plea: Don’t argue the semantics of who we rated as high-major vs. mid-major. That’s not the point of this. The point is to highlight the best teams in the country that you’re probably not aware of, the teams you’ll want to track this season if you want to accurately predict upsets come March.

So without further ado, here are the 15 best mid-major teams for this season:

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Valparaiso

Just ask Maryland how good these guys are. The Crusaders took the Terps to the brink in the NCAA tournament last season. The Horizon League champs return head coach Bryce Drew, all five starters and nearly the entire roster of a 28-win team from last season. Junior forward Alec Peters is a matchup nightmare (think mid-major Kyle Wiltjer), center Vashil Fernandez is a great rim protector and there are also tough guards like Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker. Also a very deep team, Valpo has a top eight that would make many power conference schools envious.

2. UAB

It was easy to forget about Conference USA last season until UAB’s shocking upset over Iowa State in a 3 vs. 14 matchup last season. The Blazers weren’t your typical 14 seed then and they won’t be sneaking up on people this season. All five starters and 91 percent of the offensive production is back for head coach Jerod Haase’s team, which was considered young last season. Senior guard Robert Brown is a dangerous scorer coming off of all-conference honors while sophomore forward William Lee — a former Mr. Alabama for Basketball — showed flashes of brilliance.

3. Stephen F. Austin

These guys have become a bit of a fixture in the mid-major power rankings under third-year head coach Brad Underwood. The Lumberjacks have back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and are coming off of three consecutive Southland regular season championships with three consecutive league Players of the Year. Last year’s reigning Player of the Year, senior wing Thomas Walkup, leads four returning starters and sophomore guard Ty Charles could be a player to watch as the next leader of this team. Stephen F. Austin led the country in assists last season and was seventh in field-goal percentage. They share the ball with the best of them and are tough to defend.

4. Belmont

Head coach Rick Byrd has made a strong initial impact in the Ohio Valley Conference as the Bruins have won the league’s conference tournament two out of three years they’ve been in the league. When you consider who good Murray State has been over that span, that’s an impressive feat. With four starters back, including league Player of the Year candidate Craig Bradshaw, Belmont has plenty of firepower to work with once again. Second-team all-conference selection Evan Bradds is a good presence inside while junior guard Taylor Barnette can knock down shots.

5. Central Michigan

The Chippewas haven’t been to the Big Dance since the Chris Kaman era in 2003 and they’re hungry to win the MAC this season. Head coach Keno Davis has all five starters coming back from a 23-win team that won the West Division of the MAC last season, including standout guard Chris Fowler and senior forward John Simons. Davis has built his entire program around his current core group of seniors and three of them figure to start with more re-enforcements coming off of a pretty deep bench.

MORE: Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top 100 Wings | Top 100 Bigs

Iona guard A.J. English (Getty Images)
Iona guard A.J. English (Getty Images)

6. Iona

The favorites in the MAAC are motivated after falling short of the NCAA tournament berth last season. The Gaels return four starters, including senior guard A.J. English, who is one of the best mid-major players in the country. Joining English in the Iona lineup are double-figure scorers like sophomore guard Schadrac Casimir and senior wing Isaiah Williams.

7. UC Irvine

Louisville had a sufficient scare with these guys in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before making the Sweet 16 and the favorites in the Big West will be tough again this season. The Anteaters have three starters coming back including the impossible-to-prepare-for 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Junior guard Luke Nelson is another talented piece and senior guard Alex Young is experienced as well.

8. Yale

The last time Yale made the NCAA tournament was 1963 and last season’s 22 wins were the most for the program since 1949. With do-it-all senior forward Justin Sears coming back, there is plenty of hope for another big season for the Bulldogs. Keep an eye on sophomore guard Makai Mason, who had flashes of great play last season.

9. North Florida

Another team with a NCAA tournament appearance to build from, the Ospreys return four starters, including first-team all-league guard Dallas Moore. Returning the team’s three leading scorers, North Florida is hoping for another run through the Atlantic Sun. Other talented returning players include junior forward Chris Davenport and senior wing Beau Beech.

10. Evansville

All five starters are back for the Purple Aces and they built some postseason momentum by winning last season’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The inside-outside duo of seniors D.J. Balentine (guard) and Egidijus Mockevicius (center) is one of the best in the country — regardless of conference.

11. Hofstra

One of the favorites in the CAA, the Pride have four starters coming back this season, including talented senior guard Juan’ya Green. Other returning double-figure scorers like senior wing Ameen Tanksley and junior guard Brian Bernardi are back as well and this team does a great job of sharing the ball.

RELATED: Top 100 players | NBC Sports Preseason Top 25

Louisiana center Shawn Long (AP Photo)
Louisiana center Shawn Long (AP Photo)

12. Louisiana

The Ragin’ Cajuns survived the loss of Elfrid Payton by winning 22 games last season and playing their best ball towards the end of the year. Senior big man Shawn Long returns and he’s one of the most productive players in the nation. Four other returning starters surround Long, including junior guard Jay Wright, one of the Sun Belt’s best defenders.

13. Columbia

Columbia battled plenty of injury issues last season and have a lot to build on for this season. Senior guard Maodo Lo is a potential Ivy League Player of the Year after a tremendous junior season and he’s surrounded by three more returning starters. The key will be the health of all-league forward Alex Rosenberg, who returns after a year off battling injury.

