Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NBC Sports Midseason Mid-Major Power Rankings

Leave a comment

College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at Mid-Majors. 

For the sake of this post, members of the following conferences will be excluded: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC.

We’ll also be leaving out BYU and Gonzaga of the WCC, which is likely to fire up our readers with Saint Mary’s’ interests.

1. SAINT MARY’S 

One of the best offenses in the country (No. 3 on KenPom in adjusted offensive efficiency), Saint Mary’s should be a major threat to Gonzaga in the WCC. The Gaels suffered some early slip-ups against Washington State and Georgia on neutral courts. Other than that, they’ve been perfect. A veteran core that is filled with upperclassmen leads Saint Mary’s as big man Jock Landale is once again an All-American candidate. Calvin Hermanson, Emmett Naar and Jordan Ford are also performing admirably to start the season. Do yourself a favor and stay up late to watch these guys play. Saint Mary’s can be really fun to watch.

2. MIDDLE TENNESSEE

If we’ve learned anything the past few years it’s that you don’t want to face these guys in March. Winners of an NCAA tournament game the past two seasons, it wouldn’t be surprising if Middle Tennessee made it back to the dance and won again. Playing a ridiculously tough schedule for a mid-major program, the Blue Raiders already own wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss while taking top-25 teams like USC and Miami to the brink on neutral courts. Senior wing Nick King is one of the best players in the nation — regardless of conference. Seniors Giddy Potts and Brandon Walters have proven they can play with anyone. Conference USA won’t be easy but Middle Tennessee has a chance to maintain a special run for the program again this season.

3. NEW MEXICO STATE

First-year head coach Chris Jans deserves a ton of credit for maintaining the success for the Aggies as the WAC favorites look like a potentially terrifying team to play in March. Already with neutral court wins over Illinois and Miami, New Mexico State also swept in-state rival New Mexico while pushing USC in a single-digit loss. Senior guard Zach Lofton is a potent scorer who isn’t afraid of the spotlight and double-double threat Jemerrio Jones has proven that he can hang with power conference teams.

4. MISSOURI STATE

Off to a positive start in Missouri Valley Conference play, the Bears have already knocked off Loyola and Valparaiso — two of the league’s stronger teams. Senior forward Alize Johnson is perhaps the best pro prospect of any player on this list as the double-double threat can carry Missouri State on his back during certain stretches. Around Johnson, there is plenty of balance, including senior guard J.T. Miller and junior forward Reggie Scurry. Playing at a slow tempo, Missouri State can to grind out wins using its solid eight-man rotation, or they can score and go more uptempo when the game calls for it.

5. LOYOLA-CHICAGO

The road win at then-No. 5 Florida got the nation’s attention as the Ramblers look like one of the teams to watch in the Missouri Valley Conference. Blessed with a team that loves to move the ball, this unselfish group is very deep and balanced. Seniors like Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram have been solid. Junior point guard Clayton Custer and junior transfer Marques Townes have also shown flashes of strong play. Freshmen like center Cameron Krutwig continue to develop. Loyola has a high ceiling, but they have to navigate a very difficult league that knows how good they can be.

6. WESTERN KENTUCKY

Even without former McDonald’s All-American Mitchell Robinson, the Hilltoppers have been solid playing against a schedule that was designed to be difficult. The win over Purdue was a shocker and Western Kentucky also picked off SMU for good measure. Head coach Rick Stansbury also has plenty of talent at his disposal, including graduate transfers Darius Thompson (Virginia) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas) and freshman shooter Taveion Hollingsworth. Conference USA looks really tough but Western Kentucky should definitely be in the mix.

Giddy Potts (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

7. LOUISIANA

The Sun Belt favorites might not have NBA-caliber talents like Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long on the roster anymore but this is still a noteworthy program. Transfers have done well for the Ragin’ Cajuns as former BYU guard Frank Bartley IV and former Missouri forward JaKeenan Gant have been the team’s two best players so far this season. Louisiana doesn’t have an eye-opening, top-25 caliber win like some teams on this list but they’re off to a 12-3 start and have a neutral win over Iowa that should count for something.

