2021-22 Preseason Mid-Major Top 25

Mid-Major Top 25
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Everyone loves a good Cinderella story. The month of March gives us plenty of those. Last season it was Oral Roberts. UMBC was everyone’s darling back in 2018. And there are a number of other stories just like that, each unique in their own way. Trying to find the next great Cinderella truly begins in November. Mid-major teams that can cause madness have to prove they are worthy of that early in the season. Let LWOS help you in identifying some of those squads. The preseason mid-major top 25 is here.

Preseason Mid-Major Top 25

25. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

South Dakota State was one of just a few very solid teams to fall victim to Oral Roberts in March. The Jackrabbits won the Summit League regular-season title but were upset in the league tournament semis by Max Abmas and company. With all five starters and key bench pieces back, South Dakota State is ready to run it back and finish the job this time. Douglas Wilson, Noah Freidel, and Baylor Scheierman each averaged at least 15 points per game last season, with Scheierman also averaging a little over nine rebounds per game. He is a solid pro prospect that should dominate the Summit League for as long as he stays in Brookings, SD.

This is a deadly shooting team, finishing second in the nation in effective field goal percentage and sixth in three-point percentage a year ago. Defense is an area of improvement for this group, especially in forcing turnovers. However, the Jackrabbits are poised to be the class of the Summit League once again and should be even more improved with everyone having another year under their belt.

24. Loyola Marymount Lions

Loyola Marymount quietly finished in third place in the WCC last season, ahead of teams like St. Mary’s, San Francisco, and Pepperdine, who all had high expectations in 2020-21. The Lions have high expectations getting placed upon them for the new season, as all five starters are back. It starts with Eli Scott, who is using his extra year. Scott led the team in points, rebounds, and assists last season, and is the kind of playmaker that could carry the team if needed. Dameane Douglas will be back after suffering a season-ending injury halfway through last year. Keli Leaupepe rounds out the frontcourt while Joe Quintana and Jalin Anderson hold down the backcourt.

Those five will be joined by some key transfers in Cam Shelton (Northern Arizona), Gary Harris (Siena), Kwane Marble (Wyoming), and Alex Merkviladze (CSU Northridge). LMU will be undersized in most of their match-ups, but this is a scrappy team that will fight for boards, finishing second in opponent offensive rebound percentage last season according to KenPom. However, the Lions will need to take care of the ball, as they turned it over far too much. The continuity has hopes high in Los Angeles, and Loyola Marymount has the potential to earn the school’s first NCAA bid since 1990.

23. Saint Louis Billikens

Saint Louis had high expectations last season but ended up settling for an NIT appearance in which they bowed out in the first round. The Billikens find themselves still considered one of the better mid-major programs out there, but the buzz won’t be as loud for 2021-22. A big reason for that is the loss of Javonte Perkins, last season’s leading scorer (17.1 points per game). He suffered an ACL tear in preseason practice. Yuri Collins and Gibson Jimerson are the other two returning starters.

Part of the reason why SLU could still compete is the arrival of some talented transfers. Rashad Williams is a deadly shooter that comes from Oakland. DeAndre Jones is a great passer that comes from Central Arkansas. Jordan Nesbitt returns home after a brief stint at Memphis. Not to mention Francis Okoro, a former top 100 recruit from Oregon, will be eligible this season. This team has depth as well, with guys like Fred Thatch and Marten Linssen back, who each played in at least 19 games last season. The Billikens will have to figure out how the new guys fit in with the returners and life without Perkins, but this is a group that can make a run if they figure it out.

22. Ohio Bobcats

Ohio went under the spotlight after knocking off Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and because of dynamic guard Jason Preston. The Bobcats will be without Preston’s services in 2021-22, but just about everyone else from that sensational squad returns. Miles Brown, Lunden McDay, and Mark Sears return in a talented backcourt, and they’ll be joined by D-II transfer Tommy Schmock, who spent three years at Findlay and is a phenomenal passer.

