Mid-Major Preview: Gonzaga, Nevada, Loyola-Chicago Lead the Best of the Rest

Gonzaga and Nevada are both national title contenders, but there's plenty of other intrigue to be found as well outside of the major conferences.
Publish date:

As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC, ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the SEC; Last up for our conference previews is the best of the rest—aka the mid-majors, complete with our analyst’s breakdowns of each team and scouting takes from opposing coaches for the top five.

The Big Picture

If you took out a crystal ball at the beginning of last season, would you have picked Loyola-Chicago to be the Cinderella team? Probably not. The top mid-major team in our rankings last year was St. Mary's. The Gaels didn't make the tournament. So, odds are high that there will be a mid-major that comes out of nowhere to make a deep run.

But we've gotten pretty good at identifying the teams outside the big seven conferences that are primed for a run. And that allows us to narrow down ten of the best mid-major teams heading into the season. There's a bunch of familiar faces in there, but also some programs that might catch you by surprise.

If you're a fan of a mid-major, there's a lot of talented teams with the chops to make a deep run. If you're a fan of a high-major anxiously awaiting that 4–13 or 5–12 matchup, study up. There's a plenty of depth, big-time players and great coaching to see one from this group make a splash come March.

Mid-Major Player of the Year: Caleb Martin, Nevada

Caleb Martin is a legit player of the year candidate in the country, let alone amongst mid-majors. He can do everything. He can score (18.9 ppg); he can rebound (5.4); he can shoot (40.3% from three). This Nevada team is scary talented, and Martin won't have to take on double teams anymore. He'll also get more help on the defensive end. But it's still his team, and he'll power them to another big time March performance.

Mid-Major Newcomer of the Year: Charles Bassey, WKU

This year, the Hilltoppers will actually see a five-star big man play in Bowling Green. Charles Bassey originally played soccer while growing up in Nigeria. At 14 years old, he moved to Texas to play basketball. He was the Jordan Brand Classic international game MVP in 2016, and he was ranked as high as the No. 3 prospect in the 2019 class before reclassifying to enter WKU. The 6' 11" big man is already a good defender and is ferocious around the rim on offense. He has some work to do on expanding his all-around offensive game, but he should feast on C-USA big men.

Mid-Major Dark Horse Team: Marshall

Losing Ajdin Penava is a big blow, as he led the nation in blocks last year and was Marshall's third leading scorer. But there's a lot of offense to go around here. Jon Elmore is an All-America candidate, and one of the best pure scorers in the nation. Pair him with C.J. Burks (20.1 ppg) and watch out. Elmore and Burks are the first tandem to each score over 700 points since 2009–10. (Would you have guessed Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler?) Burks is one of 26 players since 1992–93 to score over 700 points, hit 80 threes and shoot at least 88% from the line in the same year. And yet he plays a very clear second-fiddle to Elmore. The depth up front is a concern, but there's talent in 6' 7" sophomore Darius George and 6' 9" second-year man Jannson Williams. If those guys are serviceable, Marshall will score a ton of points and be tough to stop against any defense.

The Next Loyola-Chicago? Eleven Mid-Majors Who Could Have a Cinderella Season

Predicted Top 10 Mid-Major Teams

1. Gonzaga

The Skinny: Gonzaga is the class of mid-majors yet again. And the Zags are doing it this year in the frontcourt. They have a three-headed trio up front, led by All-America candidate Rui Hachimura. Hachimura shot 56.8% from the field last year and averaged 11.6 points in just 20 minutes. He'll see more playing time this season. Killian Tillie can stretch the floor at 6' 10"—he led the Zags in three-point percentage. Brandon Clarke, a San Jose State transfer, is a bruiser inside. As a sophomore for the Spartans in 2016–17, he averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, and had a school-record 77 blocks.

The Zags are good at guard, too. Josh Perkins is a veteran guard who can orchestrate on offense; Zach Norvell is a great shooter. The intriguing guy is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota. He joined the program in mid-October after a mad dash to graduate. But the 6' 4" guard is a playmaker, and would be a good fit starting or as the sixth man. He averaged 16.6 points last year, and led the Big Sky in steals.

The Zags have depth, versatility and experience. It's going to be hard to beat them this year.

Scout’s Take: Rui Hachimura was very good off the dribble. He could rebound and score inside. He only played 20 minutes. He played half the game! And still averaged 11 points. If his three-point shot gets better, his game goes to a whole other level. He’s very effective in the high post. He can catch it, rip through, drive it. He's an animal on the glass. He can finish plays in the open court. He’s one of the favorites for the best player in the conference.

Killian Tillie shot 48% from three. But he can post, too. He's good in the high post. Against zone defenses, he can get open in gaps. And he can stretch. He’s better posting up back to basket with both hands. He’s a good inside player.

