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.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.