As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN's panel of experts is making its predictions. We begin by breaking down the best of the mid-major conferences, including a league (the West Coast Conference) which houses a team that rests comfortably outside the mid-major realm -- the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The Zags fell one win short of a historic undefeated season in 2020-21, and our writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on whether Mark Few and Co. could take the final step toward a championship. Gonzaga, which topped Jeff Borzello's Way-Too-Early Top 25 published Monday, is widely expected to be ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll when it is announced on Monday, Oct. 18.
Also included in our look at the "top leagues beyond the top leagues" (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt, WCC) is a look at the most intriguing non-Gonzaga teams from mid-major conferences, the most underrated coaches from this tier, and the low-majors that savvy college basketball observers should have their eyes on in 2021-22.
Mid-majors 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Borzello: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Borzello: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Mid-majors 2021-22 writer roundtable
Gonzaga will likely enter 2021-22 as college basketball's team to beat. Give us one reason why you think the Zags can finish the job and cut down the nets in New Orleans, and one thing that worries you about Mark Few's squad.
Medcalf: Whenever Mark Few has an elite frontcourt, he usually makes a run. This is not unfamiliar with Gonzaga. With Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins, he reached the national title game in 2017. Two years later, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke led an Elite Eight team. He has star power again at those spots. But this is also Mark Few's most unique frontcourt. He has never had a player like Chet Holmgren. He is a 7-footer who can bring the ball up the floor, splash 3-pointers from beyond the arc, block every shot within the air space of the rim and do damage as a post player. People keep talking about his weight. But it's not as if Holmgren is suddenly a skinny player for the first time in his life. Don't let that frame fool you -- he's a problem.
With Drew Timme and Holmgren together, who guards that? We haven't even discussed Andrew Nembhard and the other skilled players on this roster. Holmgren can make opposing bigs play in space. Then you have to find someone to deal with Timme, too. I think Few has his most perplexing frontcourt for opposing teams. That's why it's easy to see Gonzaga winning its first national championship after coming close multiple times.
I think Timme and Holmgren could also create some challenges for a Gonzaga team that has to defend at an elite level. That traditional two-big lineup hasn't worked in recent years. The 2017 battle between North Carolina and Gonzaga now appears to be an anomaly. Can the Zags handle a team like last year's Baylor squad? The landscape has a multitude of teams that are going to keep three or four guards on the court and just dare Few to defend that with a pair of bigs. I think that's the concern. Will Gonzaga get the right matchups if it reaches the Final Four?
Borzello: Gonzaga is my preseason No. 1, so I should argue far more aggressively in favor of the Zags cutting down the nets in six months. Atop the list of reasons why I like Few's team to win it all is because they have the best returning player in college basketball in Timme and the best newcomer in Holmgren. While it might take some time to iron things out in terms of defense and role allocation, those two are going to cause nightmares for opponents. Then you throw in Nembhard, Hunter Sallis, Nolan Hickman, Rasir Bolton, Anton Watson -- this team is deep, talented, experienced and will be hungry after falling one step short last season.
My biggest concern is a byproduct of Gonzaga's tremendous efforts on the recruiting trail; will Few be able to keep everyone happy? It's a question we usually ask of the Dukes and Kentuckys (and this year, Texases and Memphises) of the world, but Gonzaga is bringing in two five-star guards and an All-Big 12 guard, and all three will expect to play significant minutes. Given that Nembhard is a locked-in starter, Sallis, Hickman and Bolton might have a smaller role than anticipated. These things have a way of working themselves out, but it's something worth watching. The only other concern is something referenced earlier: How Timme and Holmgren coexist, especially on the defensive end.
Gasaway: History teaches us that two things will occur when a team earns a series of very high seeds within a short span of time without winning a national title. One, everyone will yell at that team and say the coach is overrated, the league is soft and the team will never ever win it all. Two, the team will win it all. See Duke up to 1991, Villanova from 2014 to 2016 and Virginia up to 2019. The Zags are due.
