Mid-major 2022-23 conference predictions: Who besides Gonzaga can shine?

Drew Timme will be key once again to Gonzaga's continued quest for a championship in 2022-23 AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

The countdown to the 2022-23 college basketball season has begun. As we draw closer to tipoff on Monday, Nov. 7, ESPN's panel of experts of Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Myron Medcalf and Joe Lunardi is ready with predictions. They begin with a look at the mid-major conferences -- and the mid-major program that hasn't behaved like a mid-major in quite some time, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Elsewhere, conversations around the impact of the transfer portal -- nearly 2,000 players made the decision to search for greener pastures this offseason -- have largely centered on the fluidity of Power Five rosters. Lost in the dialogue, however, is how mid-major programs have endured more disruption than their richer, more prominent peers at the expense of talented players. Isiaih Mosley (20.4 PPG) left Missouri State for Missouri. Former South Dakota State star Baylor Scheierman (16.2 PPG) is at Creighton now. And KJ Williams, the Murray State and Ohio Valley Conference player of the year, followed his head coach, Matt McMahon, to LSU.

It has never been more challenging for the top mid-major programs to maintain continuity. But the experience and depth on their rosters mean they'll remain relevant through the change. Still, it seems now the gap between the Zags and the others in this category will continue to grow.

Find more preseason analysis here.

Mid-majors 2022-23 Superlatives

Player of the Year

Medcalf: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Borzello: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Drew Timme, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Max Abmas, Oral Roberts (non-Gonzaga division)

Newcomer of the Year

Medcalf: Malachi Smith, Gonzaga
Borzello: Malachi Smith, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Malachi Smith, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Mike Sharavjamts, Dayton (true freshman division)

Mid-majors 2022-23 Roundtable

Gonzaga couldn't quite follow through on the expectations placed on it for most of last season. Is this 2022-23 squad the one to finally bring a national title to Spokane? Why or why not?

Welcome back Drew Timme, check out his best moments from last season

After Drew Timme's announcement saying he's coming back to Gonzaga, take a look at some of his best moments from last season.

Borzello: I still don't think Mark Few will ever have a better team than the 2020-21 group that looked like an absolute juggernaut until the national championship game. This season's squad does have the pieces to cut down the nets though.

If Gonzaga is to finally silence the doubters, the biggest key will be Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis stepping up. While the two former five-star recruits didn't play big roles as freshmen, they (and Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith) need to provide playmaking and explosiveness that Gonzaga's backcourt lacked last season.

Medcalf: It's possible. We're more enamored by flashy, young talent than veterans who have put up impressive numbers for a lengthy stretch. That's Timme, who was the best player on Gonzaga's roster during the NCAA tournament, despite Holmgren's buzz -- and is one of the top three players in America right now.

The Bulldogs have to find a reliable point guard, but Mark Few has lost a bunch of Andrew Nembhard-like leaders over the past 20-plus years and still regrouped. That will happen again this year.

Gasaway: On the one hand, losing Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard is no small matter. Nembhard's reads on pick-and-roll coverages were the microprocessor in this offense, and you can ask Sweet 16 victor Arkansas what these Bulldogs looked like when Holmgren fouled out in 24 minutes (albeit on a call so bad it will be shown in clinics).

On the other and more current hand, the rest of Division I would love a backcourt rotation with Rasir Bolton, Smith, Hickman and Sallis. Also, Drew Timme is still Drew Timme. Mr. Borzello's correct: if the pieces fit, the talent's here to win a title.

Lunardi: All Gonzaga can do is keep knocking on the door. Geography and scheduling position it for nearly annual No. 1 seeds -- five of the past six years, counting the canceled 2020 tournament -- allowing Mark Few & Co. to maximize their chances each season.

Would I pick this version of the Zags to finally cut down the nets? No. Do perennial contenders in every sport break through with a "not their best" team? Absolutely. Mere probability suggests we bet against Gonzaga at our own risk.

Make a case for a non-Gonzaga mid-major program you can envision reaching the 2023 Elite Eight, if not going all the way.

Daron Holmes' block forces OT

Daron Holmes with the massive stuff at the rim

Medcalf: Anything is possible. I might tap Oral Roberts. Max Abmas (22.8 PPG) is one of four returning starters and better than any player Saint Peter's had on last season's roster: remember, that's the team that was 12-11 on Feb. 20, 2022, with losses to low-ranked teams, before winning 10 games in a row -- including defeating No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Purdue -- until North Carolina shut them down in the Elite Eight.

After what we witnessed last season, an Elite Eight run for a team starring a potential All-American seems plausible.

Gasaway: Give me the hypnotically consistent Aztecs of San Diego State. In the past three seasons, Brian Dutcher's group has compiled a 44-8 record in Mountain West play, and last March SDSU came within an overtime of knocking off Creighton in the round of 64. Now the Aztecs return four starters and add Seattle U transfer Darrion Trammell. Before every game, Dutcher writes a detailed gameplan on the whiteboard: "Shut down the opposing offense completely and give Matt Bradley the ball." It works.

