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The Best of the Rest: Top Mid-Major Programs

7:39 AM, Jul 23, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Mid-major programs have become increasingly more competitive each season of late. The following programs will be able to compete with anyone in 2012-2013.

UNLV - The Runnin' Rebels are in a mid-major conference which qualifies them, but may not be considered your typical mid-major. Either way, the team is on the fringe of returning to the elite ranks. Dave Rice managed to put together one of the top recruiting classes in the nation which he will try to blend with the returners from 2011-2012's squad that finished 26-9. UNLV will look to its star forward Mike Moser, who averaged a double-double last year, for leadership. Moser will have the help of Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins, Anthony Bennett, Katin Reinhardt, Savon Goodman, and transfers Bryce Jones and Khem Birch. The Runnin' Rebels will have their work cut out for them as they go head-to-head in a very talented Mountain West Conference.

CREIGHTON - The Bluejays were one of the most exciting teams to watch last season as their offense flowed around their star sophomore forward Doug McDermott to average 80 points per game. Creighton only lost two games total outside of the MVC, playing three Big Ten teams, San Diego State, and Long Beach State. Second leading scorer Antoine Young graduated, but Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs along with incoming freshman Isaiah Zierden will be enough to keep Creighton on the list of teams no one wants to play.

MEMPHIS - Much like UNLV, Memphis is a much bigger program than the average mid-major. The Tigers have made eight NCAA Tournament appearances and went to the NIT three times since 2000. Head coach Josh Pastner had built an impressive 75-29 record in his three seasons since taking over for John Calipari, but he has not yet been able to get Memphis past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Memphis lost its go-to-guy Will Barton to the NBA this past off- season, but Adonis Thomas and incoming freshman Shaq Goodwin will be able to replace what left. Tarik Black, Chris Crawford, and Joe Jackson give the Tigers multiple options which will make them a tough out for any opponent next season.

GONZAGA - The Bulldogs challenged Ohio State in their third round matchup of the NCAA Tournament before coming up short against the bigger and stronger Buckeyes. Gonzaga returns Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., Elias Harris, and Sam Dower next season. Although center Robert Sacre graduated, coach Mark Few has one of his most complete teams since he took the helm of the program in 1999. The Bulldogs will hope incoming freshman Przemek Karnowski of Poland, who will be an impact player at the very least due to his 7-1, 280 pound frame. Few has not missed the NCAA Tournament once during his 13-year career and will be aiming to get the Zags into the Big Dance for the 14th straight season.

SAINT JOSEPH'S - Coach Phil Martelli led Saint Joseph's to the last undefeated regular season finish by any Division I program in 2003-2004. He is on the right track to rebuilding the program back into a top tier squad. The Hawks return its dynamic backcourt of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway that averaged a combined 32.5 ppg last year. C.J. Aiken did not score as much as Jones or Galloway, but he was named the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011-2012 due to his persistent shot altering presence inside. Aiken will be paired with SJU's top rebounder Halil Kanacevic in the front court once again. With an experienced core of returners and a proven coach, St. Joe's is certainly going to be a factor next season.

DREXEL - The Dragons came up just one short of their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1993-1994. Although Drexel lost its leader Samme Givens, the talented and youthful core returns to a weakened CAA next season. Frantz Massenat made huge strides in 2011-2012 as a sophomore and led the team in scoring and assists. Damion Lee will hope to do the same next year after winning the CAA Rookie of the Year as a freshman. Spot up shooter Chris Fouch is also back for the Dragons, who will be a very tenacious team if they can get the same type of rebounding from Daryl McCoy that they did from Givens over the past four seasons.

DAVIDSON - The Wildcats were by far the most dominant team in the Southern Conference last season and should be able to repeat that success with the duo of De'Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen back in the mix. Coach Bob McKillop has not had a losing season since 1991-1992 and really put the program on the map by leading the team to the Elite Eight with Stephen Curry running the show. Last season, Davidson earned its initial first place finish in the SoCon South Division since Curry's departure. A run in March is not out of the question with the sensational 1-2 punch of Brooks and Cohen and the strong role playing of Nik Cochran, JP Kuhlman, and Chris Czerapowicz.

NORTH TEXAS - Middle Tennessee showed last season that the Sun Belt has talent as it ran through its non-conference slate before being upset in the conference tournament.The Mean Green are going to be favorites in the SBC next season primarily due to their star forward and former top 100 recruit, Tony Mitchell. North Texas finished just one game short of the Big Dance last season. New head coach Tony Benford will have the task of leading North Texas and his star sophomore to the NCAA Tournament before the program joins the Conference USA.

BUCKNELL - Although Lehigh made headlines by knocking off Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Mountain Hawks might not have been the best team in the less celebrated Patriot League. Bucknell won the Patriot League regular season after losing just two games in conference. The Bison did not have enough quality wins out of conference to earn an at-large bid, but they have a very talented group returning next season. Mike Muscala just missed out on his second Patriot League Player of the Year Award after he led the conference in rebounding and finished fourth in scoring. Cameron Ayers, Joe Willman, and Bryson Johnson will provide enough to make Dave Paulsen's team very competitive.

MURRAY STATE - The Racers were the last undefeated team last season after an electric 23-0 start. Murray State finally lost its first game to Ohio Valley Conference rival, Tennessee State, before being defeated for the second and final time by Marquette in the Big Dance. Steve Prohm has no reason to expect a major drop off in his second year as a head coach, but a repeat of last season's magic is going to be nearly impossible to repeat with the loss of his second, third, and fourth leading scorer and the addition of Belmont to the OVC. However, MSU returns its superstar point guard Isaiah Canaan, who is one of the best players in the NCAA. If Canaan gets help from his unproven supporting cast, the Racers will be able to return to the NCAA Tournament once again.

HARVARD - The Crimson worked their way into the top 25 last season with a gritty defensive philosophy that stifled opposing offenses. Coach Tommy Amaker's team impressed many early on as they won the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament which included multiple ranked teams from power conferences. Harvard returns double-digit scorers Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard along with the highly effective floor general Brandyn Curry. Amaker played nine different players quality minutes last season which allowed his defensive-minded philosophy to operate smoothly. Expect the same next season as Harvard looks to dominate the Ivy League once again.

HONORABLE MENTION: Saint Mary's, VCU, San Diego State, Saint Louis, Colorado State, Belmont, Long Beach State, Marshall, Detroit, Lehigh, Nevada, Buffalo, Ohio, BYU, Loyola-Maryland

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