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.

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach

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Drake has hired Furman head coach Niko Medved to the same position, the school announced on Sunday.

The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.

“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place.  I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country.  My family and I can’t wait to get started.”

Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.

The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.

VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Watching Roy Williams dance never gets old.

The North Carolina head coach is taking his team back to the Final Four next weekend after the Tar Heels outlasted Kentucky in a thrilling South Regional final.

North Carolina is making its 20th appearance in the Final Four as they are going for the second consecutive season.

2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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National Semifinals– Saturday, April 1

6:09 p.m. EST, CBS, Glendale
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Approximately 40 minutes after conclusion of first game, CBS, Glendale
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

VIDEO: The insane final 10 seconds of North Carolina’s win over Kentucky

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.

After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.

These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.