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Mid-Major Men’s Basketball Preview: Breaking Down the Best of the Rest

They may reside outside the major conferences, but these 10 teams have the potential to make noise in March.

As part of Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2021–22 men’s college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus a ‘best of the rest.’ All will be complete with our analyst’s breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI’s master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed next week. Last up is the ‘best of the rest.’

The big picture

Now that SI has previewed the top seven men’s conferences in college basketball (Power 5, Big East, AAC), it’s time for a look at ‘the best of the rest’, if you will. This list is SI’s top 10 teams outside the top seven conferences. It features rosters that run it back thanks to the extra year of eligibility awarded to all athletes last season as well as programs that used this year’s record-setting transfer portal to beef up the roster and become a contender.

All 10 of these teams have the combination of talent, coaching and experience to not just make the NCAA tournament or win a game, but make a run. Here they are, in order of SI’s overall national ranking.

1. Gonzaga

The Bulldogs aren’t just the best team outside the major conferences … they are the best team in the country. Yes, this is a slightly different-looking group from the one that went 31–1 a season ago, primarily because it lacks the dynamism of Jalen Suggs in the backcourt. But this is still clearly the best team in the country on paper. Big man Drew Timme is the best player in the sport, a dominant low-post force who can score with either hand on the block. He’ll look even better this year when paired with Chet Holmgren up front, who covers Timme’s weaknesses in space and as a shot-blocker with his unique skill set.

What would solidify this team’s status as the nation’s best would be the emergence of Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis or Rasir Bolton as one of the better guards in the sport. Giving Andrew Nembhard a high-level running mate would make this group virtually unstoppable yet again.

St. Bonaventure guard Kyle Lofton dunks the ball

Bonnies guard Kyle Lofton

2. St. Bonaventure

It’s all about experience for the Bonnies, who are ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1971 to open the season. All five starters return from last year’s Atlantic 10 champs that earned a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. The true secret sauce to SBU’s success is a defense anchored by Osun Osunniyi down low; his shot-blocking instincts and positioning make him one of the most impactful defenders in the sport. Add in battle-tested point guard Kyle Lofton, gifted scorer Jaren Holmes and glue guys Dominick Welch and Jalen Adaway, and you have a cohesive five-man unit capable of beating the best nationally. And if you’re looking for upside, you’ll find it in a deeper bench headlined by Pitt transfer Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, whose toughness fits head coach Mark Schmidt well.

3. Loyola Chicago

The Porter Moser era in Rogers Park is over, but Loyola’s administration made clear that it was “committed to the culture” built by Moser and quickly elevated top assistant Drew Valentine to head coach days before his 30th birthday. Valentine is fortunate to inherit an experienced team that can be the standard-bearers of the Loyola culture under Moser, including fifth-year senior Lucas Williamson and sixth-year Aher Uguak. The Ramblers will play faster under Valentine, particularly without the luxury of Cameron Krutwig’s elite late-clock decision-making they relied on in year’s past. Point guard Braden Norris looks quicker and stronger than he did a season ago—expect him to be the engine that makes this offense go.

4. BYU

Last season should have taught neutral observers around the sport a lesson: Don’t bet against Mark Pope. Few would have foreseen the Cougars finishing in the top 20 in KenPom considering how much talent departed following the 2019–20 season, but a breakout season from Alex Barcello and strong contributions from young players led the Cougars to an NCAA tournament berth. Pope restocked the roster again with a pair of transfer guards in Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight (San Jose State) to pair with Barcello in the backcourt. Forwards Caleb Lohner and Gideon George each showed significant promise a season ago and should be key contributors in their second years in the program.

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5. San Diego State

The centerpiece of this year’s Mountain West favorites is Matt Bradley, who transfers in from Cal with a reputation for being one of the best bucket-getters on the West Coast. While their games are very different, Bradley’s addition at SDSU is somewhat reminiscent of when the Aztecs added Malachi Flynn from Washington State two seasons ago. Like Flynn, Bradley carried a roster that lacked talent around him and still found a way to be efficient against Pac-12 foes. Flynn led SDSU to perhaps the best season in program history. While I’m skeptical Bradley can match that, he’ll score at a high level and the Aztecs have a strong cadre of role players with tons of experience around him.

6. Colorado State

The Rams were likely one win away from the NCAA tournament a season ago, but fell in the Mountain West semifinals to Utah State. Days later, USU earned one of the final at-large spots in the field and CSU was relegated to the NIT. Now, Niko Medved’s team runs it back with the same core that should only get better from a season ago. Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy carried Colorado State a season ago as sophomores and should be two of the nation’s best mid-major players in 2021–22. Division II transfer Chandler Jacobs adds another two-way playmaker in the backcourt, while bigs James Moors and Dischon Thomas still have untapped potential after being thrust into the fire last season. This team should go dancing.

7. Richmond

Chris Mooney’s team was the talk of the sport early last season when it went into Rupp Arena and shocked Kentucky. Things didn’t go according to plan after that: Kentucky had its worst season since the 1920s to water down that quality win, and COVID-19 issues derailed any momentum the Spiders ever built. Much of that core is back for one more go though, including ideal Princeton offense big man Grant Golden and defensive whiz Jacob Gilyard. This group is loaded with experience and has been through virtually everything a college team could think of facing together. That should set the Spiders up well to compete for an NCAA tournament bid.

Richmond's Grant Golden shoots

Richmond's Grant Golden

8. UAB

Longtime Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy is building something special at UAB, stacking high-major transfer after high-major transfer with eyes on bringing the Blazers to the Big Dance. These transfers aren’t guys who couldn’t cut it at the highest level either: Jordan Walker was a high-level playmaker at Tulane and the trio of Jamal Johnson, KJ Buffen and Josh LeBlanc were each key cogs in SEC rotations a season ago. Add in a core of returners like Michael Ertel, Quan Jackson, Tavin Lovan and Trey Jemison, and you have a team that will be competitive not just in the C-USA, but nationally.

9. Drake

The offseason departure of star guard Joseph Yesufu for Kansas prevents the Bulldogs from climbing higher on this list, but this veteran group should be in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth yet again. Point guard Roman Penn was on track to compete for Missouri Valley Player of the Year honors before a foot injury derailed his season late and is back now, as are versatile forwards ShanQuan Hemphill and Tremell Murphy and defense-first big Darnell Brodie. If you’re looking for upside with this group, look no further than freshman Tucker DeVries, a fringe top-100 recruit who spurned high-major offers to play for his dad at Drake.

10. Nevada

If there’s one mid-major player in the country whose name you need to know, it might be Grant Sherfield. The Wichita State transfer lit up the Mountain West last season thanks to his ability to hit tough shots and his penchant for coming up big in clutch moments. With Sherfield and fellow high-scoring guard Desmond Cambridge back and a talented group of newcomers, optimism in Reno is the highest it has been since Eric Musselman had it rolling. Transfers AJ Bramah (Robert Morris) and Will Baker (Texas) should bolster the frontcourt alongside 7-footer Warren Washington. Hopefully a weak nonconference schedule doesn’t hurt the Wolf Pack’s chances of snagging an at-large bid in 2021–22, because the nation deserves to watch Sherfield in the NCAA tournament. 

More College Basketball:

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Preseason Men's National Player of Year Rankings
• Top Men's Breakout Candidates for 2021–22