If that wasn’t enough, the entire frontcourt is back, featuring Ben Vander Plas, Ben Roderick, and Dwight Wilson. That trio averaged almost 40 points and 16 rebounds per game combined a season ago. The biggest question is whether there will be some defensive improvement. Ohio’s numbers were fairly average in that category last season, and they allowed at least 80 points in seven of their eight losses in 2020-21. Still, there’s plenty to be excited about with this group, and the Bobcats should be right in the thick of the MAC race once again this season.

21. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

UC Santa Barbara came oh so close to pulling off an upset in March. The Gauchos were a heavy upset pick and nearly made those wishes come true. Now they enter the new season with just two returning starters. Last year’s Big West Player of the Year Jaquori McLaughlin is gone, as are fellow guards Brandon Cyrus and Devearl Ramsey. The frontcourt returns, however, including Amadou Sow, a league first-team selection last season and a Big West Player of the Year candidate. Ajare Sanni is also back and should slide into the starting lineup after being the team’s top bench player and third-leading scorer.

Josh Pierre-Louis or Calvin Wishart will be the ones most likely filling big shoes behind McLaughlin this season. The addition of former four-star recruit Zach Harvey from Cincinnati is a huge boost as well. UCSB likes to slow it down and get a good look, and that’s especially advantageous when you have Sow and Miles Norris down low. The biggest adjustment for this team is how everyone fits into their new roles, especially in the backcourt. However, repeating as Big West champions seems like a great bet.

20. Liberty Flames

The Liberty Flames just keep on rolling. Liberty has dominated the Atlantic Sun since moving there a few years ago, and they seem poised to do it again, even with the league continuing to expand. They will be led once again by reigning A-Sun Player of the Year Darius McGhee, who was the team’s leading scorer in 2020-21 at 15.5 points per game. Kyle Rode and Blake Preston join him in returning from the starting rotation, with both forwards commanding the paint. Keegan McDowell should be a candidate to step into a starting role, as should Shiloh Robinson. Drake Dobbs should also see his role increase, though still primarily backing up McGhee and gaining valuable experience.

The Flames did a great job of making the most of their possessions, ranking in the top ten effective field goal percentage as well as both three-point and two-point percentage last season. That is a great formula for winning a lot of games, but when they have an off night, they don’t have the height to grab second chances. Expect more of the same from Liberty this season, and they will once again be a mid-major that will be dreaded come March.

19. Saint Mary’s Gaels

Saint Mary’s missed out on the NCAA Tournament, eventually getting ousted in the first round of the condensed NIT by Western Kentucky. The Gaels were unusually uncompetitive against rival Gonzaga, though that rang true of everyone minus a few games in April for the Zags. Just about everyone is back in Moraga for 2021-22, and Randy Bennett’s team is never down for long. Logan Johnson led the way with 13.3 points per game last season, with Tommy Kuhse not far behind at 12.8 points per game. Those two command the backcourt while Dan Fotu and Matthias Tass work the paint.

Saint Mary’s was a young team overall last season, and the hope is that last season built the foundation with this group gaining a rhythm together. One thing that has to improve is the shooting. The Gaels’ effective field goal percentage was just 47.8 percent in 2020-21, and they shot just 29.4 percent from deep. Randy Bennett’s team will also have to fight through a WCC that looks deeper than usual. There’s enough here to make the Big Dance, but it won’t be easy.

18. Iona Gaels

Iona was an interesting story last season. The Gaels first made headlines by hiring Rick Pitino to lead the program. Then, they faced a long COVID layoff that spanned 40 days in the middle of the season. Through all that adversity, Iona still captured the MAAC Tournament title. Then, they played Alabama tough for a half in the NCAA Tournament. There are just two starters back from last year’s squad. However, one of those is reigning league freshman of the year Nelly Junior Joseph. He averaged 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game last season on his way to that award. Berrick JeanLouis is the other returner. Key rotation guys Dylan Van Eyck and Ryan Myers are also back.

