• Matt DeLuca

Mid-Majors to Watch During the 2020-21 Season


Mid-majors have always been known to make noise in March. They bust a lot of brackets and captivate a national audience. If you haven’t watched a lot of mid-major basketball, this season is a great time to start, as there are a lot of quality programs looking to make a statement. While it has been debated whether the Atlantic 10 still falls under the mid-major umbrella, we will consider them part of it for the purpose of the article. This collection excludes Gonzaga, who is a perennial power and arguably the best team in the country. While there is a plethora of exciting programs to watch, here is a list of ten that you should follow this season:


RICHMOND


The Spiders won 24 games last season, including 14 in a very competitive A-10. Now that they won’t be overshadowed by Dayton, Richmond has a chance to have a historic season. They return their entire starting five, all of which were seniors, headlined by one of the best players in the conference in Blake Francis. Those five seniors all play right into the fluidity and consistency needed for Chris Mooney’s Princeton-style offense, which ranked second in the A-10. That style produced a lot of high percentage shots on a consistent basis, something that isn’t easily achieved.


The largest jump was perhaps on the defensive end. Richmond utilized a zone scheme on over half of their possessions two seasons ago, but brought that down to under one percent last year. That resulted in a huge increase in their adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.93 points per possession during A-10 play.


Combine these components and you get one of the most complete mid-major programs in the country. While not all senior-laden teams pan out and find success, the Spiders should be dangerous all season long. If it weren’t for the COVID-19 shutdown in March, they would have been a very tough out as they were one of the hottest teams in the country. They might not be able to replicate what Dayton did last year, but expect very solid numbers out of the Spiders in 2020-21.


AUSTIN PEAY


The opportunity is there for the Governors to overtake the regular powers of Belmont and Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference. Matt Figger has done a great job in building this program up over the past three seasons, and his team is ready to take the next step. Their 21-12 campaign last year featured 14 OVC wins, just one behind the league lead.


Austin Peay has the reigning OVC Player of the Year in Terry Taylor, who averaged close to 22 points and 11 rebounds in 2019-20. Alongside Taylor in their starting lineup is Jordyn Adams, the OVC Freshman of the Year who averaged 17 points. They are both among the best mid-major players in the country, and together form a very talented duo that teams will struggle to defend.


Figger’s matchup zone defense should be bolstered this season with the addition of transfers Mike Peake (Georgia) and Corbin Merritt (Oklahoma). Both present size and length, something the Governors lacked. Over the past three seasons, Austin Peay has an average adjusted defensive efficiency rank of 237.3. With the addition of Peake and Merritt, expect them to improve on that side of the ball. If everything falls into place, which it should, they could be in a position to win the program’s first NCAA Tournament game since 1987.


FURMAN


Bob Richey has done a fantastic job in Greenville, and has the Paladins in position for another dominant season. He’s posted a 73-25 record over three years at Furman, and has built them into a SoCon contender. The key offseason loss was Jordan Lyons, who was their leading scorer and also go-to closer in late game situations.


The loss of Lyons is easier due to the presence of four returning starters, led by Noah Gurley, who will look to step into the role vacated by Lyons. Their starting five is filled with guys who are highly athletic and versatile, leading to an offense that is highly efficient and adaptable to the situation in front of them. Depth will be somewhat of a question, due to the lack of proven guys on the bench. That should resolve itself as the season progresses.


They ranked among the nation’s best in offensive shot quality last season, and shot a very efficient percentage off of those shots. For a team that has averaged 76 points or more in each of the past three seasons, don’t expect a drop-off in year four. Richey has assembled one of the best mid-major programs in the nation, and they will be tough to beat due to their capabilities on offense.


LITTLE ROCK


The Trojans are one of the most loaded mid-majors in the country. They returned every vital piece of their rotation from last season, headlined by Sun Belt Player of the Year frontrunner Markquis Nowell, who can shoot the lights out while efficiently getting to the rim.


Darrell Walker’s squad posted the Sun Belt’s best offense with a rating of 108.1, while shooting a league-leading 55 percent on two-point shots and 36 percent on three-point attempts. What might be the most impressive part of last season was their jump from the preseason poll, where they were picked 11th, to first, with a 15-5 record in-conference.


There are very few drawbacks to this team. They present one of the best offenses at the mid-major level, and should take a step forward defensively. They ranked sixth in the Sun Belt in adjusted defensive efficiency, but the return of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Ruot Monyyong should help tremendously. Roster continuity should help bring this side up to the level of the offense, making the Trojans heavy favorites to make it to the NCAA Tournament.


LOYOLA-CHICAGO


Earlier this offseason, Porter Moser stated that this year’s team might be the deepest that they have had. Remember, they had a Final Four run in 2018, so that statement should say something about how good this team can be.


