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Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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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.

HARVARD (Ivy)

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.

COLGATE (Patriot)

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.

BUFFALO (MAC)

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.

BRADLEY (MVC)

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.

No. 15 Florida falls to UConn 62-59 on the road

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STORRS, Conn. — Christian Vital scored 15 points and made a key steal at the end of the game as UConn upset No. 15 Florida 62-59 on Sunday.

Tyler Polley also scored 15 points and Josh Carlton added 13 for the Huskies (2-1) who led by five points at halftime and never trailed after intermission.

A layup by Florida’s Keyontae Johnson with just over a minute to go cut the lead to 60-59, but those would be the last points the Gators scored.

Vital hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Florida had a chance to tie. But Alterique Gilbert tipped the ball out of Johnson’s hands and Vital grabbed it and dribbled away, securing the win.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds for Florida (2-2), falling two boards shy of a fourth straight double-double. But he fouled out with 4:37 left in the game and his team trailing 53-49.

Andrew Nembhard scored Florida’s next four points, including a 3-pointer that brought the Gators within a point at 54-53.

Blackshear scored the game’s first two baskets, but the Gators made just four of their first 13 attempts from the floor.

But UConn had a tougher start, going without a basket for the first six minutes.

Vital got the UConn crowd into the game with a 3-pointer, a dunk and a jumper on consecutive trips down the court that gave the Huskies an 11-6 lead.

The Huskies held Florida to two Blackshear free throws over the final 4:17 of the first half and led 25-20 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

The loss ends a rough seven days for the Gators. Florida was No. 6 coming into the season but lost to Florida State a week ago and beat Towson by just six points on Thursday. The Gators offense came into the game averaging just 63.7 points per game, while giving up 60.7.

UConn: Highly touted freshman guard James Bouknight has finished serving his three-game suspension following his arrest on charges including evading police in a September car accident. Bouknight, who is due in court on Monday, is expected to suit up for the Huskies in this week’s Charleston Classic, where it’s possible the Huskies could again face either Saint Joseph’s or Florida, depending on how the early rounds pan out.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators face Saint Joseph’s in the Charleston Classic on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies also travel to Charleston and face Buffalo in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.

Seton Hall placed on probation for three years for transfer tampering

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — The NCAA has placed the men’s basketball program at Seton Hall on probation for three years, taken away a scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year and limited recruiting in each of the next two seasons as part of a negotiated resolution of a transfer tampering case started in 2016.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was given a two-game suspension he has already served, and his former assistant and current Saint Peter’s University head coach Shaheen Holloway received a four-game suspension that has two games remaining.

Seton Hall, which is currently ranked No. 12 and dropped a 76-73 decision to No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday night, remains eligible for the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA also announced Friday Seton Hall has been fined $5,000 plus 1% of the men’s basketball budget and had its scholarships reduced to a maximum of 12 in 2020-21. Willard will have to attend an NCAA rules seminar in 2020 and the program will have a two-week ban on recruiting communication this academic year and next.

Holloway, who was Willard’s assistant at Seton Hall in 2016, is prohibited from all recruiting communication for six weeks during the 2019-20 academic year. He also is required to attend a rules seminar in each of the next two years.

The case centers around current Seton Hall forward Taurean Thompson, who transferred from Syracuse to Seton Hall in August 2017.

During the investigation, the NCAA learned Holloway had approximately 243 impermissible contacts with the prospect’s mother from Nov. 16, 2016, through Aug. 28, 2017, while the prospect was enrolled at his initial institution.

The NCAA said Holloway and the prospect’s mother had 154 phone calls without written permission from the prospect’s athletic director. After Thompson informed his original university of his intent to transfer and requested permission to contact Seton Hall, the university denied the request. After the request was denied, Holloway still had 87 impermissible calls with the prospect’s mother.

Willard, who has taken Seton Hall to the past four NCAA tournaments, was penalized for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program. He admitted to not taking adequate steps to report or stop the calls when he found out about them.

According to the agreement, Holloway did not report the calls with the prospect’s mother because they involved a personal relationship outside of the prospect and basketball, and he believed the communications were permissible.

“Seton Hall University, in conjunction with the NCAA, recently concluded a review of an infraction within our men’s basketball program,” Seton Hall said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our department was proactive in our review and fully cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff. While the violation was inadvertent, it was nonetheless against NCAA bylaws, and for that we take full responsibility.”

The case was processed through the new negotiated resolution process. The process was used instead of a formal hearing or summary disposition because the university, the head coach, the former associate head coach and the enforcement staff agreed on the violations and the penalties.

The Division I Committee on Infractions reviewed the case to determine whether the resolution was in the best interests of the NCAA and whether the agreed-upon penalties were reasonable.

Holloway is in his second season at Saint Peter’s. He will miss games against Providence on Saturday and Wagner on Wednesday. His first game will be against St. Francis, New York, on Nov. 30.

Quinones, Achiuwa send No. 13 Memphis past Alcorn St 102-56

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Despite playing their first game without heralded recruit James Wiseman, the No. 13 Memphis Tigers had little trouble with Alcorn State.