Pity the coach that has to come up with a defense against Holmgren, Timme and Nembhard. So, yes, Gonzaga's going to break through very soon -- but that doesn't mean this season's a foregone conclusion. Last season yours truly opined occasionally on what might transpire if the Bulldogs faced an opponent that truly went after offensive rebounds with ferocity. Then, after watching Few's men trounce Evan Mobley and possibly the best USC team in 50 years in the Elite Eight, I went quiet on that front. I should have stuck to my guns! Baylor destroyed the Zags pitilessly and utterly with second chances (plus a relative lack of turnovers). It's the one box the Bulldogs still need to check.
Lunardi: Gonzaga will have the best starting five in college basketball, and it's not an especially close call. That's the good news, as well as a perfectly good reason to rank the Zags as the top dog when the season begins. My concern is the hangover from the 2021 near-title run and the bad taste left behind after falling so convincingly to Baylor in the NCAA final.
Gonzaga was truly elite in 2020-21, one of the very best teams we've seen in the 2000s. I have a hard time believing the new-look Zags will be that good across the board, which brings them back to the pack in multiple ways. If this were a binary exam in which the only choices are a national championship for the Bulldogs or missing the Final Four, I would go with probability and pick the latter.
Beyond Gonzaga, what's one team from the mid-major leagues you have your eye on in 2021-22?
Gasaway: Beware the Bonnies. Osun Osunniyi, Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes, Dominick Welch and Jalen Adaway were all starters for St. Bonaventure last year. Now Mark Schmidt has all of them back and they're all seniors. Opponents hate playing against this defense and Schmidt even added transfers Abdoul Karim Coulibaly (via Pitt) and Quadry Adams (Wake Forest). The Bonnies earned a No. 9 seed in the 2021 NCAA bracket. They have a good shot at wearing home uniforms in the 2022 round of 64.
Borzello: St. Bonaventure is the only other team from a mid-major league that I have in my preseason top 25, but Gasaway already studied my rankings and used them -- so I'll go with a team sitting just outside my rankings: Colorado State.
Niko Medved returns every player from one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament, and adds Chandler Jacobs (a Division II All-American at Dallas Baptist) and Baylor Hebb, a contributor from Loyola Chicago. Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy form a terrific inside-outside duo, while Kendle Moore and Adam Thistlewood are two more members of the Mountain West's best offense. The determining factor for the Rams will be whether they improve on the defensive end; they have to guard far better inside the arc and rebound more effectively. Medved and his team will have a statement chance in December against Alabama.
Lunardi: Definitely St. Bonaventure. How many teams these days return five juniors to start together as seniors? The answer is one, and it resides in the tropical paradise of Olean, N.Y. The Bonnies are about to experience their best season since a guy named Bob Lanier roamed the campus.
Medcalf: I'll take Louisiana Tech. I really like the growth of Kenneth Lofton Jr., who scored 16 points in the Under-19 FIBA World Championships title game in July. It was an extension of the success we saw with the 6-foot-7, 275-pound big man late in the season. During a 3-1 stretch that includes wins over Colorado State, Western Kentucky and Ole Miss squads in the NIT, Lofton averaged 20.0 PPG and 9.2 RPG, while connecting on 59 percent of his shots inside the arc. He's on a fascinating path. Plus, Amorie Archibald (10.0 PP), a four-year starter, is back for a fifth season after taking advantage of the NCAA's free year. Eric Konkol has a mid-major sleeper down in Ruston.
Name one coach from the mid-major leagues who fails to get the national credit he deserves, and make a case for his greatness.
Lunardi: I have no idea why Mark Schmidt is still at St. Bonaventure (actually I do, but it has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with Schmidt being smart enough to know he has it pretty good in Olean). The Power 5 isn't always what it seems. There's something to be said for loyalty, fit and easy access to tee times. One gets the sense that if Schmidt were to move up, it would have happened by now.
Gasaway: My choice for All-Unsung is following in the footsteps of easily -- easily -- the most successful coach in his program's entire history. That's a tough gig, to say the least. Yet this coach is, so far, pulling it off with an uncommon degree of success...and too little national notice. Brian Dutcher is entering his fifth season at San Diego State. His teams are 53-7 over the last two years, and, if there had been a 2020 NCAA tournament, the seeds the Aztecs would have earned in those seasons (a likely No. 2 and a real No. 6) would equal what SDSU recorded back in the Steve Fisher glory days with a certain guy named Kawhi. (Well, the certain guy was there for one of those years.) Dutcher has sustained the success that Fisher achieved at a previously less successful program. A quick look around the last 20 years of college basketball says that is really difficult to do.
