Mid-majors

Best bets to be this season's version of Butler

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Anyone looking for this season’s Butler – a non-BCS school capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament – doesn’t have to look far.

It’s still the Bulldogs.

Sure, Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley are gone, but there’s plenty to like about Brad Stevens’ team that came this close to stunning Duke in the 2010 NCAA title game. You know, like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored, among others. But you should already know about the Bulldogs. They’re 18th in our preseason Top 25.

Other non-BCS schools in the Top 25? Memphis, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Temple, UNLV, Xavier and Wichita State. So consider them good bets as well.

So who’s that leave? Plenty. Bookmark this page. When March rolls around, you’ll see these six schools in your bracket. Ignore them at your own risk.

East Tennessee State
The Bucs’ finest NCAA tourney moment came in 1992 when they stunned 3-seed Arizona. They’ve been back four times since and have been routed just once, last season against Kentucky. There’s reason to think they could finally break through again. Still, among the teams listed here, ETSU is the biggest underdog.

Four starters return form a 20-15 team that played forced a ton of turnovers, hit the offensive boards and gets a boost thanks to a healthy Mike Smith, who was an all-conference selection until a knee injury derailed his 2009-10 season. He’ll be their best offensive player.

Old Dominion
The Monarchs are a known commodity – they popped Notre Dame last season as an 11 seed – who bring back four starters from a 27-9 team that swept the conference crowns. Despite losing center Gerald Lee, ODU isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it could be better.

Senior Frank Hassell was the difference against Notre Dame (15 points, 9 boards) and junior Kent Bazemore is poised for bigger things after nabbing a spot on the All-CAA Tournament team. Guards Ben Finney (111.2 ORtg) and Darius James (22.1 ARate) are underrated and a huge reason ODU only allows foes to hit 30.1 percent beyond the arc.

Bottom line, ODU is nasty on defense (no easy shots, lots of forced turnovers and teams don’t get second-chance points) and hits the offensive boards relentlessly. In fact, no team did it better in 2010. That continues, good luck to the BCS school that plays the Monarchs in March. 

Santa Barbara
Butler had a weapon most non-BCS school don’t have: An NBA-caliber talent. Same goes for the Gauchos, who have a dynamic player in All-American candidate Orlando Johnson. The 6-5 junior averaged 18 points and 5.4 rebounds game last season, his first with the program.

But … Santa Barbara needs a big jump in performance to match Butler. The Gauchos keep opponents off the glass and are good along the perimeter, but the offense is incredibly inefficient (a little too much Johnson?) and makes too many turnovers. Solve those issues, and they’ll elevate their game in March.

Utah State
The Aggies are a March mainstay, having made seven NCAA tournaments since 2000. Yet they’ve won just once, a 12-5 upset against Ohio State in 2001. That’s the main reason one of the winningest teams of the decade isn’t better known. That changes this season and makes them a great opportunity to be the newest media darling.

Despite losing do-it-all guard Jared Quayle, Utah State returns every other player from a 27-8 squad that just missed pulling off a Big Dance upset against Marquette. That means shooters (Tyler Newbold, Brian Green), reliable post players (Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall), a savvy wing (Pooh Williams) and a deep bench.

Not that coach Stew Morrill uses the bench to outrun opponents. The Aggies play slower than almost every D-I team, yet few teams can hang with their incredibly efficient offense. March is made for teams who can make shots. That’s the Aggies.

Virginia Commonwealth
Two CAA teams? Absolutely. While CAA foe ODU thrives on defense, the Rams do it with offense. Only 25 teams sported a more efficient offense in 2009-10. They hit 36.6 percent of their 3-pointers, 50.9 of their 2s, take care of the ball and get to the offensive glass.

It all starts with senior guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell, who can hit from outside and occasionally play some nice defense, too. VCU will miss center Larry Sanders, who cleaned up defensive miscues with his blocks, but this isn’t a team who overly relies on one player. That makes them a tough out in March.