8. EAST TENNESSEE STATE

Head coach Steve Forbes has done a solid job of building this program into a consistent winner as the Buccaneers sit at 10-4. A recent 19-point road win at Mercer was a really impressive mid-major win and East Tennessee State also put a serious scare into Xavier on the road before losing by two. Armed with a top-50 defense, if the Buccaneers can improve their dreadful 32 percent three-point shooting then they could compete with anyone.

9. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN

Things were looking really good for the Lumberjacks until a puzzling conference-opening loss to SE Louisiana. Although not to the level of the Brad Underwood-era juggernauts, this Stephen F. Austin team is still really good. With a road win at LSU and close road losses at Mississippi State and Missouri, this team has shown that they can compete with SEC teams if they’re focused. Sophomore wing Kevon Harris looks like a potential star while junior forward T.J. Holyfield is very steady. The Southland has some solid competition but the Lumberjacks remain the favorites at this point.

10. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE

The Summit League has some intriguing teams this season, including in-state rival South Dakota. But none of the other teams in the conference have a player as talented as junior forward Mike Daum. Knowing that Daum was returning, the Jackrabbits loaded up the non-conference schedule, as they knocked off Iowa and Ole Miss while also gaining experience in road losses to Kansas, Wichita State and Colorado. Daum can take over a game and go for 40 on any night but freshman shooter David Jenkins Jr. has been a pleasant surprise as the team’s second-leading scorer.

11. ALBANY

The favorites in the America East have been really solid to start this season as the Great Danes find themselves at 12-3. Armed with three really good scorers in junior sharpshooter Joe Cremo, junior guard David Nichols and senior forward Travis Charles, Albany has the weapons to compete with the big boys. With single-digit road losses at Memphis and Louisville, the Great Danes haven’t been intimidated by anybody this season.

12. SAN DIEGO

Could the WCC have four good teams this year? That might be the case if surprising San Diego continues to win games. Off to an 11-3 start, the Toreros had three quality road wins in non-conference play at Grand Canyon, New Mexico State and Colorado. Defense and balanced scoring is the calling card for San Diego as they rate No. 61 in KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency while producing four double-figure scorers. The real tests will come for the Toreros when they have to face WCC juggernauts like Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU but San Diego shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Tayler Persons, Robert Franklin/AP Photo

13. UC SANTA BARBARA

With a solid 12-3 start, UC Santa Barbara looks like the team to beat in the Big West this season. The one-two punch of freshman Max Heidegger and senior Leland King II is one of the best scoring duos on this list. Competitive in road losses to Pittsburgh and USC, the Gauchos have wins over solid mid-major teams like San Diego, Montana and Montana State.

14. GRAND CANYON

Eligible for the NCAA tournament this season, the Antelopes are hungry to make a move in the WAC. Although Grand Canyon didn’t earn a signature win during non-conference play, they competed against a lot of tough teams. Close road and neutral losses against St. John’s, Boise State and Illinois showed that this team isn’t afraid of bigger schools away from home. And Grand Canyon still maintains one of the better homecourt advantages in all of college hoops.

15. BALL STATE

After a rough 1-4 start, the Cardinals have turned things around during a recent eight-game winning streak. A road win at Notre Dame is one of the best wins of any team on this list and Ball State also had some solid in-state wins over Valparaiso and Indiana State during the recent streak. And if we’re talking clutch players, junior Tayler Persons is your guy. A CBT Player of the Week earlier this season, Persons has knocked down numerous clutch shots to win games.

Four-star forward Kai Jones commits to Texas

Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Shaka Smart picked up an important piece for the future Monday ahead of a critical season in Austin.

Kai Jones, a top-75 forward, committed to Smart and Texas, he announced via social media.

