1. Wichita State
Wichita State is once again the nation’s top mid-major. The Shockers return their backcourt of All-American junior Fred VanVleet, junior Ron Baker and senior Tekele Cotton. Plus they have two talented newcomers in freshman Rashard Kelly and junior college transfer Tom Wamukota.
This could be the year Gonzaga finally breaks through to a Final Four. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are back for their senior seasons, and center Przemek Karnowski is also back after an impressive sophomore year. The Zags add former USC leading scorer Byron Wesley, ex-Kentucky sharpshooter Kyle Wiltjer and midseason transfer Eric McClellan, who led Vanderbilt in scoring through 12 games last season.
The Bulldogs also have a pair of skilled freshmen in Josh Perkins and Domantas Sabonis, the son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis.
Harvard returns its top three scorers from last year’s team, which won a NCAA Tournament game and very nearly reached the Sweet 16. Senior Wesley Saunders and junior Siyani Chambers are a great backcourt duo, and junior Steve Moundou-Missi emerged as one of the Ivy League’s best big men.
4. Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa was talented last season but struggled to win on the road. The Panthers return all five starters and add Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson. With an extra year of experience and an added boost, the Panthers could become a very dangerous mid-major.
Iona is going for its third MAAC regular season title in four years. The Gaels lost leading scorer Sean Armand, but versatile forward David Laury and guards A.J. English and Isaiah Williams form an incredible trio.
6. Georgia State
Georgia State will put a scare into any team it plays with a backcourt of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow. Both are tremendous scorers, and Harrow has developed into a solid point guard despite a rough year in the spotlight at Kentucky.
7. Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech does not have the same depth as last year, but they still have a ton of talent. Alex Hamilton and Raheem Appleby can score, Kenneth Smith is the nation’s top returner in assists and Michale Kyser is a double-double type of a guy and a great shot blocker.
BYU has great depth and a dominant scorer in Tyler Haws. Kyle Collinsworth is coming off an ACL injury in March, but he is also one of the better mid-major players in the nation.
If Toledo improves on the defensive end, it can make a move in March. The Rockets had the nation’s 31st-most efficient offensive, according to kenpom.com, and they return four starters.
10. Murray State
The inside-outside duo of sophomore Cameron Payne and senior Jarvis Williams will give teams nightmares. Payne was named the Preseason OVC Player of the Year, and Williams was also named to the first team.
11. UC Irvine
UC Irvine returns four starters and all of its main reserves from a team that won 23 games. The Anteaters are one of the nation’s better teams when it comes to defending and rebounding.
12. Stephen F. Austin
It would not be the most surprising thing in the world if Stephen F. Austin runs the table in the Southland again. The Lumberjacks lost two starters and their sixth man, but on a roster with so much depth they can make up for those losses.
13. Cleveland State
Losing Bryn Forbes hurts the Vikings a ton, but no Horizon League team has a better top-three players than Trey Lewis, Charlie Lee and Anton Grady.
14. Green Bay
Keifer Sykes is one of the best guards in college basketball, but the Phoenix have to replace big man Alec Brown. Seniors Greg Mays and Alfonzo McKinnie, who spent a lot of last season injured, will need to produce in the frontcourt.
15. Saint Mary’s
Saint Mary’s will remain strong despite losing three of its top five scorers. Brad Waldow is a beast in the post, and Kerry Carter is a lethal shooter. At in transfers Aaron Bright (via Stanford), Desmond Simmons (Washington) and Joe Coleman (Minnesota), and you have a team with the potential to reach the NCAA Tournament.
16. New Mexico State
New Mexico State is not as deep or as talented as it was last season, but the Aggies are still the favorite to return to the NCAA Tournament out of the WAC. Daniel Mullings is the reigning WAC Player of the Year. Tshilidzi Nephawe often got overshadowed by 7-5 center Sim Bhullar, literally and figuratively. But with Bhullar gone, people will start to realize how good Nephawe as down low.
17. Florida Gulf Coast
Dunk City has a good chance to return to the NCAA Tournament. Brett Comer, Bernard Thompson and Jamail Jones head a dangerous backcourt, and they are joined by transfers Julian DeBose (via Rice) and Brian Greene Jr. (via Auburn).
Wofford returned to the NCAA Tournament last year and brings back every significant player. The trio of Karl Cochran, Spencer Collins and Lee Skinner should be able to lead the Terriers to another appearance at the Big Dance.
UTEP was one of the hottest mid-majors the final two months of last season. The Miners finished with 23 wins, and now they return four starters. They will be Conference USA contenders this season.
Evansville should be one of the more improved teams in college basketball this year. The Aces return their entire rotation while adding a pair of impact, junior college transfers. D.J. Balentine is one of the nation’s best scorers, and Egidijus Mockevicius is one of the better mid-major big men.
21. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers enter this first year in Conference USA as one of the league’s better teams. They won 20 games last season and return their top four scorers.
Yale finished second in the Ivy League behind only Harvard. With seven of their top eight scorers returning, the Bulldogs will once again be the Crimson’s main competition.
Siena won the CBI title last season, setting the team up as MAAC contenders this season. The Saints return every player who saw action in at least 30 games, including Rob Poole. Poole should be one of the MAAC’s top scorers this year.
24. Illinois State
The Redbirds lose a few key pieces but overall should be better than last season. The backcourt tandem of Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter and Paris Lee will continue to cause trouble for other teams. With freshmen forwards MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins joining sophomore Reggie Lynch, the front line will be much-improved.
Belmont loses leading scorer J.J. Mann and two other starters, but the Bruins will remain an OVC contender with Craig Bradshaw, Reece Chamberlain and Evan Bradds returning.
Others to consider: American, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Columbia, Hofstra, Louisiana-Lafayette, Manhattan, Morehead State, North Carolina Central, San Diego
For all your college basketball news and updates, follow The Catch and Shoot on Twitter @Catch_N_Shoot.