The Ramblers return their top five scorers from last season, a group that finished one game short of Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley standings. The combination of Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson, both major contributors on that 2018 team, should help elevate them once again in 2020.


What makes the Ramblers so unique is their rim presence on both sides of the ball. Last season, they led the nation in “rim discrepancy”, which accounts for the margin between shots taken and shots allowed at the rim. Nearly half of their shots were taken inside, which ranked higher than schools such as Kansas. Their ability to generate and prevent easy shots makes them a serious contender for the MVC title and perhaps an at-large bid, depending on how it shakes out.


UNC GREENSBORO


Wes Miller has built a model for consistency at UNC Greensboro, posting four consecutive 20-win seasons. Even without James Dickey and Kyrin Galloway, they will be strong contender for the SoCon title once again in 2020-21.


They have two outstanding freshman that could probably start right now on a large portion of the conference, but they will be towards the bottom-end of their rotation due to the depth that their roster presents. The reigning SoCon Player of the Year Isaiah Miller will look to go back-to-back, and should have ample help around him in players such as Keyshaun Langley and Kaleb Hunter.


Not having Dickey will affect their defense, which prides itself on a heavy press and stifling man-to-man, often limiting teams to poor quality shots late in the shot clock. If they can replenish on that side of the ball, it will directly compliment their offense, making them a puzzling team to game-plan for.


NORTHERN IOWA


It came as a surprise to everyone when the Panthers lost by 21 to Drake in the Missouri Valley quarterfinals. Don’t let the ending to that campaign distract you from the fact that Northern Iowa won 25 games, including victories over South Carolina and Colorado.


Their strong returning core is headlined by perhaps the best player at the mid-major level in A.J. Green. Green helps the offense go, mainly due to his ability to change speeds and get to the rim. As a unit, their offensive numbers spoke for themselves, as they had a top-25 offense in adjusted offensive efficiency.


Defensively, they posted a lot of solid numbers and metrics during the 2019-20 season. Using a pack-line defense, they were among the nation’s best in shutting down numerous spots on the court, drawing comparisons to Virginia’s style of play. Depending on how the race at the top goes in the MVC, they could potentially sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.


SAINT LOUIS


The A-10 has a lot of teams that could have made this list, but the Billikens, like Richmond, stand out. Their conference is one that is often dominated by teams with a wealth of returning players with vast experience. Saint Louis fits that mold, and they are a team that is trending in the right direction in a number of statistical categories.


For years, they have been known as an inefficient offensive team, with good reason. From 2016-19, they ranked 300 or below in one or more of these categories: three-point percentage, efficient field goal percentage and adjusted offensive efficiency. Last season, however, they got into the top 150 in every category, boosting their overall shooting rank to 62. Their defense has played a major role in their growth as well, as they held their opponent to under 70 points in 21 of their 31 contest in 2019-20.


Their roster is filled with veteran leaders such as Hasahn French, along with a plethora of other double-figure scorers. Their program is trending in the right direction, and they could make a huge splash this season and prove last season was not an outlier.


WESTERN KENTUCKY


Many have been waiting for the Hilltoppers to make it to the NCAA Tournament, as they have not won the Conference USA regular season or tournament title during their six-year tenure in the league. This appears to be the year, as Rick Stansbury has assembled a team that has the potential to dominate the league.


It is often forgotten how well Stansbury recruits. During his time with the program, he has posted recruiting classes that have ranked as high as 15th and 29th nationally. This year’s roster features four returning starters, one of which being a former five-star player in Charles Bassey, who is in position to be the frontrunner for C-USA Player of the Year.


The talent level on this team is undeniable. It can rival some Power 6 teams. With four double-figure scorers back, and the addition of talented transfers Kenny Cooper (Lipscomb) and Luke Frampton (Davidson), the Hilltoppers could very well be ranked at some point during the season.


EASTERN WASHINGTON


The 2019-20 season was a productive one for the Eagles, who put together a 23-8 record and 16 wins in Big Sky play. Their conference title was the first since 2015, and they will be heavy favorites to repeat this year despite losing Big Sky Player of the Year Mason Peatling.


Almost the entire team is back, and they have multiple guys who will make a run at the conference’s first team and P.O.Y. honors. Jacob Davison made the second team after posting the fourth-highest scoring output, and Kim Aiken Jr. earned a spot on the third team. Davison is one of the best mid-range shooters in the conference, and Aiken’s versatility on the offensive end makes the duo a hard one to stop.


The Eagles ranked ninth in offensive tempo last season, compared to past seasons in which they ranked close to 200 or below. That increase in tempo allowed them to create quality shots in transition, contributing to one of the better offenses in the nation in efficient field goal percentage, ranking 16th in that metric. As a result of this tempo, they are one of the most exciting mid-major teams to watch.


(Cover Photo: The Collegian)

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