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.
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
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.