Revisiting College Basketball Mid-Majors You Need to Take Seriously
On March 5th, Bryan Mears wrote about five mid-majors that you need to take seriously. In just a few days, four of those five teams (with Larry Brown’s SMU squad as the first team out) will start their NCAA Tournament journey, looking to become the first team from a mid-major conference to win the Big Dance since the UNLV Running Rebels did so in 1990. That’s right, it’s been 24 years since a mid-major has won it all. That means most of the players participating in this year’s tournament weren't even born when the last mid-major won the National Championship.
With that said, as Bryan mentioned in his article, the mid-majors have really closed the gap over the past few years. Considering George Mason, Wichita State, VCU and Butler (twice) have each make the Final Four since 2006, teams from smaller conferences certainly should not be short on confidence, especially considering how wide open this year’s field is.
Here is a closer look at the four teams we covered a few weeks back that made the tournament, and their chances of making a deep run.
Wichita State Shockers
Conference: Missouri Valley Conference
Record: 34-0 (18-0)
Deepest Tournament Run (since expansion in 1985): Final Four; 2013
At this time last year, nobody was picking Wichita State to get very far in the Big Dance. What a difference a year can make.
This season, the Shockers returned four seniors from last year's team that made a Cinderella-type run to the Final Four. With that in mind, Wichita State came into this year with much higher expectations, and boy did they deliver. The Shockers absolutely dominated the Missouri Valley Conference en route to an undefeated regular season and a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, playing only six games all season that were even decided by single digits.
Led by All-American PG Fred VanVleet and his ridiculous 3.89 assist-to-turnover ratio, the Shockers have been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country this season. The Midwest region's number one seed posted a 116.2 offensive rating during the regular season, which was good for 10th in the nation. Additionally, this Wichita State squad has been incredibly balanced all season long. Senior forward Cleanthony Early leads the team with 15.8 points per game, but he's not the only member of the Shockers capable of scoring. Including Early, four of Wichita State's players average at least 10 points per game (Early, VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton) with three other contributing at least five points per game. With NCAA Tournament games often played at a slower, more deliberate pace the Shocker's diverse efficient offense could flourish in the Big Dance.
What truly makes this Shockers team special is that they play incredibly well on both sides of the ball. Sporting the nation's 13th-best defensive rating at 91.8, the Missouri Valley champions only gave up 70 points five times all season. Additionally, every player on Wichita State's roster has a defensive rating less than 98, which means there isn't a single weak link on the entire team defensively. With Senior center Kadeem Coleby (who averages 1.1 blocks per game and has an outstanding 90.5 defensive rating) anchoring the defense, opposing teams struggle to get into the paint and are often forced into bad shots.
With all that said, there are still some reasons to be skeptical about this Shockers team. First of all, Wichita State had just the 122nd-ranked strength of schedule, with Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis and Tennessee as the only tournament bound teams defeated. Additionally, the Shockers really only played in one close game all season, that being a 72-69 OT win over Missouri State.
Considering the fact that we have yet to see Wichita State really tested this season, it's hard to say how they'll play when the going gets tough. The real problem for the Shockers is that they don't really have anyone other than VanVleet who can shoot from the outside. He shoots 44.7% from beyond the arc, but nobody else on the Shockers shoots better than 40% from long-range. If Wichita State were to fall behind, their inability to shoot the three would certainly make it difficult to mount a comeback.
If the Shockers play as well as they have all season, and with a little luck of course, it is not inconceivable to think that they could make a run to their second consecutive Final Four. We saw Butler do so as a five seed in 2009, so why couldn't the Shockers do it as a one seed? Only time will tell.
San Diego State Aztecs
Conference: Mountain West Conference
Record: 29-4 (16-2)
Deepest Tournament Run: Sweet Sixteen; 2011
Other than an early season loss to Arizona (who happens to be the top seed in the West region), San Diego State started this season scorching hot, winning 21 of their first 22 games. During this run, the Aztecs beat a number of teams that made the NCAA Tournament, including a win at Kansas, the South region's two seed. Three of San Diego State's four losses came at the hands of tournament teams, too, including two to New Mexico, who they actually defeated earlier in the season. Other than an in-conference road loss to Wyoming, the Aztecs made it through this season with minimal blemishes and eventually ended up as a four-seed in their home West region.
Although point guard Xavier Thames - who leads the team in both points (16.8) and assists (3.2) per game - and forward Josh Davis are the team's only seniors, the Aztec's are full of veteran players with tournament experience. San Diego State's entire starting lineup played on last year's team which defeated Oklahoma in the "second round" of the Big Dance, and Matt Shrigley is the only freshman in the team's regular rotation.
The difference maker for this San Diego State squad is their suffocating defense. Coach Steve Fisher is known for putting together great defensive teams, but this Aztec's squad may be his best yet. The Mountain West regular season champions posted a ridiculous 87.1 defensive rating during the regular season, which is the best in the country. The Aztecs only gave up 70 points twice this season, both in wins, and pushed opposing teams under 50 points nine different times, including four games where they helped opponents score under 40 points. Similar to Wichita State, every single player on the Aztec's roster has a defensive rating less than 100, and that includes eight players with a defensive rating under 90.
