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ESPN’s panel of experts is making predictions as the countdown to the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 9 begins. We start with the finest of the mid-major conferences, which includes a league (the West Coast Conference) that has a club that is safely outside of the mid-major realm: the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
In 2020-21, the Zags came up one victory shy of a record unbeaten season, and our writers, Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, and Joe Lunardi, debated whether Mark Few and his squad could take the last step toward a title. Gonzaga is generally anticipated to be rated No. 1 in the AP preseason poll when it is released on Monday, Oct. 18. Gonzaga topped Jeff Borzello’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 on Monday.
A look at the most intriguing non-Gonzaga teams from mid-major conferences, the most underrated coaches from this tier, and the low-majors that savvy college basketball observers should keep an eye on in 2021-22 is also included in our look at the “top leagues beyond the top leagues” (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt, WCC).
Superlatives | Roundtable | Picks | Superlatives
Superlatives for mid-majors in 2021-22
Athlete of the Year
Drew Timme, Gonzaga, Medcalf: Borzello: Gonzaga’s Drew Timme Drew Timme, Gonzaga: Drew Timme, Gonzaga: Drew Timme, Gonzaga: Drew Timme, Drew Timme, Gonzaga, Lunardi
Newcomer of the Year is a prestigious award given to a newcomer
Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga, Medcalf: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga, Borzello: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga: Gasaway Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga, Lunardi
Writers’ roundtable for the mid-majors in 2021-22
Gonzaga will most likely be the team to beat in NCAA basketball in 2021-22. Give us one reason why you believe the Zags will complete the job and chop down the nets in New Orleans, and one reason why Mark Few’s team concerns you.
Medcalf: Mark Few typically makes a run when he has an outstanding frontcourt. Gonzaga is no stranger to this. In 2017, he made it to the national championship game with Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams, and Zach Collins. Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke headed an Elite Eight squad two years later. At such locations, he possesses star power once more. This is, however, Mark Few’s most distinctive frontcourt. Chet Holmgren is the best player he’s ever had. He’s a 7-footer who can move the ball up the floor, make 3-pointers from beyond the arc, block shots inside the rim’s air area, and score in the post. People are always commenting about his weight. But Holmgren isn’t exactly a thin player for the first time in his life. Don’t be fooled by his good looks; he’s a problem.
Who will protect it if Drew Timme and Holmgren team up? Andrew Nembhard and the other talented players on this squad have yet to be mentioned. Holmgren has the ability to make opposition big men play in space. You’ll also need to find someone to deal with Timme. For opposing teams, I believe Few has his most confusing frontcourt. That’s why, after coming so close so many times, it’s easy to imagine Gonzaga earning its first national title.
Timme and Holmgren, I believe, may provide some difficulties for a Gonzaga team that must defend at a high level. In recent years, the conventional two-big lineup hasn’t worked. The 2017 matchup between Gonzaga and North Carolina currently looks to be an exception. Can the Zags handle a team like Baylor from last season? Many teams in the landscape will maintain three or four guards on the floor, and Few will be challenged to defend that with a pair of bigs. That, I believe, is the issue. If Gonzaga makes it to the Final Four, will it receive the proper matchups?
Borzello: Because Gonzaga is my preseason No. 1 team, I should advocate much more forcefully for the Zags to take down the nets in six months. The fact that Few’s squad has the greatest returning player in college basketball in Timme and the best newcomer in Holmgren is at the top of my list of reasons for picking them to win it all. While defense and role allocation may take some time to smooth out, opponents will have nightmares with those two. When you add in Nembhard, Hunter Sallis, Nolan Hickman, Rasir Bolton, and Anton Watson, you have a squad that is deep, skilled, and experienced, as well as one that will be hungry after falling short last season.
My main worry stems from Gonzaga’s impressive recruiting efforts: will Few be able to keep everyone happy? It’s a question we normally ask of the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world (and this year, Texas and Memphis), but Gonzaga is bringing in two five-star guards and an All-Big 12 guard, and all three will expect to play big minutes. Sallis, Hickman, and Bolton may have a lesser role than expected now that Nembhard is a sure starter. These problems usually sort themselves out, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. The only other issue is one that was mentioned earlier: how Timme and Holmgren will get along, particularly on defense.
Can Drew Timme (2) and Gonzaga take one more championship stride now that Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs have left for the NBA? Darron Cummings/AP Photo
Gasaway: When a team gets a succession of extremely high seeding in a short period of time without winning a national championship, one of two things happens. To begin with, everyone will scream at that squad, claiming that the coach is overrated, the league is weak, and the club would never win the championship. Two, the squad will take home the championship. See Duke from 1991 to 2014, Villanova from 2014 to 2016, and Virginia from 2014 to 2019. The Zags are on their way.
