A year ago, no one saw Arkansas-Little Rock coming. Chris Beard took over the program, signed seven guys and wound up winning the Sun Belt, pulling the upset over Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament and getting the Texas Tech (after he took UNLV) job.
Brad Underwood and Stephen F. Austin weren’t nearly as much of a surprise as the Lumberjacks had been dominant the previous season and returned standout Thomas Walkup and key pieces from a team that won 29 games and finished 17-1 in the Southland. Stephen F. ran the table in the league last season and Underwood pulled off another NCAA upset, this time over West Virginia.
There were others: Monmouth with its play on the court and its entertaining shenanigans on the bench. Yale with its Ivy League crown and upset over Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tourney.
Who are the mid-major teams that will make some noise this season?
We’re going to start with Chattanooga, a team that went 29-6 last season and doesn’t just return four starters from a year ago – but also brings back Casey Jones, who led the team in scoring (14.2) and rebounding (7.0) two years ago and was leading the Mocs in scoring, rebounding and assists when he went down with a season-ending ankle injury eight games into the year.
Second-year coach Matt McCall will trot out a starting lineup of five seniors: Jones, Tre’ McLean, Justin Tuoyo, Greg Pryor and Chuck Ester. Three of those guys are in their fifth year of college.
The long and athletic McLean wound up leading the team in scoring after Jones went down and was the SoCon Player of the Year runner-up. The 6-foot-10 Tuoyo is a force on the defensive end, Pryor runs the team and brings toughness, while Ester is a stretch four who can also put the ball on the floor.
McCall said this team will obviously have a different set of expectations than the one that beat Georgia, Illinois and Dayton in the nonconference slate last year. This time around the Mocs start the year at Tennessee and then in Chapel Hill against UNC.
While we don’t consider Gonzaga a mid-major, we will include another WCC team that hasn’t had the success and doesn’t boast the budget of the ‘Zags: Saint Mary’s.
Randy Bennett went with the same starting lineup for all 35 games last season: Aussies Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau, forward Calvin Hermanson, BC transfer Joe Rahon and 6-foot-10 big man Evan Fitzner.
All five are back from a team that won 29 games and narrowly missed on getting to the NCAA tourney. Not only that, but Bennett also returns his top three reserves from a year ago.
No one knew quite what to expect from this fairly young and unproven bunch last season. The Gaels had lost all five starters, and Naar was the team’s most proven player, having averaged 6.3 points per game.
The 6-foot-1 Naar was terrific a year ago as a sophomore, Pineau emerged as a double-double threat and Hermanson and Rahon were both double-figure scorers. Fitzner averaged 8.7 points and 4.4 boards in 23 minutes per game as a frosh, so he should take a step forward.
Princeton is the preseason favorite to win the Ivy, but I’m still going with Harvard – which gets back standout point guard Siyani Chambers and also adds four freshmen ranked in ESPN’s Top 100. This will be a completely different team from the won that went 14-16 last season. Zena Edosomwan averaged 13.1 points and 9.9 boards last year as a junior, and Tommy McCarthy got experience as a freshman filling in for Chambers. Coach Tommy Amaker also found a shooter with Corey Johnson, who started 26 games, averaged 9.8 points and made 40 percent of his 3s.
Monmouth brings back diminutive senior guard Justin Robinson from a team that won 28 games last season, Belmont has 6-foot-7 senior Evan Bradds (17.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and UNC-Wilmington returns Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram from an NCAA tourney team.
It’s never easy to try and figure out the next Cinderella, but those are a few teams to keep an eye on throughout the season.