College Basketball Mid-Majors | 5 Teams to Watch in March & 5 Teams to Buy-Low On

College Basketball Mid-Majors | 5 Teams to Watch in March & 5 Teams to Buy-Low On article feature image

Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Xaivian Lee (Princeton)

The little guys deserve love too! So, that’s why I’ll pull out the podium and host my written mid-major State of the Conference today.

Now, before we begin, look for A-10, WCC and Mountain West teams to be discussed in their own respective conference pieces. I’m solely discussing the true little guys.

I’ll break down the teams who look ready for an NCAA tournament Cinderella run — the ones you should look at betting on moving forward.

5 Teams to Watch in March

Princeton Tigers

A season ago, the Princeton Tigers proved Ivy League schools can hoop, not just achieve crazy academic goals.

This year, with Tosan Evbuowman and Ryan Langborg departing, it felt a down season was in store. The departing pieces led to Yale earning the nod as preseason Ivy favorites, but the narrative quickly shifted into Princeton's corner once again.

Mitch Henderson assembled a team that's just as dangerous as the one that defeated Arizona and Missouri last March.

An elite offense paves the way once again. Henderson’s squad ranks 25th in Offensive Efficiency, while shooting 47% from the floor and 36% from deep.

The team plays through its guards more than last year, centering the offense around sophomore Xaivian Lee. The 6-foot-3 talent from Canada has a great feel for the big moments and averages over 16 points on efficient shooting splits. The NCAA tournament always features really fun mid-major guards, and Lee is another one ready to breakout.

The Tigers have the best ATS cover percentage in the Ivy League (70%). Look for avenues to back the profitable Tigers more in conference play.

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McNeese State Cowboys

If you want a long-form version of my McNeese State thoughts, check out my mid-major team breakdown from a few weeks back.

Heading into league play. McNeese has its full arsenal of weapons, as CJ Felder is now eligible. We’re talking about a player who started in the ACC a few years ago and who’s coming off the bench behind Christian Shumate and Antavion Collum.

However, the Cowboys wouldn't be in position to dominate the Southland without the services of guard Shahada Wells. The TCU transfer is averaging over 18 points and three assists per game, including 36-point and 37-point outings.

He's really becoming one of the top mid-major guards in college hoops, thanks to his versatile three-level scoring attack.

The Cowboys have a legitimate argument as the top Southland team in the KenPom era, dating back to 2001. Will Wade brought a newfound level of hype to Lake Charles, as McNeese sits at 9-2 with a 92nd ranking in KenPom.

The teams two biggest wins came on the road against UAB and VCU, so the Cowboys have seen tough crowds and environments already.

I’m expecting some crazy spreads in conference play, but no matter the league, this time of the year isn't easy. I’m looking for road spots to fade McNeese State, while hoping the market slows down the hype a touch.

Indiana State Sycamores

I firmly believe Indiana State will emerge as the Cinderella candidate.

Josh Schertz is an elite offensive mind, coming over from the D-II level a few years back. It’s carried over, and then some.

The Sycamores fit the formula for winning tournament games: having an elite offensive unit and terrific perimeter shooting. That’s how Princeton and Oral Roberts won tournament games recently. The only difference is Indiana State is better top-to-bottom.

The Sycamores rank 33rd in Offensive Efficiency, according to KenPom, which further shows how good Indiana State’s offense is.

Plus, Indiana State’s star duo — guard Isaiah Swope and versatile center Robbie Avila — can dominate opposing teams. Avila loves slicing and dicing defenses with his pinpoint passing, while Swope wants to pull up from NBA range and rack up 20+ points.

Not only has Indiana State won all but one game, it’s shown the ability to win against different styles. In high-powered offensive games, the Sycamores can drop 80+, and against teams like Bradley, they can win in a rock fight.

Grand Canyon Antelopes

The Lopes have a decent case for earning some at-large bid consideration after a strong 11-1 non-conference record.

The tandem of Tyon Grant-Foster and Ray Harrison leads the Lopes' terrific offensive unit. Grant-Foster averages over 20 points and Harrison’s scoring is just below 15 points per game (on poor efficiency numbers so far).

If TGF and Harrison score efficiently together, Grand Canyon becomes significantly more dangerous

The two areas I love most about GCU is its offensive rebounding and ability to generate easy points at the foul line. The Lopes grab offensive boards on 38% of their misses (11th nationally) and attempt the third-most free throws in college hoops.

Gabe McGlothan is one of the major reasons for both of those stats, as he regularly generates second chances on the glass.

Grand Canyon is far and away the WAC favorites, and it's one team worth circling for NCAA tournament brackets.

UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

UC Santa Barbara likely isn’t jumping off the page when looking at analytics — it ranks 141st in KenPom.

All that said, context is needed. The reigning Big West Player of the Year missed the first two games of the year (both losses).

The smooth lefty from Belgium — Ajay Mitchell — has taken another step this year, averaging 19.8 points, four boards and four assists a night. Any team who has a player this good is capable of winning games in March.

Last year, the Gauchos won 27 games, the Big West Tournament and finished 112th in KenPom. I don’t think this year's team is far off from the 112th-best squad, so you can find good chances to back UCSB in league play.

Right now, KenPom projects UC Irvine as a 10-point home favorite against UCSB. I rank the two teams very closely moving forward, and the Gauchos' roster has more talent.

The Gauchos are the biggest sleeper team in college basketball.

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5 Teams to Buy-Low On

Siena Saints

I feel woefully off the mark for labeling Siena as MAAC favorites. I know Javian McCollum transferred to now top-15 ranked Oklahoma, but who saw a free fall of this degree coming?