When it comes to NCAA Tournament play, teams that play a fast-paced style and rely heavily on jump shooting often don't make it out of the first weekend. On the other hand, elite defensive teams are often matchup-proof, and are much more likely to make long runs in the tournament. With their tournament experience and outstanding defense, this Aztec's team is built to make a deep run.
With that said, San Diego State has a matchup with an incredibly tough 13 seeded New Mexico State team. As Drew Lieberman points out in his article discussing five potential big upsets in the NCAA Tournament, New Mexico State knocked off a New Mexico team that beat the Aztec's twice this year, and that game was at New Mexico. If San Diego State can survive their opening game against the Aggies, they could make a deep run in a wide-open West region, but that is definitely a big if.
Saint Louis Billikens
Conference: Atlantic Ten Conference
Record: 26-6 (13-3)
Deepest Tournament Run: Round of 32; 2012, 2013
Through the first three-quarters of the season, the Billikens looked like one of the best teams in the nation. Heading into Atlantic 10 conference play, Saint Louis had only lost to two teams, the Midwest region's top-seeded Wichita State and the West region's two seeded Wisconsin Badgers. With a strong finish to their season, the Billikens could have made a strong case for a two or three seed in the tournament, but unfortunately, they lost four of their last five games and now find themselves as a five seed playing in the always interesting 12/5 matchup.
The good news for Saint Louis is that they are an elite defensive team, just like San Diego State. The Billikens have the fifth-best defensive rating in the nation at 90.3, and have two extremely athletic big men, Rob Loe and John Manning, anchoring the defense. The length, athleticism and versatility of the Midwest region's five seed gives them a huge advantage over nearly every team in the nation, and should not only help keep opposing players out of the paint, but should create mismatches on offense as well, especially considering Rob Loe (who is nearly seven feet tall) has the ability to step out and shoot the three.
Additionally, similarly to the Shockers and the Aztecs, the Billikens' experience is a huge strength for the team. They're led by three seniors (Dwayne Evans, Jordair Jett and Rob Loe) who have been to the Big Dance the past two seasons, winning their first-round matchup in each. The problem for Saint Louis is that these three seniors account for an outrageous amount of the team's production - they are the team's three top scorers, three of the four top rebounders and three of the team's top five assisters. In addition, Evans (26%) and Jett (25.9%) account for the team's top two usage percentages. That means that the play runs through either Evans or Jett a monstrous 51.9% of the time they are on the floor.
Although Saint Louis is still uncertain as to who they will meet in their first-round matchup, they can be sure that it will not be an easy win. Both Xavier and NC State would pose tough tests for the Billikens, as they have faced tougher tests and are coming into the tournament with a chip on their shoulder.
New Mexico Lobos
Conference: Mountain West Conference
Record: 27-6 (15-3)
Deepest Tournament Run: Round of 32; 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2010, 2012
Coming off of an impressive run through the Mountain West Tournament, the Lobos look to use that momentum to propel them to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico played a pretty tough non-conference schedule this year, which included five games against eventual NCAA tournament teams, although they did only win two of them, defeating Cincinnati at home and splitting their two games with New Mexico State. The Lobos also took two out of their three games against in-conference rival San Diego State, as I mentioned earlier.
The Lobos are not an elite team on offense or defense, but they are very solid on both sides of the ball with their real advantage coming on the glass. New Mexico ranks 36th in the country averaging 38.2 offensive boards per game, and eighth in the nation with an impressive 27.5 defensive rebounds per game. The Mountain West Conference Champion's ability to create second chance opportunities for themselves and eliminate second chance opportunities for their opponents could be a huge advantage as they attempt to make a deep run in the tournament.
Although they may not be elite offensively or defensively, what the Lobos have that no other team in the country does in Cameron Bairstow. Bairstow, who was featured in Stew Bratcher's highlight of players capable of taking over the NCAA Tournament, is a long, athletic combo forward who, at 6'9'', 250 pounds, can be a walking mismatch for New Mexico. The senior All-American leads the Lobos with 20.3 points per game, and adds 7.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Not only is Bairstow effective with his back to the basket, but he has the ability to step out and shoot the three too, which is why it is no surprise that he has a massive 29.8% usage percentage for the Lobos.
Despite winning the Mountain West, the Lobos find themselves in a tough opening matchup against a super athletic Stanford squad poised to prove they belong in the field of 68. Additionally, even if New Mexico is able to find their way past the Cardinals, they are positioned in an absolutely loaded South region, which includes a Syracuse team that started the year 25-0, a Kansas team that features two potential top-three picks in this year's NBA draft and, oh yeah, the number one overall seed in the tournament in the Florida Gators. That's not good.
Of all the four teams discussed in this article, New Mexico definitely has the toughest road to the Final Four but, as we've seen in the past, any team with a player as talented as Cameron Bairstow has a chance to shake things up. A potential "third-round" matchup between Bairstow and Andrew Wiggins has fireworks written all over it, and could be an absolute gift for college basketball fans everywhere.