Coaches that have to come up with a defense against Holmgren, Timme, and Nembhard have their work cut out for them. Yes, Gonzaga will break through shortly, but it doesn’t mean this season will be a foregone conclusion. Last season, yours truly speculated on what could happen if the Bulldogs were up against an opponent that went for offensive rebounds with fury. After seeing Few’s squad beat Evan Mobley and the greatest USC team in 50 years in the Elite Eight, I stayed silent on the subject. I should have stood firm in my convictions! With second opportunities, Baylor annihilated the Zags mercilessly and completely (plus a relative lack of turnovers). It’s the one box the Bulldogs haven’t checked yet.
Lunardi: Gonzaga will have the greatest starting five in NCAA basketball, and it isn’t a toss-up. That’s the good news, and it’s a solid reason to choose the Zags as the team to beat when the season starts. My main worry is the lingering effects of the near-title run in 2021, as well as the sour taste left after losing so decisively to Baylor in the NCAA final.
In 2020-21, Gonzaga was really exceptional, one of the greatest teams in the 2000s. I’m not certain the new-look Zags will be that excellent across the board, which would relegate them to the pack in many ways. If this were a binary test, and the two options were for the Bulldogs to win the national championship or miss the Final Four, I’d go with likelihood and choose the latter.
What club from the mid-major conferences do you have your eye on in 2021-22, apart from Gonzaga?
Beware of the Bonnies, says Gasaway. Last year’s starters for St. Bonaventure were Osun Osunniyi, Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes, Dominick Welch, and Jalen Adaway. Now that Mark Schmidt has them all back, they’re all seniors. Opponents despise playing against this unit, which is why Schmidt brought in transfers Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (from Pitt) and Quadry Adams (Wake Forest). The Bonnies were given a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament for 2021. In the round of 64 in 2022, they have a strong chance of wearing home jerseys.
Borzello: The only other club from a mid-major conference in my preseason top 25 is St. Bonaventure, but Gasaway has already researched and utilized my rankings, so I’ll go with a team just outside my rankings: Colorado State.
Niko Medved brings back every player from one of the previous teams to miss the NCAA tournament, as well as Chandler Jacobs (a Division II All-American at Dallas Baptist) and Baylor Hebb (a contributor from Loyola Chicago). Inside-outside combination Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy are outstanding, while Kendle Moore and Adam Thistlewood are two additional players of the Mountain West’s top offense. The Rams’ success will hinge on their ability to improve on defense; they must defend the ball better inside the arc and rebound more efficiently. In December, Medved and his squad will have an opportunity to make a statement against Alabama.
Colorado State and David Roddy seem to be the Mountain West’s most serious national threat. Pool photo by Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Lunardi: Without a doubt, St. Bonaventure. How many teams nowadays bring back five juniors to start as seniors? There is just one, and it is located in the tropical paradise of Olean, New York. The Bonnies are set to have their greatest season since Bob Lanier was a student on campus.
Medcalf: I’m going to go with Louisiana Tech. Kenneth Lofton Jr., who scored 16 points in the Under-19 FIBA World Championships championship game in July, has shown a lot of promise. It was a natural continuation of the 6-foot-7, 275-pound big man’s late-season success. Lofton scored 20.0 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game in the NIT, including victories against Colorado State, Western Kentucky, and Ole Miss. He also connected on 59 percent of his attempts within the arc. He’s on an amazing journey. Plus, four-year starter Amorie Archibald (10.0 PP) comes returning for her fifth season after taking advantage of the NCAA’s free year. In Ruston, Eric Konkol has a mid-major sleeper.
Make a case for one coach from the mid-major leagues who does not get the national recognition he deserves.
Lunardi: Mark Schmidt is still at St. Bonaventure for some reason that I don’t understand (actually I do, but it has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with Schmidt being smart enough to know he has it pretty good in Olean). The Power 5 isn’t always what they seem to be. There’s much to be said about consistency, being in shape, and having simple access to tee times. If Schmidt were to go up, one gets the impression that it would have occurred by now.
