Mid-major midseason checkup

Well last season was just a bummer in all aspects from my predictions in this annual article.  So this year, I decided I would play it out a bit longer to let a few teams separate from the rest.  Ha.  Good one Quinn.  As always, the midmajor teams are a major enigma.

And I’m sorry, this guide is long.  Hella long.  Like “what the hell man???” long.  I apologize, but in order to be credible, an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.

And we can’t all promise to pay $10 for a missed free throw and create national attention that way.

If you are unfamiliar with this series, the title pretty much sums up the content–Midway through the College Basketball season, we take a look at what midmajor teams are pulling apart from the rest of the pack.  Basically, finding “The Best of the Rest”.

Why do I do this? Well for one thing, midmajor basketball is very fun to watch. It is a volatile, explosive, dramatic environment with every team basically fulfilling mini Rudy-esque dreams and aspirations. While power conferences are loaded with talented student-athletes, midmajors are loaded with students who happen to be athletes.  Some of theses schools are more competitive on a national level than the rest, but the sentiment remains consistent: 97 times out of 100, if you are playing college basketball for Wofford, you are not seeing yourself 10 years from now playing basketball against Steph Curry. You see yourself likely as a business owner, civil engineer, journalist, or maybe even a medical or law practitioner for the more scholastically gifted types.

So even these teams, loaded down with players who do not need to seize every moment to secure their future, with coaches who do not walk out on the court and expect an interview from ESPN at halftime, with programs who likely struggle to break even on funding with vigorous ad campaigns and symbiotic partnerships with the local taco place students love to get drunk at, even these teams can make a mark on history. They can hold a diploma in hand in a couple years and walk away from the school leaving a trail of confidence in their wake.  They, the entirely ordinary Ragin Cajuns, have a mark in the history books of having made the NCAAM tournament.

But some teams…some teams have the potential to do better than that. WAY better. Some teams will make a statement that will keep the greedy sports fan lust satiated until next March.

So some of us here will take this as just a fun experiment to test our clairvoyant prowess.  Some of us here will take this as a serious way to have a one-up on our friends to swipe a hundred bucks out of the large bracket lotto coming in a couple months.  And some of us here, just like a good story.

That’s what I’m here for.

**Worthy note, I do not consider either the Atlantic 10, or the Mountain West midmajor conferences.

Stony Brook (19-4; 10-0 Am East)

Already this team screams midmajor both based on the name, and the fact their mascot is “The Seawolves”.  But right now, this is a team that has gotten rolling, and shows no signs of letting up steam.  Perhaps statistics such as longest active winning streak (15), or their litany of statistics that are slightly above the average “good” team in college basketball might not be able to convince you of much.  But their results are a very clear sign of good things to come. While they do not own a single marquee victory to show they “have the stuff”, their lone 4 losses were very close loses to very good teams.  If they continue the trend of winning and enter the NCAAM as a 12 or 13 seed, ohhhh man will they be a team to watch out for.

Temple (14-8; 8-3 American)

The Owls were not a team I expected to be adding here, Ill be honest.  But this is a program that has built itself on a reputation of some of the most technical and well-polished guard play in the country the last couple decades, and that has continued to shine and produce results when you least expect it.  Ranking 5th in the nation in the KemPom steals-against percentage, second in the turnovers committed, and 16th in 3P-against attests to this.  Their stats against opponents centered around the front court are next to abysmal comparatively, so I won’t touch on those…but when Temple needs to grind out victories, they very often make a good game of it as their results this year can vouch for.  Should Temple manage to find themselves bearing the American Conference standard into the tournament in place of SMU, they could create some havoc for any team that does not know how to handle a game of guards(tm).

Hawaii (18-3; 7-1 Big West)

The one team preventing the “Big West” conference from officially changing their name to the “Big California” conference is more than just a thorn in the conference committees side.  The Rainbow Warriors are likely one of the number 1 teams in the country I would absolutely NOT want to draw up anywhere near my bracket.  They do not do any one particular thing exceptionally well…they just have no flaws. Sure their 3P game could use some work, and 67% FT will likely cost them a possible victory during a crucial game, but somehow this has not plagued their record one iota.  A 3-point loss to Oklahoma is doing more good than harm for their scouting report.  The unfortunate reality is that it is all too likely two of the best midmajors this year will have to square off against each other for the right to punch their ticket to the Big Dance…

UC Irvine (18-6; 7-1 Big West)

…This is that other team.  The Anteaters were one of my cinderella favorites last year, who lost a nailbiter to Louisville on a poorly missed, over-aggressive reach-in call (a rant for another day), and they are back in action with their massive 7-foot-6 Mamadou N’diaye, gunning for another shot.  Sadly, they seem to just not be as good as Hawaii this year…thanks to their lackluster offensive capabilities. The reason UC Irvine is still in the hunt is because of their slap-the-floor, aggressive defense that stands a few cuts above the rest.  Again, we are more likely to see the Rainbow Warriors in March instead of the Anteaters, but all the same this is not a team to look past.

UAB (20-4; 10-1 C-USA)

The University of Alabama Birmingham, better known as UAB, better known as the Blazers, better known as the team with the green dragon for a mascot, better known as the team that synthesized the most shocking upset in all of March Madness last year.  This is a team that is riding their late-season success from last year, and taking it right into 2015-2016 in powerful fashion.  They still hold the pride of victory from last year’s callback of Iowa State, and you can see it in how they play.  They are overall just a better team each game: all their statistics edge toward clean and stingy pressure centered on protecting the rim and finishing shots.

