5 College Basketball Mid-Majors You Need to Take Seriously
I’m sure you already know this off the top of your head, but here is a list of the college basketball National Championship winners this millennium:
2000 - Michigan State
2001 - Duke
2002 - Maryland
2003 - Syracuse
2004 - Connecticut
2005 - North Carolina
2006 - Florida
2007 - Florida
2008 - Kansas
2009 - North Carolina
2010 - Duke
2011 - Connecticut
2012 - Kentucky
2013 - Louisville
Are you seeing a trend? The last 14 years or so (and I could have gone back way longer) have been dominated by the old, storied programs in college basketball. However, over the last five years, mid-majors are starting to catch up with these teams.
Last year we had Wichita State in the Final Four, and three years ago we had a Butler versus VCU matchup in the Final Four. The year before that, Brad Stevens and his Butler Bulldogs were a half-inch away from Gordon Hayward draining a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat Duke for the national title.
So what about this year? Is this the year that a mid-major finally rises up and takes the whole thing? Let’s break down some of the best of the bunch this year and see.
Wichita State Shockers
Conference: Missouri Valley Conference
Record: 31-0 (18-0)
AP Rank: 2
Deepest Tournament Run (since expansion in 1985): Final Four; 2013
After losing a heartbreaker in the Final Four last year to eventual champion Louisville, the Shockers attacked this season with a mission. You could say that it’s going pretty well – they only finished the regular season undefeated. From the records, it looks like they are the 26th team to accomplish such a feat. And out of those 26 teams, seven went on to win the national championship. Just putting that out there.
The name of the game for the Shockers this year is efficiency and defense. They have an ORtg (points scored per 100 possessions) of 115.4, which ranks 15th in the nation. Defensively, they allow 59.9 points per game, which is 12th nationally. That is certainly a recipe to not only win a lot of games in the regular season, but also to go far in the tournament. Defense travels and offense efficiency, especially in the halfcourt, is what wins games in the final minutes.
They’re led by sophomore point guard, Fred VanVleet, who was already named as the MVC player of the year. He isn’t a volume scorer, but does just about everything well, averaging 11.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He’s also shooting 48.5% from the field, which is crazy good for a point guard, and also a ridiculous 42.7% from the three. Oh yeah, and he has a 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.
San Diego State Aztecs
Conference: Mountain West Conference
Record: 25-3 (14-2)
AP Rank: 10
Deepest Tournament Run: Sweet Sixteen; 2011
While head coach Steve Fisher is best known for winning the National Championship with Michigan in 1989 and recruiting the famous Fab Five in 1991, he has done a marvelous job growing the program at San Diego State since 1999. They were a number two seed in 2011 with current Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, and look to be in that same 2-3 range again this year.
That 2011 team has something in common with this current Aztecs team - an elite defense. In 2011, they had the 12th-best DRtg (points allowed per 100 possessions) and were also 7th in the nation in points allowed per game. This year, they have even better marks. In fact, they statistically have the best defense in the nation, with a DRtg of 87.6.
They only have three losses on the year - a close one to Arizona in the second game of the season, at Wyoming, and at New Mexico (who also made this list). They have some impressive wins under their belt, including one versus Creighton (would have made this list, but moved to the Big East this year) and on the road against Kansas. They have one last showdown against New Mexico this Saturday at home, where the winner will get the top seed in the conference tournament the following week.
As said above, defense is consistent. Teams that rely on pace and jump shooting in the tournament very often find their way out quickly. Defense is matchup-proof and is the key to a long tournament run. Fisher and his Aztecs have a decent shot at making another Sweet Sixteen this year with a little bit of luck.
Saint Louis Billikens
Conference: Atlantic 10 Conference
Record: 25-4 (12-2)
AP Rank: 17
Deepest Tournament Run: Round of 32; 2012, 2013
Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews was an assistant for the great Rick Majerus and took over last year after Majerus' sad passing. Majerus would be proud of his Billikens, as they've had an unbelievable season so far this year. Last season they won their conference for the first time since 1957, and will do so again if they can beat Dayton tonight and Massachusetts on Saturday to end the season.
Since mid-majors generally don't get the highly recruited high school players, they have to adapt different strategies to account for the talent disparity. The most common strategy found in the elite mid-majors, as shown above, is coaching and defense. Saint Louis has both of these. They have the fourth-best defense in the nation, boasting a DRtg of 89.2. They are also 15th in points allowed per game with 60.5 average.
The knock on the Billikens is their strength of schedule, which currently ranks 110th in the country. They've only played two ranked opponents this year, Wichita State and Wisconsin, and although they got both of them at home, lost both contests. They've lost their last two games to Duquesne and VCU, and will likely need to win their conference tournament in Brooklyn next week if they want to solidify a top-five seed in the NCAA. This is also why they've ranked as one of the more overrated squads according to numberFire metrics.
Southern Methodist Mustangs
Conference: American Athletic Conference
Record: 23-6 (12-4)
AP Rank: 18
Deepest Tournament Run: Round of 32; 1985, 1988
I'm still considering SMU a mid-major this year, even though they're now a part of the American Athletic Conference, which now has former Big East teams like Louisville, Cincinnati, and Connecticut. The fact that they're currently third in the toughest conference they've ever been a part of is a testament to this year's Mustangs, led by head coach and NBA great Larry Brown.
They have impressive wins over Virginia, Connecticut twice, Memphis, and Cincinnati. This week's slate is tough, as they end their season at home against Louisville tonight and then at Memphis on Saturday. If they can hold their own this week and make it to the final day of a tough conference tournament, they will likely move up the board on Selection Sunday.
What has been their formula for success this year? I know you're probably sick of hearing it, but it's defense again. They rank 16th nationally in defense, with a 92.3 DRtg, and 17th in points allowed at 61.2 per game. Offensively, they only have two double-digits scorers - Nic Moore at 14.1 a game and Markus Kennedy at 11.9 per game. They have a balanced attack and shoot 49.2% from the field on the season.
They rank 152nd in points scored per game, so in the NCAA tournament they'll look to slow down the tempo and win ugly, something they've shown they can do regularly this season. Coaching is important, and the Mustangs have a Hall of Famer.
New Mexico Lobos
Conference: Mountain West Conference
Record: 23-5 (14-2)
AP Rank: 21
Deepest Tournament Run: Round of 32; 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2010, 2012
New Mexico is the exception to our mid-major defense rule - they are 100th in DRtg and 99th in points allowed per game. Offensively, they are a little bit better, ranking 42nd in ORtg and 72nd in points scored per game. As a result, they're actually a team ranked closer to 40 than 20 according to our metrics.
They have only played two ranked teams on the year, losing to Kansas by 17 in December and beating San Diego State by 14 a couple weeks ago. They're a bit all over the map and will need to play more efficiently if they want to make a tournament run this year.
They are led by senior forward Cameron Bairstow, who is averaging an impressive 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while also averaging 8.4 free throw attempts a game. Guard Kendall Williams has also had his best season, averaging 16.9 points and 5.1 assists per game.
The Lobos haven't made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the 64-team tournament era, but have a good shot to break that barrier this year. The biggest thing they have going for them is their experience - five of their top six players in terms of minutes are juniors and seniors, with freshman Cullen Neal as the one exception. They have one last showdown at San Diego State on Saturday, and if they can win that against a top-10 Aztecs team (sweeping them on the year), they will be set up for a five or six seed in the Big Dance.