“I’d like to thank my mom and dad, who have always been on my side and were my No. 1 supporters from Day 1,” Jones said in his commitment video. “I’d also like to thank coaches and teammates who pushed me and believed in me and always told me that I could do more than I thought. It’s been a great process. I’ve been recruited by top universities and legendary coaches, and I feel truly honored to be considered. However, in the end, I can choose only one.

“I’ll be committing to the University of Texas. Hook ‘em, baby.”

The 6-foot-10 Jones, who hails from the Bahamas, is a four-star prospect out of the powerhouse prep program Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. He chose the Longhorns after taking official visits to Syracuse, Baylor and Florida State.

While Texas’ results on the floor have been so-so in three years under Smart, the Longhorns have done well on the recruiting trail. That again seems to be the case in 2019 with Jones now joining Donovan Williams, a four-star guard from Texas, in Smart’s next class.

“The relationship I’ve built with the coaches sand the opportunity to come in and make a big impact was too much to pass,” Jones told Rivals. “They showed a sincere interest. They made me a priority down the stretch. They came up to Brewster and when I thought about everything they hadn’t missed anything I did.”

Coach K downplays shoe company involvement as Duke mentioned at trial

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took the opportunity Monday to downplay the breadth of the illicit actions being alleged/revealed/confirmed in testimony over the last two weeks of Brian Bowen Sr. and T.J. Gassnola.

The father of an elite recruit and and adidas consultant, the pair have essentially narrated a roadmap to college basketball’s underground that includes payoffs, cars, deception, hustling and layers upon layers of NCAA violations.

“It’s a blip. It’s not what’s happening,” K said at the Blue Devils’ media day. “We haven’t lost guys because of someone’s shoe. I’m not aware of that.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’ll get to it, but first it’s worth pointing something out. Something that came, ironically enough, to light Monday thanks to court proceedings in Manhattan as part of the Southern District of New York’s college basketball corruption case. Let’s go now to text messages between Gassnola and Kansas coach Bill Self.

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

So despite K’s handwringing and outright dismissal of shoe companies’ involvement in high-profile recruitments, there is a Hall of Fame, national-championship winning coach at one of the most prominent and storied programs in the history of the sport that, apparently, thinks different.

That seems noteworthy.

Coach K’s whole premise, in fact, ignores the whole point of what, whether he admits it or not, is going on, seemingly, at a wide scale. The idea that Duke may or may not have lost guys because of their shoe affiliation is beside the point. The Blue Devils, you may have heard, are a Nike school. One of the preeminent Nike schools. Another thing you may have heard is that Nike is far and away the predominant player in basketball apparel. The pool of players that Duke could even conceivably miss out on because of shoe affiliation is tiny compared to the amount of high-level prospects that are “Nike guys.”

Let’s also not forget that Nike outfits another pretty influential group in the basketball world. USA Basketball. Which Coach K has essentially headed as the men’s national team coach for the last 10 years where he worked with some of Nike’s most high-profile athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Oh, and Mason Plumlee, who got a spot on the 2014 World Cup team totally because he was one of the best players the United State had to offer and not at all because of his Duke connections.

But I digress.

What we learned today is that the perception nationally that shoe companies, to whatever degree, help their favored schools land top recruits is not one held simply by media blowhards and paranoid fanbases. It’s one a coach of one of those favored schools holds, too. The fact that there have been days of testimony in a federal courtroom that back up that sentiment should matter here, too.

Krzyzewski’s statements are self-serving. He’s not the first one to take this route. That’s fine. It’s his job to win basketball games and protect Duke basketball. Pretending like shoe companies are a non-factor in recruiting is in his best interest as he and his program continue to enroll the best players in the country while wearing a swoosh on every piece of clothing.

It’s not reality, though.

Adidas trial: Texts between Bill Self, T.J. Gassnola revealed

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

As the first of three trials stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball churns towards a finish, Kansas head coach Bill Self and one of his assistants, Kurtis Townsend, have been dragged into the mix thanks to text messages that were provided to the court on Monday.