Wofford
The Terriers made the NCAA tournament for the first time last season. A return appearance could result in the school’s first Big Dance win. (They just missed it after four-point loss to Wisconsin.)

Wofford plays deliberately, prizes possessions and forces opponents to work for each shot, which usually results in a Wofford rebound. But it’s not all about defense. Senior forward Noah Dahlman averaged 16.6 points a game last season, but few players score more efficiently because the 6-6 Dahlman hits the boards for second-chance points and gets to the free-throw line frequently.

However, an NCAA tourney win will require a little something more. Guards Jamar Diggs, Brad Loesing and stout forward Tim Johnson must become more reliable scoring options.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

'Dragging Bottom' not happening at Kennesaw St.

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Kennesaw State state coach Tony Ingle has a book called “I Don’t Mind Hitting Bottom, I Just Hate Dragging.” After a rough few years transitioning to D-I basketball, Ingle’s Owls may finally be done dragging.

The Owls return four starters from a team that finished 13-20 in their first year of D-I eligibility and reached the Atlantic Sun semifinals after knocking off No. 1 seed Lipscomb. Ingle also has seven new players to work into the mix. In all, he sounds optimistic.

“We’ve got experience, but it’s young experience,” Ingle told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The guys coming back understand each other. The team chemistry is better.”

If anyone can make a go of it, it’s Ingle. He took Kennesaw State to a D-II title in just his fourth season there. A guy who’s hit bottom – like an 0-19 season at BYU – knows how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

(On a side note, grab the book if you get a chance. It’s funny and heartwarming. If you like it, check out “One Beautiful Season” by Kyle Whelliston, who co-wrote Ingle’s book. You can thank me later.)

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Creighton to join Midnight Madness party

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Midnight Madness is just over two weeks away. And Creighton’s joining the fun.

The Greg McDermott era will kick off with the school’s first-ever Midnight Madness event. It’s not part of ESPN’s TV coverage (that’ll include UConn, Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Memphis and Kansas State), but it’s a nice show of enthusiasm for a program that usually flies under the radar. Yes, there is life after Dana Altman!

Sounds like it’ll be a fun fan event, too. Creighton will have 3-point contests, a dunk contest, an autograph session and, of course, a scrimmage so fans can get a glimpse of the team in action.

Ah. You feel that? That’s the season drawing ever closer.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Wagner doubles up on its Hurleys

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It’s not often a college hoops program turns to a high school coach. Wagner didn’t hire a typical prep coach I Danny Hurley, though. He comes with reinforcements.

Hurley’s spent the nine years turning St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., into a national power. He brings D-I playing experience, with time spent at Seton Hall in the early ’90s. He also had his older brother, Bobby, on hand to help recruit and coach.

Yes, that Bobby Hurley, the all-time D-I assists leader and a guy who won two national titles at Duke. The brother form the heart of a fun feature by SI.com’s Seth Davis, who covers the challenges they face in building Wagner.

“Not a lot of staffs have someone who was arguably the best point guard ever to play college basketball and a lottery pick,” Danny told Davis. “Plus, loyalty and trust is at a premium. If you can’t trust your brother, who can you trust?”

Can they turn the Seahawks into a NEC contender? It’ll depend on how they recruit. The coaching acumen is in place. Both Hurleys know their stuff, and they can always turn to their dad, Bob Sr., for advice. (He was just inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.)

But if it gets tough, dad won’t be much help. Not that Danny or Bobby will like it either.

“I know the losing is inevitable, but I don’t ever want to get used to it,” Danny told Davis. “I don’t think Hurleys are built that way.”

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Brutal road schedule will pay off for SWAC school

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Low-major college basketball programs routinely sport with rough non-conference schedules. It’s a fact of early season hoops. The big schools offer big paydays in return for (what they hope) is a winnable game in front of home fans.

Some schools – like Arkansas-Pine Bluff did last season – build on a brutal schedule and eventually reach the NCAA tournament.

And some do it because they absolutely have to. 

