It’s always fun to root for the little guy.
When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.
In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.
A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good.
LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)
Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.
VERMONT (America East)
Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.
Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.
NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)
Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.
The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.
For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)
Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)
Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.
EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)
Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.
Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.
Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.