Brandon Clarke is a freak athlete. Can jump and rebound. At San Jose State, he averaged 18 and nine. He’s one of their top-three players. He's going to end up starting.

Josh Perkins is great at ball handling. He can shoot the three. He can run a team. He can score when you need a basket. You want him with the ball at the end of the shot clock. With better wings, it’ll be easier. Being in that program for that long, he’s got a ton of experience. He can make plays. Not super athletic. But he’s consistent.

Zach Norvell can really shoot. He’s athletic. He can get hot. He also rebounds pretty well. He’s not one dimensional. Very good in open court. Can come off a pin down and get a good jump shot.

2. Nevada

The Skinny: This is a Sweet 16 team last year that returns most of its key players. Nevada has a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Martin, and his brother Cody made the Bob Cousy watch list for top point guard, despite just playing 10 games there last year. Jordan Caroline is now back to his natural position as a small forward. The Pack added 6' 11" Jordan Brown, a McDonald's All-American who is the highest-rated recruit in school history. Along with 6' 11" Old Dominion transfer Trey Porter, the interior of the defense is stout.

Kendall Stephens is a tough loss in the backcourt, but Martin is obviously capable at the point, and Lindsey Drew, who missed the end of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, will be healthy at some point. Nevada has more depth than last year, especially up front, and has a slew of talented transfers roaming the bench. There's a reason the Pack are a trendy top-10 pick. They're that good.

Scout’s Take: Caleb Martin's versatility is great. He can pass it. He can make tough shots. There's not a lot of guys that have the length and skill level to guard him. You might have one guy, like Chandler Hutchinson last year at Boise State, who can guard him. But then you're playing someone who's 6' 4" who can't guard him. He can get a basket whenever they need one. As much as they are twins, they definitely play different games. Cody [Martin] knew he wasn't as good as Caleb. But defensively he's a lot better. He creates matchup problems when they switch. He can score and shoot the three, but he's best on the defensive end.

Even though Jordan Caroline is now playing small forward after playing center, the 1–5 positions don't matter for them. Caroline is going to play all over. He brings a lot. A 6' 11" guy can't move with him on the perimeter. Caroline is not your traditional run the wing, shoot the three forward. He's more of a half-court guy. How do you guard him with your center? Can you guard him driving?

3. Loyola-Chicago

The Skinny: Loyola returns four of its top seven scorers from last year's magical run. That includes Clayton Custer, the MVC Player of the Year. Cameron Krutwig, who was so efficient in the tournament, has another year of experience, and Marques Townes will continue as a starter. Losing Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson is tough, but there's a ton of experience and talent here. The player to watch: Aher Uguak. He sat out last year as a transfer, but the 6' 7" forward is on track to win the starting power forward job. He's super athletic, and while he didn't play much as a freshman at New Mexico, the talent is there.

Scout’s Take: [Clayton] Custer brings consistency. He's highly efficient. He almost always makes the right play. He's your prototypical floor general. He can beat you by scoring, or by leading the team. He shoots at a high percentage. He guards well. Maybe he could finish a little better through contact. But to pick a weakness would be tough to do.

[Cameron] Krutwig's passing, his footwork through double teams or kick outs is unique for a big. I don’t think he can get better passing because he’s so gifted. His size gives people problem. He wasn’t great over his left shoulder. He didn’t make many jump shots. And fatigue was an issue at times.

Marques Townes is so physical. He can play a few different positions. He plays confidently. He's a physical and aggressive driver. He can be difficult to guard. There were many nights when he was their best player.

4. Western Kentucky

The Skinny: The problem: only two starters return from last year's team. The solution: add a five-star recruit. Charles Bassey is a highly-regarded freshman, who has the potential to dominate. And it helps that the two starters returning are really good. Lamonte Bearden, though he will miss the first nine games due to academic issues, averaged 11.8 points last season. And Taveion Hollingsworth was a C-USA All-Freshman last year, averaging 13.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. That's an impressive core. Add Auburn transfer Desean Murray (10.1 points), and there's enough talent here to overcome the losses. There are a few other freshmen, namely guards Dalano Banton and Jeremiah Gambrell, who will figure in the mix. Lots of high-end talent in Bowling Green this year.

Scout’s Take: [Lamonte] Bearden is a great athlete. He really attacks off the dribble. He's more of an attacking type guard/wing, with great speed in transition. He's not a guy who, at least last year, is going to scare you a lot by wanting to shoot threes. It's just not his game. But he's smart enough to know that, which is why he's so good attacking off the bounce. He's a very capable and explosive player in transition. I saw [Charles] Bassey a couple of times. He's a very talented player. Great size, great skill set. He's a mobile big that's coordinated, he can step out. I don't know that he's going to break guys down off the dribble. But it's not foreign to him to catch off the basket facing up, take a shot or make a play off the dribble. He's got great feet, good hands. It's hard for me to say if he'll be a one-and-done, but from what I saw, in a natural progression and maturing, saying he's a one-and-done doesn't surprise me.