As Jeff Eisenberg writes in an excellent feature, Mississippi Valley State will play 13 straight road games to open its season, all because it’s the best way for the cash-strapped school to earn some money. The SWAC school will travel more than 12,000 miles and take in almost $700,000 in appearance fees.

“It’s tough on the kids to go to most of the toughest places in the country to play, but I know what we need to survive as a program,” MSVU coach Sean Woods told Eisenberg. “I’ve got to bring in a certain amount for the university and then I need a certain amount to get my program through the year. In order to do both, I’ve got to do a schedule like the one I put together.”

That schedule includes opponents such as Indiana, BYU, Arkansas, Butler, Marquette and Kentucky. The only somewhat equal matchup? The Nov. 26 date against Liberty during the SPI Invitational. That’s one of the reasons why the Delta Devils are just 3-34 in non-conference games the past three seasons.

But to keep a program afloat? I’d say it’s worth it.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Mid-majors level the field by doing this …

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If recruiting’s a hit-or miss proposition for even the most high-profile coaches and college basketball programs, how are the mid-major programs of the world supposed to thrive?

Don’t recruit for positions, just recruit players, writes Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus.

You may recognize Cannon’s name. As an intern for Scout.com last summer, he wrote a detailed analysis of 32 players who made first-team all-league in the Missouri Valley, A-10 and Colonial League in an effort to determine why those players were passed on by BCS schools.

(If you haven’t read that study, it can be found here. It provides some insight as to why coaches whiffed on guys like B.J. Raymond, Dionte Christmas, Stephen Curry and Nick Fazekas.)

That study provided the basis for his latest article, which may sound all high-concept, but is really pretty simple. If BCS schools presumably scoop up players at traditional positions (PG, SG, SF, PF, C), then forgot finding players to mimic those spots and just get guys who can either rebound, score, handle the ball or create shots.

It boils down to this: On defense, you have to be ready for whatever the offense throws at you. But on offense, you really just need to rebound and protect the ball enough to let your scorers go to work (or protect the ball just enough that your dominant rebounding can keep putting points on the board despite below-average scoring, etc.). Really, how you put points on the board is your business. The defense is just reacting.

So before we get to the market inefficiency inherent in the status quo, this is what a typical lineup looks like in terms of our new positions:

C: Rebounder, D5
PF: Rebounder-Scorer, D4
SF: Scorer, D3
SG: Scorer-Creator/Handler, D2
PG: Creator/Handler, D1

Here’s where conventional wisdom breaks down. In reality, players have an offensive responsibility and a defensive responsibility, not just one position. I’m in Las Vegas on the recruiting trail, and already I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone ask if a kid projects as a 2 or a 3, or whether so-and-so can defend the 1.

Take a player like Drake’s recently-graduated Josh Young. He’s lightning-quick and a big-time scorer, but Young was slotted as a tweener. Too small to defend the 2, but also didn’t handle the point on offense. What I’m saying is that we should start understanding that all of the above is OK.

Cannon’s dream mid-major team? Young, Pat Calathes, Nate Funk, Jeremy Crouch and Will Thomas. Notice he didn’t request Curry or Adam Koch or some other mid-major player who’ll likely be tooling around on an NBA roster. He simply picked versatile guys who BCS schools see as tweeners (who may or may not be good enough to play at big-time programs).

To a certain extent many mid-major programs – and some major ones, such as Ohio State last season – already do this. Northern Iowa started 7-foot center Jordan Eglseder, but was just as effective last season when it had Koch (D3), his brother Jake (D4), Kwadzo Ahelegbe (D1), Ali Farokhmanesh (D2) and Lucas O’Rear (D5) on the floor. None of ’em are taller than 6-8, yet did just fine when matched up against a bigger, presumably more athletic Kansas team in the NCAA tournament.

Smart coaches figured out long ago that they can’t keep trotting out useless guys just because they look good in a uniform. More are going to do the same.

Then again, all of this doesn’t make recruiting easier. Coaches still have to find guys who can play…

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.