Part of the reason expectations remain high are the transfers Pitino snagged. Elijah Joiner comes from Tulsa and should immediately hold down the starting point guard position. Tyson Jolly joins the team from SMU, where he was a third-team AAC selection in 2019-20 after averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He can step in and be a playmaker right away in the league. Louisville transfer Quinn Slazinski brings a great shooting touch. You know that a Pitino team will be coached well, but Iona will need to improve on taking care of the ball offensively. That should improve with Joiner and Jolly in the backcourt. There’s no reason to believe Iona won’t be the class of the MAAC once again this season.

17. UC Irvine Anteaters

UC Irvine has been the model of consistency in the Big West over the past few seasons. The Anteaters have won at least 20 games in seven of the last nine seasons. Last season most likely would’ve been eight of nine with a normal non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, UCI was bested by UCSB for the auto bid and was left home from any postseason tournaments. Irvine begins its quest to regain its title this season behind big man Collin Welp, who feels like he’s been there forever. Welp was a Big West first-teamer last season after averaging 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He is joined by two other returning starters in Isaiah Lee and Dawson Baker, who was the Big West Freshman of the Year in 2020-21.

JC Butler should join Welp in the starting rotation down low, while DJ Davis figures to be the next man up in the backcourt. The Anteaters love to take advantage of their size in the paint, starting with Welp. However, they need to improve on finishing offensive possessions, as they ranked just 282nd in effective field goal percentage last season according to KenPom. If they can do that and be a little more active defensively, UC Irvine should have no issues finding themselves back at the top of the Big West.

16. Murray State Racers

Murray State had a down season by their standards, finishing with a .500 record both overall and in Ohio Valley Conference play. The Racers shouldn’t be down for long though, especially with four returning starters. Two of those starters made the league’s first team last season in KJ Williams and Tevin Brown. Williams was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder with 15.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, respectively. Brown was second in both of those categories at 14.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Justice Hill and Dionte Bostick are the other two returners, both in the backcourt.

Carter Collins joins that group from Davidson, where he improved his game each of the last four seasons for the Wildcats. Trae Hannibal also comes over from South Carolina, where he came off the bench for two seasons. Devin Gilmore will battle it out with transfers Jordan Skipper-Brown (Eastern Illinois) and Damiree Burns (Southern) for the remaining starting spot in the paint alongside Williams. The Racers were a great shooting team last season. However, they made too many unforced errors and struggled to capitalize at the free-throw line. Cleaning up those turnovers should go a long way in seeing some improvement out of an otherwise talented group.

15. Dayton Flyers

Dayton will look a bit different this season, but Anthony Grant continues to do a great job of getting talent to Southwestern Ohio. Replacing Jalen Crutcher and Ibi Watson won’t be easy. However, Elijah Weaver looks ready to step into a leadership role in the backcourt. Koby Brea and Kobe Elvis (DePaul) will join Weaver in the guard rotation. Down low, Toumani Camara comes from Georgia, where he averaged 12.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in the SEC a season ago. There’s also the lone returning starter in Mustapha Amzil. He made the A-10 All-Freshman team after averaging 9.9 points and 5.6 rebounds in 2020-21.

The paint should be the strength of this team, where you can also find breakout candidate Zimi Nwokeji, RJ Blakney, Moulaye Sissoko, and ETSU transfer Richard Amaefule. The Flyers will want to run their sets offensively while trying to keep teams from getting good looks on defense. It’s tough to put stock in last season’s team numbers with so many new faces, but Dayton will need to take care of the ball much better to have a shot at an Atlantic 10 title and NCAA Tournament bid. The Flyers will be good, but will most likely ride the NCAA bubble all season.

14. Northern Iowa Panthers

There are very few teams who could claim they had a worse time than Northern Iowa last season. The Panthers lost 2019-20 MVC Player of the Year AJ Green to a season-ending hip injury just three games into the season. Then, UNI lost a number of games in non-conference play due to COVID issues. Finally, their own virus issues canceled their final game of the season in Arch Madness. This group just never found the rhythm that they had as a squad in 2019-20 when they went 25-6. There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic with the Panthers heading into this season. To begin, all five starters are back, including a healthy Green.