That’s what happens when you have the top recruiting class in the nation.

Freshman Lester Quinones had 21 points and 10 rebounds and fellow freshman Precious Achiuwa added 20 points Saturday, sending No. 13 Memphis to a 102-56 romp over Alcorn State.

Wiseman was sidelined because of eligibility issues, but Memphis hardly missed him in bouncing back from its first defeat of the season, an 82-74 loss to Oregon on Tuesday night.

“His presence is huge. Seven-footer in the paint. His dominance obviously wasn’t felt,” Quinones said of not having the 7-foot-1 Wiseman. “I feel like other guys stepped up.”

“We understand James is not playing right now,” Achiuwa added, “which hurts the team in a way because he’s a big part of the team. But this is an opportunity for other guys to play.”

DJ Jeffries finished with 15 points and Tyler Harris and Lance Thomas added 11 each for Memphis (3-1). Isaiah Attles led Alcorn State (1-3) with 13 points while Troymain Crosby had 10.

Wiseman was declared ineligible because Memphis coach Penny Hardaway helped with the family’s moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago when Hardaway was coach at East High School. Wiseman’s status is in limbo while the NCAA considers disciplinary action.

“We don’t want to change too much because we know he’s going to be back earlier than later,” Hardaway said after moving Achiuwa into the center spot vacated by Wiseman. “The guys can just slide over. They already understand the rotations. They understand the offensive side and the defensive side of what we want. We’re not going to change too much.”

Alcorn State’s zone initially took Memphis out of any flow, the Tigers choosing long passes across the top of the defense and struggling to get the ball inside. That kept the Braves in the game near the midway point of the first half.

The Memphis defense eventually put pressure on the Braves, leading to 16 Alcorn State turnovers in the half. Memphis put together a 24-3 run to close the half and carry a 52-24 lead into the break. The lead would swell to 53 in the second half.

“We didn’t follow the game plan,” Braves coach Montez Robinson said. “I thought if we followed the game plan – which we did in the first four-to-five minutes of the game – and stuck to that, it may have been a different outcome. Not knowing what the outcome would be, but it would have been different.

“It wouldn’t have been a 40-to-50-point game.”

BIG PICTURE

Alcorn State: The Braves did well in staying with Memphis for a while even with the Tigers employing a fullcourt press. But the Memphis defense proved intimidating, and the Braves began overpassing inside. That led to way too many turnovers — 26 for the game.

Memphis: Without Wiseman, Memphis relied on Achiuwa inside. While his 20 points and eight rebounds were impressive, his 8 of 20 from the free throw line was a detraction. Still, overall, that wasn’t a factor as Memphis controlled the final 30 minutes of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Certainly, a rout over the Braves, who haven’t beaten a non-conference Division I team since the 2012-13 season, is not going to enhance the Tigers’ ranking. The potential impact will come from last Tuesday’s loss to Oregon in Portland.

FOUL SHOOTING WOES

Achiuwa’s foul shooting stood out enough that even the freshman forward noticed it on the stat sheet before the postgame press conference. “I’m probably one of the few dudes that can get to the free throw line at will,” he said. “My physicality and the way I play. …I’ve just got to knock them down in the game. That just tells me I have to work on that. There’s room for improvement.”

LAST WORD

“The sky’s the limit for those guys. They’re young so they’re going to continue to get better, continue to grow. – Alcorn State coach Montez Robinson on No. 13 Memphis.

UP NEXT

Memphis: Hosts Arkansas-Little Rock on Wednesday.

Bowden scores 18 as Tennessee upsets No. 20 Washington 75-62

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TORONTO — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is a big believer in challenging his teams with tough non-conference schedules.

On Saturday, Barnes’ squad passed its first test in style.

Jordan Bowden scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half, Lamonte Turner had 16 points and the Volunteers upset No. 20 Washington 75-62 in Toronto.

“We’ve got to go test ourselves,” Barnes said. “We have to do that. We’ve always believed in that. We believe that this time of year, it’s really about trying to get yourself ready for conference play. To do that, you’ve got to play a high-level opponent like we played today.”

Yves Pons scored 15 points, John Fulkerson had 14 and Turner added seven rebounds and eight assists as the Volunteers improved to 3-0 and handed Washington its first loss in three games this season.

“We just got a little bit out-classed but we can learn from it,” Washington coach Mike Hopkins said.

Pons scored in double figures for the third straight game.

“Yves is getting more and more of a feel,” Barnes said. “I think he’s getting more and more confident.”

The game was the middle feature in the James Naismith Hall of Fame Classic, an NCAA triple header at Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, home of the defending NBA-champion Raptors.

Washington, which began its season with a neutral-site win over ranked Baylor, didn’t fare so well north of the border, falling behind by as many as 14 against the Volunteers.

“I felt like we were in sand a little bit today,” Hopkins said. “They were moving the ball, we weren’t as active and disruptive as we normally were. Our rim protection wasn’t as good as it was against Baylor.”

Nahziah Carter had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Isaiah Stewart had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Jaden McDaniels scored 15 for the Huskies.