I mean, Siena lost Jalen Pickett and still finished in the upper-portion of the MAAC, so why couldn't the Saints re-tool again?

An unfortunate bout of injuries and waiver luck factored into the Saints' extremely slow start. A lack of attention to defensive detail and an inconsistent offense has Siena sitting bottom-five nationally in KenPom.

I’m looking for all avenues to back the Saints moving forward for a few key reasons.

The NCAA allowing two-time transfers to play now puts Sean Durugordon into Siena’s lineup. He might be the Saints' top player moving forward — he's a defensive disrupter and a versatile offensive weapon.

On paper, the duo of Durugordon and skilled scorer Michael Eley is better than anything most bottom-tier KenPom teams have, so I'm expecting some positive regression to come.

It just feels improbable for the struggles to continue like this. I just don’t see Siena as a bottom-five team in America; the team is too talented and head coach Carmen Maciariello is too accomplished for this potential reality.

Little Rock Trojans

Little Rock is another team that's dealt with plenty of unfortunate injury luck in the early portion of the year.

Star guard KK Robinson missed a few games, which made the Trojans' offense sputter. Robinson played for a pair of SEC schools — Arkansas and Texas A&M — before transferring to Little Rock. He's found his home in his home state, leading the team in scoring and assists. He's without question one of the more skilled guards in the OVC.

Robinson is back — along with four other double-digit scoring options — for Ohio Valley league play. I expect the Little Rock offense to continue performing at a high level, and we should see some good prices on an upwards trending team.

The one issue is defense. Little Rock’s defense ranks 333rd in Efficiency, compared to 164th on offense. That’s a major disparity from one end of the floor to the other.

Coach Darrell Walker will need to make defensive adjustments for Little Rock to truly make an improvement in league play.

If we’re looking from a pure talent perspective, I don’t see any OVC team in the same league as Little Rock. Robinson and Jamir Chaplin make a huge difference in a smaller league like the Ohio Valley. That’s two all-conference performers who contribute to my buy-low thoughts on the Trojans.

UTEP Miners

I don’t always back teams based off coaching, but Joe Golding is an exception. He’s just a total winner, whether it’s at Abilene Christian or UTEP. His tough defensive style leads to gritty wins.

The Miners own victories over UCSB and California, and a few narrow surprising losses against Texas A&M-CC and Abilene Christian.

Those differing results show the variance of UTEP’s style. If the defense settles in and forces turnovers, it’ll work out for the Miners more often than not.

Right now, UTEP sits at 190th in KenPom’s rankings. That feels a bit low for my liking, considering some of the teams ranked in the same area. I think we’re looking at the third-best squad in Conference USA behind Liberty and Louisiana Tech — and I don’t think UTEP is too far behind Louisiana Tech.

Senior guard Tae Hardy is a major difference-maker in Conference USA at the lead-guard spot. He’s averaging 15 points, three rebounds and three assists per game.

He just needs assistance from Zid Powell and Otis Frazier III on offense.

Austin Peay Governors

Head coach Corey Gipson re-joined his alma mater after a brief stint at Northwestern State, and the Govs look underrated entering ASUN play.

Austin Peay’s offense is reliant on star guard DeMarcus Sharp creating offense from the mid-range. Often times, opponents will send multiple players in Sharp’s direction, leading to him finding shooters like Ja'Monta Black and Dez White on the perimeter.

Sharp’s propensity for tough shot-making and his IQ make this offense succeed. There’s virtually zero post presence on the roster, as Sai Witt and Daniel Loos set screens and grab occasional offensive rebounds.

However, I’m buying the offensive upside a little more in conference play. I don’t see how teams slow down Sharp, who’s possibly the ASUN’s top player.

The way Austin Peay wins is on defense, as it ranks 165th in Defensive Efficiency. The Govs don’t have a ton of size, but they have a ton of pesky perimeter defenders. You won’t get anything easy past the guards, and Witt and Loos are decent enough rim protectors.

Additionally, the ASUN is a total mess at the top. Lipscomb is the lone team inside KenPom’s top 200, and beyond that, it’s a hodgepodge of teams in the 200-275 range, including the Govs.

I’m buying Austin Peay’s ASUN title chances.

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Chattanooga Mocs

The Mocs arguably benefitted the most from the NCAA’s decision to make two-time transfers eligible. Dan Earl built this year's team around the idea of Honor Huff and and his former player at VMI — Trey Bonham — forming the backcourt.

Instead, Bonham didn’t get eligible until a few weeks ago, which set the offense back for the first nine or 10 games. Bonham has quickly made a seismic difference, though, averaging 18 points in three games and giving the Mocs another element with his speed and shooting prowess.

Chattanooga epitomizes the “live and die by the 3” mantra, attempting treys on 52% of its possessions. Teams that shoot 3s that often will have a lot of variance in the win/loss column. The highs could certainly outweigh the lows if your team is actually good at shooting — like Chattanooga.

Although the Mocs want to fire away early and often, it’s not the only way Chattanooga scores. The frontcourt tandem of double-double machine Sam Alexis and skilled four-man Jan Zidek gives the offense a dynamic style of play. Coach Earl can attack the paint to open up the outside game, or vise versa.

The Mocs sit seventh (207th nationally) in KenPom’s rankings among SoCon teams. I don’t see them finishing ahead of the Western Carolina/UNCG/Samford/Furman’s of the world, but none of those teams are flawless either.

I don’t think the gap is as big as the numbers indicate, which makes Chattanooga a decent bet in league play.

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Nick Sterling
Apr 18, 2024 UTC