Here's a look at the best mid-major teams, coaches and players for the 2009-10 season.
Ten best mid-major teams
The Butler Bulldogs are on the verge of playing themselves into a perennial Top 25 program. Following the Gonzaga formula for success, they will take on a murderer's row of a nonconference schedule that includes Georgetown, Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Davidson and potentially UCLA, West Virginia and Clemson in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. The Bulldogs have three high major-players in the starting lineup (more than many BCS conference teams), a bevy of solid complementary players and a terrific young coach in Brad Stevens.
A lot of familiar faces have departed Spokane and Mark Few has one of his biggest rebuilding jobs at Gonzaga. But he's been in this situation before. Although the Zags lost five seniors, and sophomore Austin Daye opted to leave early for the NBA, Gonzaga has enough talent to take on the always brutal nonconference schedule and compete for a 12th straight NCAA bid.
Senior Matt Bouldin leads the way as the best all-around player in the WCC. Guards Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson have shown flashes of brilliance as role players, and they have a great opportunity to step up this season. Six-foot-7 freshman Elias Harris just finished playing for his native Germany in the recent European men's championships and has the maturity to be an instant-impact player.
The Saints are on a roll, and it is highly likely to continue this season. Siena is coming off back-to-back NCAA first-round wins over Vanderbilt and Ohio State, and it returns its core players this season. Edwin Ubiles is a Big East player whom coach Fran McCaffery stole out of Poughkeepsie and 5-foot-11 point guard Ronald Moore is a maestro in the Saints' offense. Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter anchor the inside and super sub Clarence Jackson replaces four-year starter, and McCaffery's first recruit, Kenny Hasbrouck, in the lineup.
Quality mid-major programs are usually well coached because there is less margin for error here, compared with high-major programs that often can rely on great talent and average coaching. The Monarchs have an outstanding coach in Blaine Taylor, who has won 119 games over the past five seasons, including 25 last season. Every key player returns for Taylor, including CAA Co-Player of the Year, the multidimensional 6-foot-10 Gerald Lee.
Speaking of outstanding coaches, Stew Morrill is quietly heading toward his 500th win this season in his 24th season as a head coach.
In fact, over the past 10 seasons the Aggies are in the select company of Gonzaga and Kansas as the only teams that have won at least 23 games each season. This season's team is led by preseason All-WAC guard Jared Quayle and he'll get help inside from junior forwards Tai Wesley and Nate Bendall.
First-year coach Ken McDonald picked up where former coach Darrin Horn left off after departing for South Carolina. The Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt tournament and won an NCAA first-round matchup with Illinois before succumbing to Gonzaga on a last-second shot. A win over the Zags would have put WKU into its second straight Sweet 16. But McDonald returns the conference's preseason player of the year, 6-foot-2 guard A.J. Slaughter, who does a little bit of everything well. Former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, 6-foot-5 Steffphon Pettigrew is a player who can score and rebound inside, and he has improved his perimeter game enough to be a difficult matchup for most teams at this level.
Last season, the Panthers came out of nowhere -- actually Cedar Falls -- to win the Missouri Valley Conference and a school-record 23 games before falling to Purdue 61-56 in the NCAA tournament. They did it playing fundamentally sound basketball, shooting 75 percent from the free throw line while turning the ball over only 12 times per game. The great news for coach Ben Jacobson is that all five starters and 92 percent of the team's scoring return. The uniqueness of this team is there is no one star player. Adam Koch is a 6-foot-8, 245-pound workhorse inside, and the Panthers' backcourt of Ali Farokhmanesh and Kwadzo Ahelegbe is rock solid. This is a team capable of getting to the Sweet 16.
The Rams' three-year regular-season championship run will be severely challenged by ODU, George Mason and Hofstra this season. And although brilliant point guard Eric Maynor is off to the NBA and former coach Anthony Grant left for Alabama, there is a residue of success left behind that will serve this team well. Rapidly improving 6-foot-11 center Larry Sanders is the CAA's best pro prospect and 5-foot-10 junior point guard Joey Rodriguez is as feisty as a middleweight. New VCU coach Shaka Smart arrives from Billy Donovan's staff at Florida and he is a rising star.
Zips coach Keith Dambrot welcomes back four starters and 13 lettermen from last season's MAC championship team. Replacing 6-foot-8 "crazy glue guy" Nate Linhart won't be easy, but there are enough experienced young players in the program who are ready to try. Brothers Brett and Chris McKnight, both in the 6-foot-7 range, are a tough matchup, and Dambrot has key role players all over the Zips' roster. A huge bonus for Akron is the arrival of top-50 recruit 7-foot Zeke Marshall from western Pennsylvania. While he's a nice athlete who runs and jumps well, Marshall's ability to get stronger will be a key to how much he can help this season. Five-foot-10 sophomore Anthony (Humpty) Hitchens is a name to remember.