Quade Green scored 10 points but Washington struggled with its outside shooting, going 5 for 18 from 3-point range.

The Huskies struggled for the second straight game. Washington overcome an awful offensive first half to pull away for a 56-46 win over Mount St. Mary’s Tuesday.

Stewart’s jump shot with 18:28 left in the first half put the Huskies up 3-2 but Turner answered with a 3-pointer, giving Tennessee a lead it would not relinquish.

“We knew the middle of the zone was going to be open,” Turner said. “We’ve got big guys who can make that shot.”

Pons drew cheers from his bench for a huge block on Carter’s dunk attempt midway through the first. The loose ball ended up with Huskies guard Quade Green, whose jump shot bounced off the rim. Carter, who had fallen to the court along the baseline after the block, got back on his feet in time to jump and put back the rebound, then turned and yelled at the Volunteers bench as he headed back up court.

Washington called timeout after Bowden’s 3-pointer with 8:55 left in the first capped a 7-0 run and gave Tennessee a 25-13 lead. The Volunteers stretched their advantage to 38-24 on a 3 by Pons with 1:47 left in the half. Bowden scored 15 points in the first half and Pons had 11 as the pair combined to make four of five attempts from 3-point range and 10 of 14 overall.

Tennessee recorded an assist on each of its 15 made baskets in the opening half and led 40-28 at the intermission. Tuner had seven assists for the Volunteers, matching Washington’s first half team total.

“We were in rhythm,” Barnes said. We were getting things done and playing at a very high percentage.”

Carter, McDaniels and Stewart were the only three Huskies players to score in the first half, combining to make 13 of 23 attempts. Six other Washington players shot 0 for 7.

Carter made his only attempt from 3-point territory, the only Washington player to connect from long range in the opening 20 minutes.

“They controlled the pace for most of the game,” Hopkins said.

After both teams went scoreless for almost three minutes in the second half, Carter made a fast break reverse layup to cut the deficit to 50-41, then made a block that led to another Washington basket, cutting the gap to seven at 50-43 with 11:22 remaining. Josiah-Jordan James replied with a 3 as the Volunteers pushed their lead back to 10 points.

“Every time we had a little bit of momentum where you could turn a switch, they made a big shot or made a big play,” Hopkins said.

CLOSE TO HOME

Washington’s Carter and Stewart are both from Rochester, New York, about 170 miles southeast of Toronto.

BIG PICTURE

Washington: The Huskies recorded a season-low four blocks after averaging an NCAA-best 11 over their first two games.

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened their season with home wins over UNC Asheville and Murray State before heading north to Toronto. Tennessee has games against Florida State, No. 13 Memphis, and Wisconsin ahead before the SEC schedule gets underway in January.

KEY STAT

Tennessee finished with 19 assists on 25 made baskets.

UP NEXT

Washington hosts Maine on Tuesday.

Tennessee hosts Alabama State on Wednesday.

Bey’s 19 points lead No. 10 Villanova over Ohio 78-54

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PHILADELPHIA — Less than 72 hours after a humbling loss to one team from Ohio, Villanova used two of its young standouts to win against another squad from the Buckeye State.

Saddiq Bey scored 19 points and Justin Moore added 18 to lead No. 10 Villanova past Ohio 78-54 on Saturday.

The win came after a 76-51 road loss to No. 16 Ohio State on Wednesday night. Villanova fell behind the Buckeyes early and never recovered.

“In that game, we kind of backed down,” Moore said. “We learned that you have to come out and you have to keep fighting. That’s what Villanova does and that’s what we were able to do today.”

After a sluggish start Saturday, Villanova (2-1) broke the game open with a 27-4 run in the final 6:36 of the half, turning a one-point deficit into a 43-21 lead.

Bey and Moore combined for 9-for-12 shooting and 4 of 6 from beyond the 3-point line for 26 points in that run. The Wildcats finished 14 of 31 from long range.

“I thought we had just two or three bad three-point attempts today,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think the numbers are a reflection of Justin and Saddiq moving the ball and getting good shot opportunities.”

Ohio shot 3 of 20 from behind the arc, with its first conversion from Ben Vander Plas three minutes into the second half after a 0-for-10 start. The Bobcats committed 16 turnovers.

Vander Plas led the Bobcats (3-1) with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Jason Preston added 16 points and eight assists.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Colin Gillespie scored 10 points for Villanova.

“I told our guys that with the exception of that seven-minute stretch at the end of the first half, we played pretty even with them” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. “Against a team like (Villanova), the margin for error is pretty small. It was a good teaching moment for our guys.”

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: After losing by 25 at Ohio State on Wednesday night in the Gavitt Games, Villanova is likely to take a slight dip in the next AP rankings.

Ohio: After starting the season 3-0 with road wins against St. Bonaventure and Iona, the Bobcats had trouble dealing with Villanova’s forwards.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Plays Middle Tennessee on Thursday in Myrtle Beach Invitational in Conway, South Carolina.

Ohio: Plays No. 24 Baylor on Thursday in the Myrtle Beach Invitational.