Since 2006, five of the 24 Final Four teams have come from a non-major conference. It's gotten to the point that entering the season the discussion has turned from "if," to "which one?" will be the next darling of America. While there was less turnover at the top compared to many previous seasons, the gap between schools with deep pockets and small budgets remains tight.
"Mid-major" is less of a mouthful but because it's both inaccurate and carries a negative connotation for some of these teams, we'll avoid it at all costs. Below are the top 10 teams from non-major conferences, all with legitimate aspirations of playing into April and celebrating on Bourbon Street.
The talent is there for the Tigers to once again be grouped with the game’s elite, but they must prove it. Josh Pastner's entire freshman class from a year ago is back to prove we should believe the hype, freshman Adonis Thomas is ready to prove the everyone he’s a future NBA stud, and senior Wesley Witherspoon is poised to prove to everyone he’s not a bust. I really think we have an Elite Eight team here that should be thinking about playing in the Final Four.
While they're not a Final Four team, Mr. Jeff Goodman, the Musketeers do have skill at every starting position that are supplemented by numerous weapons off the bench. Terrell Holloway is the best point guard in the nation, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to gain recognition with one of the country’s toughest non-conference schedules. Scheduled games against Georgia, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Butler, Oral Roberts, Cincinnati, Gonzaga will make the NCAA Tournament committee smile, and fans proud.
T-3. New Mexico / UNLV
For what it’s worth, I think the most slept on TV deal in college basketball is that of Versus and the Mountain West Conference. A handful of times a season national audience is treated to games that would otherwise be relegated to a regional sports network. Thankfully, though, we’ll get to follow the conference’s top two teams that, on paper, look awfully similar. The Lobos and Rebels will likely jostle back-and-forth for conference supremacy this season, with New Mexico being led by UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, and UNLV by Chace Stanback. Both are decent with the rock for their size, and both are flanked with solid backcourts. The MWC winner will be one of these two teams, and there’s a chance both will playing for a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Damon Wayans once said, "this town was built on nepotism." In the case of the 2011-2012 Blue Jays, this season’s success will be built on such family favoritism. In only his second year at Creighton Greg McDermott will coach the Missouri Valley favorites, which will be led on the court by his son Doug. A Sporting News Pre-Season All-American, Doug could indeed blossom into a national star this season if he can build from a surprisingly successful freshman campaign where he led the Blue Jays in scoring and rebounding. Extrapolate those statistics as the clear cut go-to guy, and you could argue Doug will flirt with 20 and 10 averages this season. With the rest of the rotation being primarily upperclassmen, this could be a great pick to upset a BCS conference team in March.
No list like the one you’re reading would be complete without the Bulldogs, but just how viable they are as a top-tiered non-BCS conference power may be in question. With Steven Gray graduating and Demetri Goodson transferring to Butler to play football, the backcourt will be led by (John's son) David Stockton. Probably the most unimposing player in college basketball, Stockton is as crafty as you would expect but will struggle to get to the hoop and create his own shot. An additional concern is the development of Elias Harris. Hot stuff and a sure-fire NBA pro two seasons ago, Harris appeared to regress last season and struggled against larger frontcourt players. All that being said, the WCC is once again theirs for the taking, and you’ll see them in the top 25 all season.
It’s a long-tail superlative you wouldn't expect to have multiple suitors, but Detroit, as promising as they are this season, sits just behind Creighton as the #1 "Best non-BCS conference team whose best player is the son of the coach." Head coach Ray McCallum lured his McDonalds All-American son Ray Jr. away from a more prominent program to be part of what could be a special year at Calihan Hall. With Butler incredibly vulnerable, it’s Detroit who could claim the Horizon League throne.
A shocking run to the Final Four in 2011 has established a strong foundation for Shaka Smart. Fresh off a lucrative contract extension, Smart enters the season with a new look team that will be led by senior Bradford Burgess, who finished second on last year’s squad in scoring. Roster turnover aside, fans should simply be happy the school was able to lock up such a great motivator in Smart, who was ripe for the picking of a larger school looking to cash in on the Rams unexpected success.
Someone has to challenge Xavier in the Atlantic 10, right? While it may seem difficult to believe, the Owls are arguably better than last season despite losing the program’s all-time leading rebounder in Lavoy Allen. Fran Dunphy has a senior-laden group of players led by the backcourt of Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez. Aiming for their third conference championship in four years, the Owls are also out to advance to the Sweet 16, something the program hasn't done since 2001.
The Ivy League is theirs to lose, and with non-conference games against Utah, UConn, Boston College and St. Joseph’s the Crimson may not just be a feel good story once March rolls around, but a team confident and talented enough to advance in the NCAA Tournament.