Former Stanford assistant coach Eric Reveno has quietly built the next in the line of WCC teams trying to knock Gonzaga off its perch at the top of the league.
All five starters return from last season's 19-13 club. The Pilots were one of the best 3-point shooting teams in college basketball, knocking down 42 percent of their shots, and are led by outstanding guards Nik Raivio, T.J. Campbell and Jared Stohl. Robin Smeulders leads an underrated front line for Reveno.
Ten best mid-major players
Matt Bouldin (6-foot-5, Sr., Gonzaga)
You and I know that the Zags are not a mid-major program, but since they are in the West Coast Conference, we had to put them somewhere. And since we want to honor the best players in the country, regardless of where they play, Bouldin needs to be recognized. He was clearly the Zags' best and most complete player a season ago, and he will be one of the best all-around wing players in college basketball this season. He is an excellent passer who is good at attacking the rim, and he's a solid open shooter. Look for him to take on an even more expanded role as coach Mark Few breaks in a lot of newcomers.
Luke Babbitt (6-foot-9, So., Nevada)
Babbitt was a highly recruited player in the Class of 2008 who elected to pass on a number of Top 25 programs in favor of staying home in Reno to play for the Wolfpack. The freshman's initial season in the WAC was a success as the sharpshooting lefty led his team in scoring and rebounding. He has firmly established himself as one of the league's best players.
Paul George (6-foot-8, So., Fresno State
Paul George's time in obscurity is about to end. The 6-foot-8 small forward had a monster freshman season, averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds. While he is an outstanding athlete with highlight dunk ability, NBA teams are impressed with his offensive skills (he shot 45 percent from behind the arc) and his knowledge of the game.
Larry Sanders, 6-foot-10, Jr., VCU
Anthony Grant found a gem for the Rams before leaving for Alabama. The late-blooming Sanders went from recruiting afterthought while in high school in Florida to a legitimate NBA first-round prospect in just four years. While Sanders is an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder with a condor-like 7-foot-7 wingspan, he is improving offensively because of great hands, touch and excellent basketball acumen.
Shelvin Mack, 6-foot-3, So., Butler
Gordon Hayward, 6-foot-9, So.
Matt Howard, 6-foot-9, So.
This three-headed monster for Butler coach Brad Stevens is a trio of players who are the best at their positions in the Horizon League and a major reason why the Bulldogs are in everyone's preseason Top 25.
Mack is a power point guard from Lexington, Ky., who could have helped Billy Gillispie's Wildcats a season ago. He averaged more than 4 rebounds a game to go along with 12 points and nearly 4 assists. Hayward, the best NBA prospect of the three, is a silky-smooth small forward who can shoot it from deep or get to the basket effortlessly off the dribble. And Howard, the league's reigning player of the year, is a powerful force inside who would be an all-conference player in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
Edwin Ubiles, 6-foot-6, Sr., Siena
Like Butler, Siena has a number of players who will compete for all-conference honors this season, but Ubiles is the best and most athletic player on coach Fran McCaffery's MAAC juggernaut. An excellent slasher and sometimes streaky shooter, Ubiles is a Big East player who fell through the cracks after a solid high school career in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He's busted brackets twice in the NCAA tournament and is hoping for one more chance to do it again.
A.J. Slaughter , 6-foot-2, Sr., Western Kentucky
Slaughter, a strong, quick and athletic combo guard, was the most outstanding player in the Sun Belt tournament last season and was instrumental in an early-season win over Louisville. After spending a summer working with the likes of D.J. Augustin, T.J. Ford and Chris Paul, he is poised to become one of the best guards in the country.
Artsiom Parakhouski 6-foot-11, Sr., Radford
It's not often a compliment to call someone a nasty beast, but in Parakhouski's case, it is. The reigning Big South Player of the Year led the Highlanders to the NCAA tournament and is back to inflict more punishment on the league. A native of Belarus who played junior college basketball in Idaho, he averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds last season. Because he has played organized basketball for only five years and because of his huge physique, an opportunity to play in the NBA is not out of the question.
Gerald Lee, 6-foot-10, Sr., ODU
Gerald Lee, the CAA's preseason co-player of the year with Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, can score inside and out and is an outstanding passer for his size. Though he is a different type of player than VCU's Larry Sanders, the results of their matchup will have a huge effect on the conference race. Lee finished last season strong, averaging 19.5 in his last 11 games, helping the Monarchs to a 25-win season. ODU returns four other starters from that team, making the Monarchs a strong "Bracket Buster" possibility.