14. Illinois State

Playing great ball at the end of last season was Illinois State, who beat Wichita State in the semifinals and took Northern Iowa to the brink in the Valley conference tournament. Center Reggie Lynch has transferred to Minnesota, but the Redbirds return plenty of talent, including all-league candidate DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell.

15. Stony Brook

One of the most motivated teams to make the NCAA tournament after some crushing disappointments in the conference tournament, the Seawolves are talented and experienced. Senior forward Jameel Warney is a double-double, shot-swatting monster in the America East and he’s flanked by four returning starters. Junior guard Carson Puriefoy is another returning standout and the addition of junior guard Ahmad Walker, another former starter who returned from the junior college ranks, adds even more depth.

Preaching patience, new Pitt AD says hoops program “a complete rebuild”

AP Photo/Athens Banner-Herald, AJ Reynolds
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Things did not go particularly well for Kevin Stallings in his first year at Pitt. The program, which essentially pushed Jamie Dixon out the door for being consistently good but not often enough great, struggled, going 16-17 overall and 4-14 in the ACC, just two games out of the cellar.

On top of that, six players prematurely left the program this spring.

Not great, especially when you’ve got a new boss that didn’t hire you, as is the case for Stallings with new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke, who came aboard in March. In her first meeting with Stallings, Lyke asked a rather blunt question.

“Do you want to be here?” according to the Beaver County Times.

Stallings answered that he did, and his new athletic director would appear to be willing to give her predecessor’s hire time to reclaim and rebuild the program.

“It’s a steep climb, if you will,” Lyke said. “It’s not something that’s going to come easy and it takes an incredible amount of work.”

Stallings’ personal reputation took a significant amount of damage this spring when he attempted to block Cameron Johnson from an intra-ACC transfer to North Carolina. NBC Sports’ Scott Phillips called him a “town-deaf clown” in his attempt to keep Johnson from being a Tar Heel, a position he later relinquished, allowing Johnson to head to Chapel Hill.

Losing Johnson certainly won’t help Stallings and the Panthers recover from the difficult first season. Pitt didn’t hit any grand-slams in recruiting but is adding four-star guard Marcus Carr in its 2017 class.

The immediate outlook doesn’t look particularly bright, but Pitt appears to be positioning itself to exhibit some patience.

“If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild,” Lyke said. “So I do think that (Stallings) is going to need a little time to develop it.

“But, we’ve got to be headed in the right direction. There’s some things that have got to get better and noticeable improvements. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”

 

Miller Time: Indiana coach cashes in with $24 million deal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — New Indiana coach Archie Miller will make $24 million under his seven-year deal — and potentially even more in bonuses.

Miller accepted the job in March, but the athletic department didn’t announce details of the contract until Tuesday.

He will receive a base salary of $550,000 per year and $1 million in deferred income each season. Miller also will receive an additional $1.85 million in outside marketing and promotional income — and will get a $50,000 per year raise each year through March 2024.

Miller can earn a $250,000 bonus for winning a national championship. He can earn an additional $125,000 for a Big Ten regular-season title, reaching the Final Four and producing multiyear Academic Progress Rate scores over 950.

Utah, BYU rivalry back on after one-year hiatus

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The BYU-Utah annual rivalry series will be back on this season after taking a one-year hiatus last year.

For just the second time since 1909, the Utes and the Cougars did not play in 2016-17 after Utah head coach Larry Kyrstkowiak asked for a one-year cooling off period stemming from an intense and emotional game against BYU in 2015-16. In that game, then-freshman Nick Emery was ejected as a result of this punch that he threw:

The last time those two teams did not play was due to World War II.

The game will be played at BYU on Dec. 16th.

Utah will also play Utah State this season, the first time that they have played the Aggies since 2011.

 

California bans state-funded travel to eight states; does it affect college hoops?

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A new California law could end up causing a headache for the sports teams for public universities in the state.

Because of recently-added laws that are perceived as discriminatory against the LGBT community, California has now banned travel to eight states: Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota join a list that already includes Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The law states that contracts that were signed before Jan. 1st, 2017, are exempted and can be fulfilled, but there’s not guarantee that will be the case in the future.

“Moving forward, the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law,” a UCLA spokesman told the Sacramento Bee. That said, the university does not use state funding for travel sports teams as it currently stands, and the goal of the law to avoid “spending taxpayer dollars in states that discriminate,” according to California’s Attorney General.

On the college basketball side of things, the biggest question mark here is whether or not this law will prevent teams from playing in the NCAA tournament if they are sent to a site in one of those eight states. Next season alone, there are first weekend sites in Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, not to mention the Final Four taking place in San Antonio. The location for many of those events were determined prior to January 1st.

“We are generally not going to deny student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the postseason,” a UCLA spokesman told NBC Sports.

The next question then becomes whether or not regular season travel will be allowed. Earlier this year, Cal dropped out of talks with Kansas about a potential home-and-home series due to this law, and if regular season travel is not allowed, it would mean that Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Wichita State, along with Kansas, are not allowed to be visited by California public schools that need state funding to travel. A request for a clarification on the legality of college sports teams traveling to those states has been filed with the Attorney General by Fresno State, whose football team is headed to Alabama for a game this year.

Travel for recruiting is also a question that needs to be answered, but at the highest level of the sport, that is typically funded by boosters.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.