Mid-Major Power Rankings: The Top 15

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

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The definition of what, exactly, makes a “mid-major” program is one of the more contentious debates in college basketball.

Is it simply every program outside of the six conferences associated with the BCS? Does it have to do with the amount of money spent on the program? Or the history of successes of the program? Or the size of the fan base? Or who they are able to recruit?

To simplify things, we eliminated everyone from the BCS leagues, the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West, Conference USA and the top three programs — BYU, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — out of the WCC. We feel it is more important to celebrate some of the little guys than it is to include teams on a list they — and their fans — want no part of.

So without further ado, here are our Mid-major Power Rankings:

1. Creighton: The Bluejays should not be a secret to anyone heading into the season. They are going to be ranked in every national poll that has any credibility and have a preseason NBCSports.com First Team All-American on the roster in Doug McDermott. Offensively, Creighton is one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch, as they pass and shoot the ball as well as anyone in the country. But will they be able to get stops? Creighton ranked 178th in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom, last season.

  • Player to know: Sophomore forward Doug McDermott averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: Creighton kicks off the season against the No. 2 team in these rankings on Nov. 9th, but dates with Wisconsin (Nov. 23rd) and St. Joseph’s (Dec. 1st) are worth your time as well.

2. North Texas: Tony Mitchell is the reason that the Mean Green will have plenty of chances to play in front of NBA scouts this season, but there is more to this team than simply a potential lottery pick. Chris Jones and Jordan Williams should both be eligible after missing the second half of last season due to academics. Alzee Williams returns for another season, as does Oklahoma State transfer Roger Franklin. New head coach Tony Benford also adds former Marquette and Oklahoma-signee TJ Taylor. There’s a lot of talent here.

  • Player to know: Sophomore forward Tony Mitchell averaged 14.7 points, 10.0 boards and 3.0 blocks last year. He’ll be a first round draft pick.
  • Can’t-miss game: Mitchell vs. McDermott on Nov. 9th will be fun, as will a date with St. Louis on Dec. 5th.

3. Drexel: The Dragons were arguably the best team left on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament’s bubble last year, as they won 25 of their last 26 games after getting their full team on the floor only to be toppled by VCU in the CAA tournament title game. The Dragons will have to replace the burly Samme Givens inside, but they will once again be a physical, defensive-minded team that will leave their opponent’s bruised and beat up.

  • Player to know: Junior guard Frantz Massenat (13.7 points, 4.5 assists) is their leader, but sophomore wing Damion Lee (12.0 points, 4.4 boards) is a future CAA Player of the Year in his own right.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Dragons have a tough slate of mid-major foes, but their two biggest non-conference games come at St. Mary’s (Nov. 22nd) and at home against St. Joseph’s (Dec. 31st).

4. South Dakota State: Last year, SDSU was able to snag the Summit’s auto-bid when Oral Roberts was upset in the conference tournament, and they gave Baylor a fight in the opening round. The Jackrabbits bring back all but one player from that team, including one of the nation’s best fantasy players in Nate Wolters. Three-point shooting is the name of the game for Scott Nagy’s club, as he surrounds Wolters with a group of guys that don’t miss when they’re open.

  • Player to know: Senior guard Nate Wolters averaged 21.2 points, 5.1 boards and 5.9 assists last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Jackrabbits play a number of road games against potential tournament teams before conference play begins, but the two to keep an eye on are Dec. 4th at Minnesota and Dec. 22nd at New Mexico.

5. Davidson: This is the best Davidson team that Bob McKillop has had since Steph Curry led the Wildcats to within a Jason Richards three of the 2008 Final Four. The Wildcats are coming off of a season where they rolled through the SoCon with a 16-2 record and went into Kansas City and knocked off the national runners-up in Kansas. Oh, and they bring back every single player that was on that team.

  • Player to know: Forwards De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen combined to average 30.0 points and 12.3 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: Davidson will play at New Mexico at 2 a.m. on Nov. 13th during ESPN’s Kickoff Marathon, but they’ll have a chance of landing an upset in Cameron Indoor against Duke on Jan. 2nd.

6. Murray State: Murray State was America’s darling last season, winning their first 23 games of the season. And while they bring back an all-american in Isaiah Canaan, the loss of three key role players will be difficult to overcome.

  • Player to know: Senior guard Isaiah Canaan is a preseason NBCSports.com First Team All-American after averaging 19.0 points, 3.6 assists and shooting 45.6% from three.
  • Can’t-miss game: Murray State heads to Dayton on Dec. 22nd and hosts Valpo a week later, but their best games might end up being league dates with Belmont and Tennessee State.