Ryan Thompson, 6-foot-5, Sr., Rider
Thompson is a powerful and versatile player who is good enough to make the Broncos a dark horse for the MAAC title, even if powerful Siena is the league's prohibitive favorite. In fact, he is probably good enough to be an all-conference player at any of five positions.
Players and coaches you don't know but need to find out about
Johnathon Jones, 5-foot-11, Sr., Oakland
The country's assist leader last season, Johnathon Jones returns for his final season as a Grizzly. The former Michigan high school football star averaged 8 assists a game, including double figures in 11 of his last 16 games. The speedster can score when he has to, dropping 32 points in a win over Oregon last season. Coupled with rapidly improving 6-foot-11 big man Keith Benson, Jones has Oakland poised to be dancing in March.
Kenneth Faried, 6-foot-8, Jr., Morehead State
While shaky grades originally derailed any opportunities to play close to his Newark, N.J., home in the Big East or Atlantic 10, Faried has found a home in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He is a relentless rebounder who plays with total abandon. In fact, only national player of the year Blake Griffin had more double-doubles than Faried's 25. And while most of his points come on energy and effort, he averaged 16 points and 15 rebounds in five postseason games, including an NCAA loss to Louisville.
Larry Anderson, 6-foot-5, So., Long Beach State
Anderson was the first freshman in 35 years to gain first-team all-Big West status. He is the league's best NBA prospect because of his size, strength and athleticism at the wing, and he's particularly effective attacking the rim. His coach, Dan Monson, who is orchestrating a nice 49ers basketball resurgence, thinks that Anderson will eventually develop into an NBA point guard prospect.
Mark Payne, 6-foot-7, Jr., UC Davis
The versatile Payne was the 15th most efficient offensive player in the country last season, according to kenpom.com. He can play and defend all three perimeter positions and, if his jump shot improves, he has a chance to make an NBA roster in two years.
Coach Steve Donahue, Cornell
In the hyperkinetic world of college hoops, "slow and steady" doesn't get people excited, but that's exactly the way Steve Donahue has built Big Red basketball over the past eight years. After enduring five straight losing seasons, Cornell is on a three-year roll that includes two straight NCAA appearances and a 25-3 Ivy League record over the past two seasons. Donahue returns eight of his nine top scorers, including all-Ivy players Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale.
Anthony Johnson, 6-foot-2, Sr., Montana
Johnson, a juco transfer, took the Big Sky by storm last season, averaging almost 18 points a game on better than 50 percent shooting and earning the conference's player of the year honors. In fact, Johnson and fellow Seattle-area native and current Detroit Piston Rodney Stuckey are the only two Big Sky players in this decade to average more than 20 points a game in conference play.
Charles Jenkins , 6-foot-3, Jr., Hofstra
Pride coach Tom Pecora has been as good as anyone at digging out hidden gems in New York City, including two former Hofstra players, Speedy Claxton and Norman Richardson, who went on to play in the NBA. He was an assistant to Jay Wright back then. Now, he's found another gem in Jenkins, who was one of only six players in college basketball last season to average at least 19 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a game. As a measure of respect, in a Colonial Athletics Association featuring a couple of NBA prospects, Jenkins has been named preseason co-player of the year in the league.
Coach Ed Conroy, The Citadel
The Bulldogs were the most improved team in Division I a season ago, jumping from six to 20 wins under coach Ed Conroy. The former Citadel point guard has built this team into a Southern Conference favorite by growing the program with young players. This mostly junior-oriented team returns nine of its 10 top scorers, including outstanding 6-foot-1 guard Cameron Wells, a former high school teammate of Texas' Jai Lucas.
James Florence, 6-foot-1, Sr., Mercer
The senior from Atlanta has something in common with current NBA players Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. When all three were freshmen three years ago, they each led their conferences in scoring. And while the other two went on to bigger and better things, Florence is on his way to 2,000 points at Mercer. And he has saved some of his best performances for wins over USC, Alabama and Auburn in the past two seasons.
Marqus Blakely , 6-foot-5, Sr., Vermont
The two-time America East player of the year and defensive player of the year is back this season looking for a double-trifecta. Although undersized, even by America East standards, Blakely is a beast around the basket and a relentless rebounder who could help any team in college basketball. Though he may not be well-known nationally, he's been a YouTube sensation since his monster dunk against Albany in his freshman season.
Fran Fraschilla, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.