By Jesse Kramer
We are still about six months away from the start of the college basketball season, but why not take a way-too-early look at some of the best mid-majors for 2013-14? You can also check out my Ultra Early Top 25 Rankings and Bracketology.
Gonzaga will remain plenty strong for the 2013-14 season. The Zags’ frontcourt will be thinner without Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk and Guy Landry Edi, but they do return Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., Sam Dower and Prezmek Karnowski. They will add Providence transfer Gerard Coleman and Louisville transfer Angel Nunez. This team could once again go undefeated in the West Coast Conference and earn a very good seed in the NCAA tournament.
Harvard won an NCAA tournament game in 2013 for the first time in its history, and the program is still rising. Shooting guard Christian Webster graduates, but the Crimson’s other four starters will return. Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, the team’s former co-captains who withdrew from Harvard in the wake of a cheating scandal, are eligible to return as well.
3. Indiana State
Indiana State was a bubble team for a large portion of the 2012-13 season but wound up as a No. 6 seed in the NIT. The Sycamores will return everyone, including star point guard Jake Odum. Odum led them in scoring (13.6 ppg), assists (4.6 apg) and steals (1.5 spg), and was second in rebounding (4.5 rpg).
4. Wichita State
Wichita State will once again be a Missouri Valley contender. Although the Shockers lose Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead, Demetric Williams and reserve center Ehimen Orukpe, they return leading scorer Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton and rising sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. And considering Gregg Marshall led Wichita State to the 2013 Final Four after losing all five starter’s the year before, you can’t doubt that the Shockers will reload once again.
Denver tied for first place in its final year in the WAC but was upset early in the conference tournament, leading to a NIT berth. The Pioneers, now members of the Summit League, return four starters, including their top three scorers and assisters.
6. Brigham Young
BYU’s backcourt will be phenomenal next season as the Cougars retain Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino. In 2012-13, those two combined for 33.2 points, 6.8 assists and 3.1 steals per game. However, they will not have a proven forward as Brandon Davies has exhausted his eligibility. Rising juniors Nate Austin and Josh Sharp could be ready to fill that void.
7. Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech rose into the AP Top 25 late in the 2012-13 season, and the Bulldogs return all but one key player, Brandon Gibson. Raheem Appleby was the star last season with 14.9 points per game, but the Bulldogs had nine players receiving more than 14 minutes per game and all of them scored more than four points per game.
8. Wright State
Wright State was one of the pleasant surprises in the 2012-13 season. The Raiders, picked to finish in the bottom half of the Horizon League, got off to a great start and wound up finished in third place. They advanced to the conference title game and then to the CBI semifinals in the postseason. They will return everyone, making them the favorites in the Horizon League next season.
9. Southern Mississippi
Southern Miss loses a pair of starters, including leading scorer Dwayne Davis, but with a backcourt of Neil Watson and Jerrold Brooks the Golden Eagles will still be in good shape. They also add three transfers capable of making a big impact: guards Aaron Brown from Temple and Chip Armelin from Minnesota, and center Ude Ifeanyichukwu, who averaged 7.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks at Laramie County Community College last season.
10. Long Beach State
The Beach loses James Ennis, who was easily its best player last season, but it returns point guard Mike Caffey and high-impact transfers Tony Freeland, Keala King and Dan Jennings. All four players are potential All-Big West First Team players.
11. North Dakota State
Denver is the favorite in the Summit League, but North Dakota State is not far behind. The Bison, who were unbeaten in conference play last season until leading scorer Taylor Braun broke his foot, return all five starters plus its three main reserves.
Detroit will also contend for the Horizon League title. The Titans lose three starters, Doug Anderson, Jason Calliste and Nick Minnerath, but they return star point guard Ray McCallum, who has carried the team for the past three seasons. McCallum will have a good supporting cast once again with forwards Juwan Howard Jr. and Evan Bruinsma, Michigan transfer Carlton Brundidge and Highland Community College transfer Patrick Onwenu.
13. New Mexico State
New Mexico State loses a pair of forwards, Bandja Sy and Tyrone Watson, but that issue should be mitigated as 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar continues to improve and emerge as a force during his sophomore season. The Aggies also return leading scorer Daniel Mullings.
14. Florida Gulf Coast
Things will be a bit different in Dunk City, but the Eagles will still be strong. First off, Andy Enfield took a head coaching job at USC, so former Kansas assistant is now has the same position at FGCU. Also, the Eagles lose leading scorer Sherwood Brown and key role player Eddie Murray. But with Brett Comer, Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight back, plus the addition of Marquette transfer Jamail Jones, Florida Gulf Coast will be the favorite in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Towson will bring back a CAA Player of the Year frontrunner in forward Jerrelle Benimon, who averaged 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. The Tigers are return their next four leading scorers, and they will also add Vermont transfer Four McGlynn, who was the America East Rookie of the Year in 2012. Although they won only one game two seasons ago, the Tigers could be a dangerous mid-major next season.
16. Weber State
Weber State loses two starters, Scott Bamforth and Frank Otis, but the CIT runner-ups will contend for the Big Sky title once more in 2014. Rising senior Davion Berry is among the best players in the league, and center Kyle Tresnak could join that company as he takes on a larger role next season.
17. Eastern Kentucky
As Belmont and Murray State take a step down, this could be Eastern Kentucky’s year to win the Ohio Valley Conference. The Colonels return four starters and their entire bench from a team that won 25 games last season.
Niagara is faced with an issue it has seen many times in recent years: fantastic guard play, but a lack of a good presence inside. The Purple Eagles, who are now led by first-year head coach Chris Casey, return All-MAAC first-teamers Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason in the backcourt. They retain forward T.J. Cline, an All-MAAC rookie selection last season, but Cline is more of a stretch four than a traditional forward.
Montana returns Kareem Jamar, one of the most versatile players in college basketball. Last season, Jamar averaged 14.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. The Grizzlies will also return Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields to their backcourt, and Spencer Coleman and Mike Weisner up front.
20. Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky graduates star point guard Jamal Crook but returns its four other starters. Guard T.J. Price, who averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists, will be in the running for Sun Belt Player of the Year, and rising junior George Fant has proved that he is a force in the frontcourt.
Manhattan returns the bulk of last year’s squad, with the only significant loss being that of forward Roberto Colonette. Two-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Rhamel Brown is back, as is redshirt senior George Beamon, who led the conference in scoring in 2011-12. The Jaspers also return Co-MAAC Rookie of the Year Shane Richards and add Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey.
Belmont loses a lot of talent, including its top three scorers, but you can never doubt Rick Byrd to keep his team in good shape. The Bruins’ success could heavily depend upon rising junior Reece Chamberlain’s ability to progress as the team’s starting point guard.
23. Boston U
Boston will be the favorite in its first year as a member of the Patriot League. The Terriers, who went 17-13 in the America East last season, return their entire roster.
24. Georgia State
Georgia State is another team in a new league, the Sun Belt, that could win a conference title in its first year. The Panthers struggled to a 15-16 overall record with a young team, but they will return everyone but 6-foot-10 center James Vincent.
25. Florida International
Under first-year head coach Richard Pitino, Florida International advanced to the Sun Belt title game, where it lost to Western Kentucky. Pitino then bolted for Minnesota, but the Panthers made a strong hire of Norfolk State head coach Anthony Evans. The Panthers lose a few role players, but they return their top three scorers in Tymell Murphy, Malik Smith and Jerome Frink, in addition to pesky point guard Deric Hill.