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.

VIDEO: Why did the NCAA ban dunking in 1967?

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With UCLA playing in the Sweet 16 tonight, it’s a fitting time to bring up the story of the time that the association banned dunking.

It was in 1967, and it was because there was a kid named Lew Alcindor at UCLA who led the Bruins to a 30-0 record and a national title.

Cleveland State hires Dennis Felton as head coach

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Cleveland State has found its next head coach as the school announced the hiring of Dennis Felton.

A veteran head coach with previous stops at Western Kentucky and Georgia, Felton made three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with the Hilltoppers before taking the job with the Bulldogs before the 2003-04 season.

Felton takes over for previous head coach Gary Waters, who retired after 11 seasons at Cleveland State.

“I’m extremely excited to return to the head coaching ranks with this opportunity at Cleveland State University,” Felton said in the release. “I’m grateful to Dr. Berkman and Mike Thomas for the opportunity to lead this program. Cleveland State is an outstanding University that continues to grow in stature on the national landscape. I’m eager to start working with our players to build a championship program and getting out to share my vision of how we plan to partner with the entire community to do special things at Cleveland State.”

Felton made one NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons with Georgia as he was fired in the middle of the 2008-09 season. Having a tough time overcoming NCAA sanctions lobbied after the Jim Harrick’s time with the school, Felton’s time with the Bulldogs never got rolling as he dealt with scholarship limitations and other obstacles.

After his time coaching in college, Felton spent time as a college scout with the Phoenix Suns before becoming director of pro player personnel for the San Antonio Spurs for a few seasons.

Cleveland State finished 18-45 over the last two seasons as they’ve struggled in the Horizon League. Felton will be tasked with turning the Vikings around as he hopes to find some of the magic that helped make Western Kentucky a consistent winner.

But with NBA connections and a lot of head coaching experience, Cleveland State made a solid hire here.

Frank Kaminsky trolls Arizona after high school teammate Sean O’Mara gets winning basket for Xavier

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No. 11 seed Xavier’s upset win over No. 2 seed Arizona left a lot of people stunned late Thursday night. Naturally, people took to Twitter to share their opinions of the Musketeers advancing to the Elite Eight to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

Some of those with comments on Arizona’s loss included members of Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015. You might recall that the Badgers eliminated the Wildcats in both years in the Elite Eight to make the trips to the Final Four–so there is some history here between the two schools.

The Twitter comments started with former Wisconsin guard Ben Brust questioning Arizona head coach Sean Miller for going away from his big men. Brust’s “should have kept touching the big Serb” comment would indicate that getting touches for Arizona center Dusan Ristic was important–although others were pointing out freshman Lauri Markkanen’s minimal involvement in the Arizona offense during the last 10 minutes.

That’s when former Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky entered the discussion and promptly shut things down.

Wisconsin’s personal history with Arizona hit closer for Kaminsky than a normal game when Xavier junior big man Sean O’Mara scored the game-winning bucket for the Musketeers with just under a minute left.

There’s a major connection here. O’Mara hails from Benet Academy in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, the same high school program that produced Kaminsky.

So Kaminsky made sure to mention that after the loss.

When Kaminsky was a senior and Benet started its season 29-0 and was nationally ranked in the USA Today High School rankings, O’Mara was the freshman big man that Kaminsky was beating up in practice every day.

While Kaminsky has turned into a productive member of the Charlotte Hornets rotation this season, O’Mara is having himself a solid 2017 NCAA Tournament run as he’s averaging 12.3 points a game after putting up 6.1 per game during the regular season.

We definitely know who Kaminsky will be rooting for when it comes to the West Region.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Saturday, March 25

6:09 p.m., TBS, San Jose
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 Xavier (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lewis Johnson)

8:49 p.m., TBS, Kansas City
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Oregon (Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson)

Sweet 16 Preview: Friday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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Thursday brought us a thrilling night of college basketball. Oregon won a thriller. Gonzaga did, too. Kansas put on a show, toying with the Big Ten champs. 

And that was just the appetizer for what’s on tap Friday night.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-7.5) vs. No. 4 BUTLER, 7:09 p.m. (CBS): As weird as it sounds for a team that finished second in the Big East, that swept Villanova and that has a combined three wins over Arizona and Xavier, Butler is basically back to being a mid-major in the South Region. That’s what happens when you get stuck in a region with three of the biggest brands in the sport.

And don’t think, for a second, that Butler is going to be overmatched here. They’ve proven, time and again this season, that they are good enough to play with the best of the best even if their roster, on paper, doesn’t look that way.

But here’s the thing about North Carolina: If they play their best basketball game, they should be able to run through the Bulldogs. That’s a big ‘if’, however, especially if Joel Berry II plays the way that he has played in the first two games of the tournament. North Carolina goes as Berry goes, and he’s 3-for-21 from the floor in those two games.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-7.5)

No. 3 BAYLOR (-3.5) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 7:29 p.m., (TBS): Baylor’s front line is massive. Johnathan Motley is an all-american in the middle, Jo Lual-Acuil was one of the nation’s most improved players this season there’s an argument to be made that Terry Maston has been the most important player for the Bears in this tournament. That’s where Baylor’s strength lies, and they play to it. The Bears want to play slow and they want to pound the ball into the paint.

Where Baylor struggles, however, is with their guard play. Manu Lecomte and Jake Lindsey are not exactly Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, and if we’ve learned anything about South Carolina this season, it’s that their defense can be a nightmare for opponents to try and run offense against. They don’t pressure in the full court, but their half court defense is just as tough and as physical and as frustrating as West Virginia’s. I think the first one to 60 wins this game, and I think South Carolina gets it done.

PREDICTION: South Carolina (+3.5)

No. 2 KENTUCKY (even) vs. No. 3 UCLA, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): Does it get any better than this?

Do you really need me to tell you that a matchup between two of the four best teams in college basketball, two teams that can legitimately win a national title, playing in the Sweet 16 is must-see TV?

You shouldn’t.

You probably know all the storylines by now, too, so I’m going to say this: I think this game comes down to how UCLA decides to matchup with Kentucky’s guards. My best guess at what happens is that Aaron Holiday chases Malik Monk around all those screens while Lonzo Ball draws De’Aaron Fox, mostly to save his legs but in part because he has the length to challenge a jump shot while playing far enough off to keep his from getting into the lane.

PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins, but I love the over (165.5)

No. 4 FLORIDA (-1.5) vs. No. 8 WISCONSIN, 9:59 p.m. (TBS): Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have length and athletes everywhere on the floor, and head coach Mike White knows it. They pressure, they overplay passing lanes and they make life miserable for opposing playmakers. Wisconsin, like Baylor, is a team that plays through their bigs, but unlike Baylor, a post-up for Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ is like their point guard getting an isolation. Both guys are just such great passers out of the post that Greg Gard doesn’t have to worry as much about the lack of playmakers in his back court.

I think that is a huge advantage for Wisconsin in what could otherwise be thought of as a bad matchup.

But more than anything, I trust Wisconsin’s vets more in NCAA tournament games than just about anyone else. This is going to be the 17th NCAA tournament game for Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the most of anyone in the tournament. They’ve both played in two Final Fours and two more Sweet 16s. Hayes and Koenig are the two career leaders in NCAA tournament scoring, and Koenig may be the single-most clutch shooter left in the tournament. I’ll bet on that.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin (+1.5)