Gasaway is my pick for All-Star. Unsung is following in the footsteps of perhaps the most successful coach in the history of his program. To put it mildly, that’s a difficult job. Yet, so far, this coach has done so with an unusual level of success…and much too little public attention. Brian Dutcher is in his sixth season as a member of the San Diego State football team. His teams have gone 53-7 in the past two years, and if the NCAA tournament had been held in 2020, the seeding the Aztecs would have had (possibly a No. 2 and a genuine No. 6) would have been the same as what SDSU had in the Steve Fisher era with a certain player called Kawhi. (Well, one of those years, a particular person was there.) Dutcher has been able to build on the success that Fisher had with a previously unsuccessful program. A cursory glance at collegiate basketball over the past 20 years reveals that this is very tough to do.
This season, Rob Lanier and Georgia State are expected to get more national attention. Icon Sportswire/Rich von Biberstein
Rob Lanier is entering his third season at Georgia State, and he has big hopes. Last season, his squad overcame numerous COVID-related problems and advanced to the Sun Belt Conference championship game. Georgia State may return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years thanks to returning skill (see: Corey Allen, 15.0 PPG) and new talent (see: Western Kentucky transfer Jordan Rawls). Georgia State has a chance to make some noise in the playoffs without the difficulties it had last season. I also believe that Lanier, who has worked as an assistant or head coach at virtually every school east of the Mississippi River, will utilize his national connections to win every year in the transfer market. He was a major part of Tennessee’s most successful years under Rick Barnes, and now he’s guiding Georgia State into the next phase.
Borzello: Mark Pope, whether at BYU or a top-tier high-major school, is going to be a huge star for years to come. He does, however, get a lot of attention. So I’m going with Wright State’s Scott Nagy, who is much more under-the-radar. Despite continuous performance for more than a decade at two separate institutions, Nagy is seldom considered for high-major job vacancies. He’s won at least a share of the Horizon League regular-season championship in three of the past four seasons at Wright State, and he’s won at least 18 games in each of the last 11 seasons at South Dakota State and Wright State. In the past decade, he’s attended four NCAA tournaments. The only thing missing from his resume is an NCAA tournament victory, but with four players returning from last season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Raiders return to the tournament in 2022.
Outside of the mid-majors listed above and the power conferences we’ll discuss next, which team should get the most national attention in 2021-22?
Gasaway: With respect to Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, and Tennessee State, Belmont would most certainly win a Nashville Classic in 2021-22. Casey Alexander returns almost everyone from a team that went 26-3 in the Ohio Valley championship game in 2021 before losing to Morehead State and missed the field of 68. Last season, both Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy were named first-team All-OVC, and this pick meets the “outside of the mid-major group described above” criteria. The Bruins will not be relocated to the Missouri Valley until the following season.
Medcalf: It’s Belmont, for sure. According to hooplens.com, Belmont hit a staggering 62 percent of their shots inside the arc with Muszynski and Murphy on the court together last season. When the Bruins were on the floor, they also limited opponents to 91 points per 100 possessions on defense. That’s also impressive. Is it equally impressive? Opposing teams scored only 92 points per 100 possessions when they didn’t have the combination on the court. That, I believe, testifies to Alexander’s roster’s balance. Except for the other Ohio Valley Conference schools, Belmont’s “OVC Farewell Tour” before to its departure to The Valley should be entertaining for everyone.
This season, Casey Alexander and Belmont have a chance to win the OVC before heading to the Missouri Valley. Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire photo
Borzello: I’m sure it’s Belmont. The Bruins were in the initial version of my Way-Too-Early Top 25 back in early April, and although they’ve been passed by teams since then, they’ve brought back almost everyone from a club that won 21 games in a row before faltering down the line last season. Muszynski, who was injured for a couple of the late defeats, will lead the way, along with Murphy, the OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Last season, the Bruins were very effective on offense, finishing third in the country in 2-point percentage. With games against LSU, Drake, and perhaps Alabama early in the season, they’ll have an opportunity to raise their possible at-large status.
Lunardi: Let me throw Liberty into the mix now that everyone (rightfully) agrees on Belmont. The Flames, who finished with a 23-6 record and a No. 13 seed in last year’s tournament, return important players and may go even better this year. Coach Ritchie McKay will have two of the Atlantic Sun’s top players in senior Darius McGhee and sophomore Blake Preston, and the Flames will be strongly favored to earn their third consecutive NCAA invitation.
Predictions for the champions of the mid-majors in the years 2021-22
Georgia State (Sun Belt), Gonzaga (WCC), and St. Bonaventure (all unanimous) (A-10)
Buffalo (MAC), Chattanooga (SoCon), Colorado State (Mountain West), Drake (Missouri Valley), UAB (C-USA), Yale are the consensus picks (Ivy)
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