Medcalf: Rob Lanier will enter his third season with Georgia State and expectations are high. His team battled through multiple COVID-related issues last season and still reached the Sun Belt Conference title game. The talent coming back (see: Corey Allen, 15.0 PPG) and the talent coming in (see: Western Kentucky transfer Jordan Rawls) could lead Georgia State back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. Without the challenges his team endured last season, Georgia State has a chance to get into the postseason and make some noise. I also think Lanier, who has been an assistant or head coach at nearly every school east of the Mississippi River, will use his ties around the country to win in the transfer market every year. He was a key component in Tennessee's most fruitful years under Rick Barnes, and now he's leading Georgia State into its next chapter.
Borzello: I think Mark Pope is going to be an absolute star for years to come, whether it's at BYU or a top-tier high-major program. But he gets plenty of attention. So I'll go far more under-the-radar and pick Wright State's Scott Nagy. Nagy rarely gets mentioned for high-major job openings despite consistent success for more than a decade at two different schools. At Wright State, he's won at least a share of the Horizon League regular-season title in three straight seasons, and won at least 18 games in each of the last 11 seasons at both South Dakota State and Wright State. He's gone to four NCAA tournaments in the last decade. An NCAA tournament win is all that's really missing from his résumé, but with four starters back from last season, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Raiders get back to the dance in 2022.
Which team, outside of the mid-major group detailed above and the power conferences we'll cover next, should garner the most national attention in 2021-22?
Gasaway: With apologies to Vanderbilt, Lipscomb and Tennessee State, the winner of a 2021-22 Nashville Classic would likely be Belmont. Casey Alexander has just about everyone back from a group that reached the 2021 Ohio Valley title game at 26-3 before falling to Morehead State and missing the field of 68. Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy were both first-team All-OVC selections last season and, yes, this choice does indeed meet the "outside of the mid-major group detailed above" criterion. The Bruins won't move to the Missouri Valley until next season.
Medcalf: Yeah, it's Belmont. With Muszynski and Murphy on the floor together last season, Belmont made a ridiculous 62 percent of its shots inside the arc, per hooplens.com. Also, the Bruins held opponents to 91 points per 100 possessions on defense when they were on the court. That's impressive, too. Just as impressive? Without that duo on the floor together, opposing teams recorded just 92 points per 100 possessions. I think that speaks to the balance on Alexander's roster. Belmont's "OVC Farewell Tour" prior to its move to The Valley should be fun for everyone -- except the other teams in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Borzello: It has to be Belmont. The Bruins were in the first iteration of my Way-Too-Early Top 25 back in early April, and while they've been passed by teams since then, the Bruins have pretty much everyone back from a group that won 21 straight games last season before stumbling down the stretch. Muszynski, who missed a few of those late losses with an injury, will lead the way, alongside the OVC Defensive Player of the Year, Murphy. The Bruins were extremely efficient on the offensive end last season, ranking third nationally in 2-point percentage. They'll have some early chances this season to boost their potential at-large profile, with games against LSU, Drake and potentially Alabama.
Lunardi: Gosh, with everyone agreeing on Belmont (rightfully), let me toss Liberty into the mix. The Flames return key components of a 23-6 team that earned a No. 13 seed in last year's tournament, and could do even better this time around. Coach Ritchie McKay will have the two best players in the Atlantic Sun -- senior Darius McGhee and junior Blake Preston -- and the Flames will be heavily favored to garner their third straight NCAA bid.
Mid-majors 2021-22 champion predictions
Unanimous choices: Georgia State (Sun Belt), Gonzaga (WCC), St. Bonaventure (A-10)
Consensus choices: Buffalo (MAC), Chattanooga (SoCon), Colorado State (Mountain West), Drake (Missouri Valley), UAB (C-USA), Yale (Ivy)