Two of those returning starters are freshmen from last season who took advantage of their opportunities. Guard Bowen Born averaged 11.2 points per game last season on his way to being named the league’s freshman of the year. Fellow guard Nate Heise was named to the all-freshman team as well. This is a group that has been playing together for a while between the last two seasons. That cohesion will mean a lot heading into 2021-22. There’s still work to be done, as UNI’s defensive metrics via KenPom were dreadful last season. However, it’s reasonable to believe that a more normal season is in order and that the Panthers regain some of their magic from two seasons ago, putting themselves back into a tight MVC title race.

13. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Louisiana Tech will look to build off the momentum of finishing in third place in last season’s NIT. The Bulldogs will be led by last year’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year in Kenneth Lofton Jr. He averaged an impressive 12.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in his inaugural college basketball season. He should only improve from there. Three other starters return alongside him, including Isaiah Crawford, who was a league third-teamer last season. While those two give Louisiana Tech a solid frontcourt, the backcourt is anchored by Amorie Archibald and Cobe Williams. It also receives a boost from Incarnate Word transfer Keaston Willis, who averaged 19 points per game on his way to second-team honors in the Southland Conference.

LaDamien Bradford (Texas A&M) and David Green (Hofstra) are two other guys who come over who will add depth while looking for more playing time at their new school. Exavian Christon is also back after averaging close to 20 minutes off the bench last season. The Bulldogs will look to continue to lean heavily on their defense. It was ranked in the top 40 by KenPom in efficiency in 2020-21. Lofton alone will be a big reason why Tech can win Conference USA, but the bottom line is Eric Konkol has been building something special in Ruston for the last few seasons.

12. Missouri State Bears

Missouri State was clearly third fiddle in the Missouri Valley Conference last season behind Loyola-Chicago and Drake. However, the Bears were still a solid team that most likely would’ve won 20 games in a normal season. They placed two players on the league’s first team in Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim, who were a dangerous two-headed monster. Mosley averaged just under 20 points per game as well as 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Prim averaged 16.7 points and just under 10 rebounds per game.

All five starters and the bench return for this group. They add IUPUI transfer Jaylen Minnett, who averaged 16.5 points for the Jaguars over the past two seasons. The Bears will need to get a little better defensively, as they were one of the worst teams at forcing opponent mistakes last season according to KenPom. However, expect them to hang around the bubble conversation this season, especially with the continued strength of the MVC.

11. San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State is looking to move beyond two seasons of heartbreak. First, the Aztecs were denied a serious Final Four run by the COVID pandemic in 2020. Then, they get upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2021 by Syracuse. Perhaps this season’s group won’t have quite the same buzz. However, SDSU has proven over the past few seasons that they’ll always be a tough squad. Just two starters return in Trey Pulliam and Nathan Mensah. However, Matt Bradley comes over from Cal after averaging 18 points per game the past two seasons in the Pac 12.

Jaedon Ledee and Tahirou Diabete also transfer in to sure up the post. The key for the Aztecs this season will be how role players like Joshua Tomaic, Adam Seiko, and Keshad Johnson step up. This roster still has plenty of talent, and you know that Brian Dutcher will have his guys playing hard-nosed defense. Still, there’s a little more uncertainty than the past few years with how the pieces will fit together. This group looks like a bubble team that will most likely have to fight a little harder to make the NCAA Tournament in 2021-22.

10. UAB Blazers

UAB and Andy Kennedy are ready to shake things up in Conference USA this season. The Blazers hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in six guys from other Division I schools. In fact, when you look at the main guys who should contribute this season, just two aren’t from the transfer portal. Four starters return, including C-USA 2nd Teamer Tavin Lovan. The rest of the depth includes former SEC players like Jamal Johnson (Auburn), KJ Buffen (Ole Miss), and Josh LeBlanc (LSU).

Former AAC stars Justin Brown (USF) and Jordan Walker (Tulane) also add to this team as well as South Alabama transfer Tyreke Locure. The bottom line is that there is a ton of talent on this roster. It’ll now be a matter of how the new pieces fit together with the guys that helped the Blazers finish 22-7 and 13-5 in the league last season. Expectations are even higher in Andy Kennedy’s second season in Birmingham, but he has built a roster that can live up to the hype.