7. Valparaiso: The Crusaders will have one of the best frontlines at the mid-major level with Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk returning and Indiana transfer Bobby Capobianco becoming eligible. Valpo could have won the Horizon last season if it wasn’t for some bad luck with injuries and the flu.

  • Player to know: Broekhoff and Van Wijk combined for 29.0 points and 13.7 boards last year.
  • Can’t-miss game: The Crusaders travel to New Mexico (Dec. 2nd) and St. Louis (Dec. 8th) within the span of a week, but their most interesting game might be dates with Cleveland State and Detroit in league play.

t-8. Bucknell and Lehigh: It’s almost impossible to separate these two teams. They’re by far the two favorites to win the Patriot League, and while most are going to remember CJ McCollum and the Mountainhawks thanks to their upset-win over Duke in the NCAA tournament, they’ll be overlooking the fact that the Bison also return their top four scorers, including former Patriot Player of the Year Mike Muscala.

  • Players to know: The senior big man Muscala averaged 17.0 points, 9.1 boards and 1.7 blocks last season and will be one of the nation’s best mid-major big men. McCollum is a preseason all-american this season after averaging
  • Can’t-miss game: Lehigh plays at Baylor while Bucknell plays at Purdue on Nov. 9th. Then, on Jan. 5th, Lehigh is at VCU and Bucknell is at Missouri. But circle Jan. 23rd and Feb. 20th on your calender; that’s when these two square off.

10. Montana: Losing Will Cherry to a broken foot hurts a lot, but he’ll be back by league play and back to 100% by the NCAA tournament.

  • Player to know: Cherry is a potential star, but in his absence watch out for junior guard Kareem Jamar (13.6 points, 5.6 boards, 3.7 assists, 44.1% threes).
  • Can’t-miss game: Unfortunately, Cherry will be out against Colorado State and BYU, and maybe even against South Dakota State on Dec. 15th.

11. Ohio: The Bobcats return every player of consequence from last season’s team that won the MAC and took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.

  • Player to know: It seems like so long go that senior guard DJ Cooper (14.7 points, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals) led Ohio to an upset of No. 3 Georgetown in the 2009 NCAA tournament.
  • Can’t-miss game: Dec. 5th at Memphis will be a terrific matchup, as will Dec. 19th at UMass.

12. Long Island: The Blackbirds avoided a disaster as four of their players — including star big men Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere — were reinstated to the team and given two game suspensions for their involvement in an on-campus fight.

  • Players to know: Olasewere and Boyd get all the publicity, but it is point guard Jason Brickman (9.6 points, 7.3 assists) who is this team’s Kendall Marshall.
  • Can’t-miss game: The third and fourth games on LIU’s schedule: Maryland and Kentucky. Good thing their bigs will be back.

13. Northern Iowa: The Panthers are a sleeper in the MVC, as they bring back seven of their top eight players from last season. Leading returning scorer Anthony James will miss the first three games of the regular season after being suspended.

  • Player to know: Senior forward Jake Koch (8.5 points, 5.4 boards, 2.7 assists) is back from what feels like the 27th straight season UNI has had a Koch on their roster.
  • Can’t-miss game: Beyond the entire MVC schedule? Louisville (Nov. 22nd), at UNLV (Dec. 19th) and St. Mary’s (Dec. 22nd).

14. Detroit: Detroit will be one of the favorites to win the Horizon as Ray McCallum, one of the most talented players at the mid-major level, is back for another season. He’ll likely be the the league’s Preseason Player of the Year.

  • Player to know: McCallum is an easy pick, but keep an eye on uber-athletic wing Doug Anderson, who does things like this.
  • Can’t-miss game: Detroit plays a loaded schedule, but the highlight will probably be at trip to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse on Dec. 17th.

15. LBSU: With all that the 49ers lost last season, including all-everything guard Casper Ware, it’s easy to forget that Big West Player of the Year candidate James Ennis returns, as does potential star Michael Caffey. They’ll be joined by a handful of talented transfers, headlined by former top 25 recruit Keala King.

  • Player to know: Caffey, a sophomore, had some really promising performances spelling Ware at the point a year ago.
  • Can’t-miss game: The 49ers play every: at USC, at home against UNC, at Arizona, at Syracuse, at Ohio State, at UCLA.

Keep an eye on: Belmont, George Mason, Harvard, Illinois State, Iona, Manhattan, Princeton, Tennessee State, Utah State, Wichita State

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.