The top six mid-major contenders this season
- Sports Illustrated previews the best college basketball teams from outside the power conferences using data from our College Basketball Projection System.
Sports Illustrated’s 2016–17 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Luke Winn and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.
We have already projected player statistics and standings for the ACC, A-10, American, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Now we turn to the six teams outside of those conferences our projections believe are most likely to be contenders.
1. Gonzaga (First in WCC, NCAA tournament No. 3 seed)
The Bulldogs faced some unexpected challenges in the West Coast Conference last season and ultimately needed to win the league tournament before feeling fully secure for Selection Sunday. But despite losing top scorer Kyle Wiltjer, lottery pick Domantas Sabonis and glue-guy Kyle Dranginis, the Zags should be in better shape this season. Redshirt sophomores Josh Perkins and Bryan Alberts and junior Silas Melson will anchor the backcourt, and big man Przemek Karnowski returns to patrol the paint. Meanwhile, transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) and Jordan Mathews (California) should make immediate impacts.
2. St. Mary’s (Second in WCC, No. 6 seed)
The Gaels return all five starters from a team that pushed the Bulldogs to the brink last season. This year they should give the WCC a compelling conference race again. Junior guard Emmett Naar, the team’s leading scorer (14.3 ppg) in 2015–16, leads an offense our system predicts to finish in the top 20 nationally. A defense projected at No. 83, though, could be the Gaels’ downfall.
3. Wichita State (First in MVC, No. 7 seed)
What will Wichita State look like without Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker? Well, according to our projections, the Shockers will still be the best team in the Missouri Valley and an NCAA tournament threat. Markis McDuffie, who was named to the preseason All-MVC first team and the Julius Ervin Award watchlist (given to the best small forward in the country), should be the X-factor in an offense that will revolve around sharpshooting guard Conner Frankamp.
|Darral Willis Jr.||PF||5.8||3.7||0.4||101.4||20.3%||40%|
4. San Diego State (First in MWC, No. 9 seed)
It should come as no surprise that our system projects the Aztecs to have the sixth-best defense in the country but the 112th-ranked offense. Coach Steve Fisher returns three starters—forward Zylan Cheatham and guards Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell—from last year’s team, which missed out on the NCAAs after losing in the league tournament. Graduate transfer Valentine Izundu, who average 3.8 blocked shots a game last season, should be the defensive stalwart.
5. BYU (Third in WCC, First Four)
Last season’s leading men, Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer, are gone, but guard Nick Emery returns to build on a promising freshman season. The Cougars will also look for big production from newcomers like transfer Elijah Bryant (Elon) and TJ Haws, an incoming freshman who spent the past two years as a missionary in France and is the younger brother of former Cougars star Tyler.
6. Princeton (First in Ivy League, First Four)
Forgotten amid the back-and-forth Ivy League race between Yale and Harvard last year were the Tigers, who only lost two games in the conference last season. This year, they offer three preseason All-Ivy League picks: seniors Henry Caruso, Spencer Weisz and Steve Cook. The return of big man Hans Brase, who missed last season with a torn ACL, should bolster an already formidable frontcourt.