Valparaiso (21-4; 11-1 Horizon)

Likely the most dangerous team, next to Hawaii, that major conference underperformers will NOT want to face come March.  Any midmajor that can enter a fistfight with the all-too-athletic recruiting powerhouse of Oregon and come out with a narrow L is someone you will want to watch multiple videos of.  And likely, in the words of Tom Izzo “rather a forfeit” than face.  Not much more to say.  The chances of Valpo no making the dance are slim…the chances of them not flexing some muscles while there are even slimmer.

Monmouth (20-5; 12-2 MAAC)

Certainly not the biggest surprise on this board, and the one of the best resume as is.  Already boasting 4 victories of worthy note, this is a squad that will be hard to call a “dark horse” when the Big Dance comes…everyone will see them coming.  And all the more frustrating, not many teams will be able to finish 40 minutes with these guys with their breath still intact.

Evansville (19-7; 8-5 MVC)

I am just beside myself right now.  What happened to the Purple Aces?  These guys where my favorites for a Cinderella story a month ago.  Now after a terrible last stretch of games, they can’t even defend their home court.  Not even two weeks ago, they were one game away from stamping themselves as one of the few at-large midmajor bids for the tourney (if they claimed a W over Wichita State)…now they have only one option to make the tournament, and it involves likely beating Wichita State along the way – winning the MVC tournament for the automatic bid.  However, if the Aces and Balentine (20.5 ppg, 4.3 apg) can find their stride, do not count them out of accomplishing that feat.  And if they do, ohhhh man, do NOT be caught with your pants down all ye 4 and 3 seeds.  If this team can make the bracket, they are going to fight for that green highlight…and they can do it.

Chattanooga (22-4; 11-2 Southern)

The Mocs are dangerous.  They play each game meticulously and precisely, and their defensive “scrap statistics”, as I coin them (block %, steal %, opp T/O%, opp FT %…stats that indicate a dogfight of raw fitness and technique) are all significantly better than the average in D-1…typical college basketball indicative of a team capable of making some noise in the NCAA.  The only thing they’re missing is a superstar.  If someone clicks and finds their game, plays in-over-his-head, come March, this is a team that can make a deep…and I mean DEEP…run.

Stephen F. Austin (17-5; 10-0 Southland)

“Stone Cold” Stephen F. Austin.  The team that was not quite as advertised…has quietly seemed to regain their composure.  Perhaps the national spotlight was too much, too soon.  But this is a Lumberjacks team that is trending back to the team that has generated so much national intrigue and craving.  Get done on defense quickly (16.3 seconds per possession), and take your precious little time on offense (18.2 seconds per possession).  They tend to be vulnerable defensively if you can get past their initial wave of ‘havoc’, if you will…but other than that they are delightful to watch.  Fortunately for them, they have good competition to train against in the Southland…

Texas A&M Corpus Christi (15-2; 9-2 Southland)

SFAustin’s little brother.  The Islanders play fast and aggressive…and I mean FAST and aggressive.  They are 6th in the nation in T/O forced percentage, 9th in block percentage, and a whopping 2ND in steal percentage.  Unfortunately what is holding them back is their blatant inability to score consistently…numbers like the above usually lead to top 25 teams.  Instead, they are hopelessly looked over.  But if they find their stride in early March, usurp King Lumberjacks, and make the tourney, be wary.  They are also Jamey Schilling’s favorite underdog, minus Nebraska-Omaha.

Texas Southern (10-12; 9-1 SWAC)

Yes.  That is correct.  Not a typo.  10-12.  Do some math, and you’ll see they had a staggering ONE victory going into conference play.  They remain ENTIRELY below average all over the board statistically, but there is something to remember…this team stacked their noncon.  They had an almost masochistically unhealthy schedule.  Having gone through the gauntlet, they know what it is like to face the top tier talent they are likely to encounter. Imagine a man is thrust into a boxing rink of the world’s best and gets beaten to a pulp over and over and over again.  Then he goes back to his small town city in rural Montana (although really, all towns in Montana are rural), and wails on the competition.  All the while, training for the big dogs again come the national tournament in a few months, knowing exactly what to expect. That is Texas Southern.  It’s almost unfair.

Arkansas-Little Rock (21-3; 11-2 Sun Belt)

Everyone knows about the Trojans.  I had no idea what this team’s colors were before this year…now it is likely every dreamy-eyed kid in Little Rock knows every single play every single player on this team has made.  They are a few good plays away from being 24-0.  They play slow, but are darn near flawless in literally EVERY category you can imagine besides offensive rebounds and # of FTA and FGA combined per game.  And both of those categories are simply average…not even bad.  They are on pace for 30 wins come March…and if there is one stat that is IMPOSSIBLE to argue in college basketball…it is having 30+ wins.

Grand Canyon (22-4; 8-2 WAC)

Alright, let’s be honest.  How many people here knew that “Grand Canyon University”, was even a thing?  Okay, now everyone raising their hand, please drop it if you in or around the Grand Canyon.  Please send me an email (edward.matheis@marquette.edu) if you can honestly say you would be able to name their mascot (Antelopes) in trivia.  These guys are basically a Chattanooga who plays slower and doesn’t block as many shots.  Their kenpom “four factors” are all impressive, and their only bad loss was a 50 point thwomping AT Louisville (100% understandable)…right alongside two key victories over Houston and San Diego State.  These guys can ball.

Phew.  We made it to the end.  Inevitably, some of these teams will likely screw up in their tournaments, and very few of them have made a good case for a reasonable at-large bid.  So some of these teams very conceivably won’t make the tournament, while others might still be under even my radar.

Regardless, you know have the inside scoop on what teams to look at.  If you want more information than I can possibly ever provide in an article covering all these teams, I recommend looking up more information as you can.  Otherwise, no one can come crying to me when Chattanooga/Valpo/Hawaii makes the sweet sixteen and ruins your bracket.  ‘Cause I called it.

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