9. Buffalo Bulls

The Mid-American Conference routinely seems to be underrated. Ohio won an NCAA Tournament game a season ago, and truthfully the league had a few teams that could have done that last season. Buffalo is included in that mix, and the Bulls appear to be the team to beat in the MAC for 2021-22. They placed three players on the MAC 2nd Team, and two are back in Jeenathen Williams and Josh Mballa. Williams led Buffalo in scoring at 17.6 points per game, while Mballa averaged a double-double at 15.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Two other starters also return in Ronaldo Segu and LaQuill Hardnett. Maceo Jack adds depth at the guard position, coming over from George Washington. He averaged over 11 points per game in his last two full seasons with the Colonials before transferring midway through last season. Buffalo will look to play fast, sitting in the top 20 last season in average offensive possession and tempo according to KenPom. The Bulls have what it takes to knock off a team or two in March if they can survive the MAC.

8. Richmond Spiders

Richmond was tabbed to be the next big threat out of the Atlantic 10 last season. However, things slowly deteriorated for the Spiders. It started with starter Nick Sherod tearing his ACL in preseason practice, then moved onto various COVID pauses before dropping games to teams they shouldn’t lose to while sitting on the NCAA bubble. Luckily, it looks as though this group will get another go at it at full strength.

All-A10 performers Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden are back, along with a healthy Sherod. Nathan Cayo and Tyler Burton complete the starting five, with Burton gaining valuable playing time in Sherod’s absence a season ago. The Atlantic 10 should be tough again, but this is a seasoned group that wants to show last season was a fluke. Expect Richmond to play tough and compete for an NCAA bid once again in 2021-22.

7. Belmont Bruins

Perhaps Belmont should’ve been an NCAA Tournament team last season. The Bruins won 24 of their first 25 games last season before finishing just 2-3 over their final five games, including getting dominated by Morehead State in the OVC Championship. Everything starts with Grayson Murphy and Nick Muszynski in Nashville. Murphy has won OVC Defensive Player of the Year for the last two seasons, but he’s an all-around player who can score, rebound, and dish the ball as effectively as any guard in the nation. Meanwhile, Muszynski is a force down low, and he’s a big reason why the Bruins shot almost 60 percent from inside the arc last season.

Those two join fellow returning starters in Luke Smith, Caleb Hollander, and Ben Sheppard, making Belmont the obvious favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference once more. Casey Alexander’s group will be motivated to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and that they are worthy of NCAA Tournament inclusion regardless of an auto bid. Non-conference games against LSU and Saint Louis along with their performance in the ESPN Events Invitational will go a long way towards that goal. Still, the Bruins are more than capable of getting the job done in conference play.

6. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

It’s a new era in Chicago in 2021-22. Drew Valentine takes over the reins after Porter Moser left for Oklahoma. Cameron Krutwig and his mustache are also gone. currently playing professionally in Belgium. It’s never easy to replace a high-quality coach and a four-year stalwart big man, but Loyola-Chicago also isn’t your average mid-major program. The Ramblers were always built on their defense, and there’s no better example of that than Lucas Williamson, the MVC’s reigning defensive player of the year. He was joined on the league’s all-defensive team by big man Aher Uguak.

Guards Keith Clemons and Braden Norris are also returning starters, and Valentine will look to replace Krutwig’s production with a pair of Ivy League grad transfers in Ryan Schwieger (Princeton) and Chris Knight (Dartmouth). Marquise Kennedy and Tate Hall will also continue to provide valuable bench minutes. KenPom had the Ramblers ranked second in defensive efficiency last season, giving up just 87 points per 100 possessions. Make no mistake, Loyola-Chicago isn’t going anywhere and can certainly make a case to be the preseason favorites in the MVC.

5. Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada ended up being the thorn in the side of Mountain West bubble teams a year ago. This season, they enter with NCAA Tournament hopes of their own. That dream starts with Grant Sherfield, who announced himself in a big way last season after transferring from Wichita State. Sherfield averaged 18.6 points and 6.1 assists per game on his way to being a league first-teamer and the newcomer of the year. However, he has a supporting cast around him as well, starting with Desmond Cambridge, who was also playing his first season with the Wolf Pack after transferring from Brown.