5. Davidson

The Skinny: The Wildcats lose leading scorer Peyton Aldridge, which hurts. But Kellen Grady is ready to take his place. Grady had a sensational freshman season, averaging 18 points and winning the A-10 Rookie of the Year. His backcourt mate is Jon Axel Gudmundsson, who single-handedly kept Davidson in it against Kentucky in the tournament. There are depth issues in the frontcourt. The best option is probably Nathan Ekwu, who missed last season with a knee injury. Two freshmen, Luka Brajkovic and Nelson Boachie-Yiadom, could be options, too.

But this is a guard-led team. Along with Grady and Gudmundsson, KiShawn Pritchett is healthy, as is Luke Frampton, who's a great shooter. A four-guard lineup is an option, but a significant jump in production from Grady could offset the frontcourt issues. Regardless, there's enough in the backcourt to see Davidson as the favorite in the A-10.

Scout’s Take: Grady can score in so many ways. When you shoot 50% as a freshman, it's tough to defend. You can’t take one thing away. He’ll get an offensive rebound, too. He's definitely a pro prospect. You’ll see Gudmundsson's numbers go up. He’s really efficient in his movement. You’ll see his game flourish even more with Aldridge gone. Now he’s a main option. And he's not just a shooter. He’s sneaky athletic. Next thing you know he’s at the rim.

64 Reasons to Be Excited for the 2018–19 College Basketball Season

6. Buffalo

The Skinny: Buffalo demolished Arizona last year in the tournament, and most of that same team is back for another go this year. Five of the team's six leading scorers return. The Bulls are led by a trio of seniors. CJ Massinburg is the star. He led the team with 17 points and 7.3 rebounds. The first-team All-MAC guard plays big against big teams, including posting 29 points and 10 rebounds against No. 10 Cincinnati, 19 points against Arizona and 18 against Kentucky. Jeremy Harris averaged 15.5 points last year, and scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Arizona. He also shot 46.3% from three in conference play. Nick Perkins was the MAC Sixth Man of the Year. There's depth too, with freshman guard Ronaldo Segu and sophomore Jayvon Graves, who went to LeBron's high school. The Bulls are arguably better than last year, when they easily could've made the Sweet 16. Watch out for them.

7. Rhode Island

The Skinny: There's a lot gone at Rhode Island, including coach Dan Hurley, who's now at UConn. Jared Terrell, EC Matthews, Stanford Robinson and sixth man Jarvis Garrett have all left. But fret not, Rams fans, there's a lot of talent. Fatts Russell had some big moments as a freshman, and his role will increase. Jeff Dowtin is experienced, and a great distributor. Jermaine Harris is a versatile and talented freshman who was a top-100 recruit. And then Cyril Langevine has double-double potential at center.

The keys will be Russell and Dowtin. If they improve their numbers with more minutes, there's enough talent to get Rhode Island back to the tournament. If not though, the team could fall quickly down from this ranking.

8. Marshall

The Skinny: Explosive offense is the name of the game. Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks are ridiculously talented, and there aren't many schools that can match that production in the backcourt. Rondale Watson gets lost in the shuffle, but the 6' 4" guard is plenty talented. Jarrod West is small at 5' 11", but he led the team in three-point percentage at 41.2%. The frontcourt is an issue, but as long as there are a few serviceable players to complement the three-guard lineup, Marshall should be fine.

9. San Diego State

The Skinny: There are four true freshmen on the roster, all 6' 6" or taller. Nathan Mensah has great defensive potential. Aguek Arop can play all over; Ed Chang, at 6'8", can shoot from anywhere. Add that to Jalen McDaniels, who had a fine freshman season in his own right. He was third-team all Mountain West, and is a potential defensive superstar. He should be getting the ball on offense more, too. Devin Watson is good in the backcourt.

There's not a ton of experience on the bench, which hurts, and it still remains to be seen if McDaniels can take a step forward offensively. There are some interesting pieces; but the Aztecs are lower on this list because we're not sure how it all comes together.

10. BYU

The Skinny: Former All-WCC honoree Nick Emery returns after missing all of last season due to an NCAA investigation into alleged booster improprieties, but he will miss the first nine games of this year because of it. TJ Haws, also a former all-conference player, had a down season last year but returns as well. If the duo can back to their excellent freshmen form, the Cougars could be a force. Elijah Bryant is gone, but that can be overcome by consistent performances by Emery and Haws. Yoeli Childs, who averaged 17.8 points and 8.6 rebounds last season, is underrated up front, but BYU's ceiling is all about Emery and Haws. If they take a step forward, there's a good inside-out game to be had.