There has never been a question of whether or not the Kansas program was involved. T.J. Gassnola, a fixer for Adidas that also runs an Adidas-sponsored AAU program, has testified that he paid the mother of former Kansas forward Billy Preston $89,000 and that he was planning on paying the Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of current Jayhawk sophomore Silvio De Sousa, an additional $20,000 to the $2,500 he had already paid, money to payback someone with Under Armour ties that was trying to get De Sousa to go to Maryland.

The defense has not argued otherwise.

Instead, their defense has been that the Kansas coaching staff was aware of, and supportive of, the payments that were being made.

On Monday, they presented text messages to the court between Gassnola and the Kansas coaching staff, the most damning of which came on Sept. 19th, 2017, just days before Kansas — who is supposed to be the victim in this ordeal — announced that they had agreed to a 12-year, $191 million extension on a sponsorship deal with Adidas.

After Gassnola texted Self to thank him for helping get the deal done, Self responded by saying, “Just got to get a couple real guys.”

Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”

Gassnola, after acknowledging that it works like this at Kentucky, too: “I promise you I got this. I have never let you down. Except (Deandre). Lol. We will get it right.”

Presumably, this is in reference to Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft after one season at Arizona. Earlier in the trial, Gassnola testified that he had paid $15,000 on behalf of Adidas to the family of Ayton while trying to find a house and a job for Ayton’s mother, who is Bahamian. There was a point in time during Ayton’s high school career that he was considered likely to end up at Kansas, and he even told reporters in April of 2016 that Kansas was the only school recruiting him.

When Gassnola was asked if he felt like he let Self down when Ayton picked Arizona, he replied, “I did.”

There is also a text trail between Gassnola and the Kansas staff in the weeks prior to De Sousa’s surprise commitment to the program. From the KC Star:

On Aug. 9. 2017, Gassnola texted KU’s assistant Townsend in a conversation about Fenny Falmagne, the guardian of then-recruit Silvio De Sousa, now a KU sophomore. Gassnola told Townsend, “Hit me when you can,” and Townsend replied, “Coach Self just talked to Fenny. Let me know how it goes.”

Gassnola also texted Self, saying he talked with Falmagne. Self asked “we good” over text, and Gassnola replied “always,” saying this was light work and the ball was in Falmagne’s court now.

That same day, Gassnola texted Self to call him when he had five minutes and he was alone. The two had a five-minute, six-second phone conversation. The call was not wiretapped by the FBI nor played in court.

No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MOREMid-Major Power Rankings The Hot Seat | Perry Ellis All-Stars

AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Injury bug biting Iowa State as Solomon Young the latest Cyclone to get hurt

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Iowa State has dealt with a lot of injuries and illnesses this preseason as the Cyclones are trying to get healthy with the regular season only weeks away.

The latest Iowa State player to go down is starting center Solomon Young, as the junior is out indefinitely with a groin strain. The 6-foot-8 Young has been a key cog on the interior for the Cyclones the past two seasons as he put up 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season.

Young is also far from the only key Iowa State player currently dealing with an issue. Veteran forward Zoran Talley just had surgery to repair a broken nose as he’s hoping to return faster than a 4-to-6 week window that doctors gave him. Talley will be required to wear a protective face mask once he’s cleared to return.

Iowa State’s highly-touted freshman class is also trying to overcome illness and injury. Big man George Conditt and guard Tyrese Haliburton are both recovering from mono. Forward Zion Griffin just returned from a knee sprain while wing Talen Horton-Tucker has been in a boot at times during the preseason.

While none of these injuries seem to be for an excessive amount of time, it’s clear that Iowa State just needs to get healthy before they start their season on Nov. 6. With all four freshmen missing some time, it will be vital to make sure they catch up and understand everything before they are thrust into the spotlight.