Forward Warren Washington also averaged double-figure scoring a season ago, and he will be joined down low by yet another impact transfer in AJ Bramah, coming over from Robert Morris. Seven-footer Will Baker should also gain eligibility during the second half of the season after coming to Reno from Texas. Steve Alford looks primed to have Nevada back in the national spotlight with the talent he has amassed. Expect this group to play more consistently after getting one year under their belt together.

4. Drake Bulldogs

Drake looks like they could be the favorites in the Missouri Valley heading into the season. The Bulldogs return six of their top seven players from a season ago, with Joseph Yesufu using his outstanding 2020-21 campaign to join the Kansas Jayhawks. Last year’s leading scorer and league newcomer of the year ShanQuan Hemphill is back and healthy after a foot injury caused him to miss the rest of Drake’s regular season late in the year. He is supported by point man Roman Penn, who averaged 5.5 assists per game last season.

DJ Wilkins joins him in the backcourt, while Tre Murphy and Darnell Brodie join Hemphill in the frontcourt. Ayo Akinwole also provides depth at the guard position, grad transferring over from Omaha. The Bulldogs were at their best last season when they were taking care of the ball offensively. Drake is a veteran team with NCAA Tournament experience. The biggest question will be depth, especially if they suffer another key injury like Hemphill’s last season.

3. BYU Cougars

BYU is looking to shake off the disappointing end to last season, bowing out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual Final Four participant UCLA. The Cougars are loaded in the backcourt, where games are often won or lost in college. Alex Barcello is a star in Provo, earning 1st Team WCC honors after averaging 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists last season. 2nd Teamer Brandon Averette is back too.

Additionally, the transfer portal brings in Te’Jon Lucas from Milwaukee and Seneca Knight from San Jose State. Both guys have a history of being able to put the ball in through the net at will. The Cougars will have to figure out life without Matt Haarms defending the rim, but Caleb Lohner is back, and Gideon George is expected to take on a bigger role down low. BYU looks like the second-best team in the WCC again for the upcoming season, and they will certainly want to keep that momentum before bolting for the Big 12 in a few years.

2. Colorado State Rams

Colorado State was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament last season. They want to avoid that feat this season. The Rams have all five starters back, including all-conference performers in David Roddy (1st Team) and Isaiah Stevens (2nd Team). Roddy was the team’s leading scorer a season ago and just missed out on averaging a double-double by 0.6 rebounds. Stevens averaged just over 15 points per game as well as an astounding 5.4 assists per game last season.

Colorado State settled for a 4th place finish in the reduced NIT field after their disappointing Selection Sunday. This is a group that works to find good shots, finishing in the top 40 in effective field goal percentage and in the top 25 in two-point field goal percentage in 2020-21, according to KenPom. Depth beyond the starting five could be problematic, but expect this group to have a chip on their shoulders as they look to put the doubt to rest on whether they can get into the Field of 68 this season.

1. St. Bonaventure Bonnies

St. Bonaventure is receiving a lot of buzz heading into the 2021-22 season. This is in large part due to the fact that all five starters on an NCAA Tournament team are back. However, after being a popular pick to win their first-round game, the Bonnies looked lackluster before losing to LSU by 15 in an 8-9 game. Those returners, led by A-10 1st Team selection Kyle Lofton, want to make sure this season is different. Lofton is one of five players that averaged double-digit scoring, and he is the catalyst for Mark Schmidt’s group.

Meanwhile, reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Osun Osunniyi roams the paint just waiting to swat your shot or slam home a bucket. Not to mention Jaren Holmes and Jalen Adaway showed their ability to score in loads at times last season as well. St. Bonaventure’s strength is on defense, suffocating opponents into poor shot selections. The Bonnies will be the Atlantic 10’s preseason favorite, but it’s important to note that all the key bench guys from a season ago are gone. How far SBU can go will depend on how the new guys on the roster fit into the rotation.

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