Borzello: San Diego State might have the highest floor of any non-Gonzaga mid-major, but I think Dayton has a higher ceiling than anyone except the Zags. The Flyers have proved they can beat good teams, with wins last season over Kansas and Miami. And DaRon Holmes II has legitimate pro potential. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks over his final five games of 2021-22.

Lunardi: The best player on one of a small handful of teams in this category is Holmes. He might not be Obi Toppin, and these Flyers won't be a 1-seed on Selection Sunday the way Toppin's team would have been in 2020, but Dayton is more than good enough for an extended NCAA tourney run. Led by Holmes and the other Malachi Smith at point guard, the Flyers have all starters back from a 24-11 squad that was team No. 69 on the NCAA seed list a year ago. If there is any justice from the lost pandemic season, these Flyers play late into March.

The Atlantic 10 has added Loyola Chicago to its membership. The WCC and Mountain West both have top 25 teams. Which of these conferences will have an overall great season?

Medcalf: The Atlantic 10 and Mountain West could surpass the WCC in bids on Selection Sunday. But I think every commissioner in those leagues would take a Final Four contender over a victory in the race for multiple bids. The WCC will have the best season because Gonzaga will spend the year as a legit national title contender and top-10 team. While Saint Mary's has NCAA tournament aspirations and BYU could sneak into the field, Gonzaga has a shot at winning the first national title in the program's history. If its season ends in the Final Four, the entire WCC will benefit and every coach will tout the reality that they had to go through a national championship contender to win the league.

Borzello: I'll take the Atlantic 10. This league has a lot more than just the Flyers. Saint Louis brings back five players who started at least 15 games on a 23-win team -- while also regaining the services of Javonte Perkins, who missed last season with a torn ACL after averaging 17.1 points in 2020-21. VCU will once again have an elite defense and will hopefully be healthier this season. And then there's Loyola Chicago, coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. The top of this league is very, very good.

Lunardi: This is a tough one, with both the Mountain West and WCC coming off historic years in terms of NCAA representation. The Atlantic 10 has been a bit down, but has two true second weekend contenders in Dayton and Saint Louis (plus a real sleeper in VCU). Of the three, I think the Mountain West is most likely to gain or maintain its "bulk" in NCAA teams. In this day and age, where NCAA revenue units are the singular goal, the MWC is the best bet.

Gasaway: Behold the Mountain West, where "great season" means good teams and excellent storylines. Behind the already-discussed Aztecs, we may find one familiar name along with some fast-ascending programs. The usual suspect here could be Wyoming, where once again Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike will be a combined headache for opponents. Richard Pitino and Ryan Odom will be in their second seasons at New Mexico and Utah State, respectively, and both the Lobos and the Aggies may be tough. One might say the same for Fresno State and its flock of juniors and seniors.

Who or what are we not talking nearly enough about across the mid-majors?

Gasaway: Max Abmas has already made 301 shots from beyond the arc for Oral Roberts in his career. If he keeps going at that rate in 2022-23, he could equal or surpass some pretty big men's D-I names, up to and including Steph Curry, Gerry McNamara and possibly Markus Howard. And unlike many career marks in this extra-eligibility day and age, Abmas will have come by his stats the old-fashioned way. So far he has played just three seasons -- if anything, the pandemic cost him games -- and made 89 appearances, including those against non-D-I opponents. I'll be watching to see how high he can go.

Lunardi: Among genuine mid-majors -- not Gonzaga, not the well-funded Mountain West or Atlantic 10 -- the "best in class" program is unquestionably Saint Mary's. Since 2008, the Gaels have never missed either the NCAA tournament (eight appearances) or NIT (seven bids). They are the winningest Division I school in California during that span, and even knocked off the top-ranked Zags on multiple occasions. Last year's unprecedented No. 5 seed and obliteration of Indiana was long overdue validation for Randy Bennett & Co. Even with key personnel losses, the Gaels will be a Top 50 team again this year.

Medcalf: Since Ritchie McKay returned to Liberty for his second stint as coach in 2015 (he was head coach from 2007-09 before joining Tony Bennett's staff at Virginia), he has averaged nearly 23 wins. He has also won the Atlantic Sun conference title, or at least a share of it, in four consecutive seasons. And he has managed to keep his teams together. Darius McGhee (24.6 PPG) is one of four starters returning for McKay's program, which has two NCAA tournament appearances in the last four years. McKay deserves more credit for what he's achieved.

Borzello: Conference USA being a potential multibid league should be a storyline all season. UAB might be the best team from a true mid-major league, with Andy Kennedy bringing back three starters from an NCAA tournament team -- led by star guard Jordan "Jelly" Walker -- and also adding a handful of impact transfers. Western Kentucky is absolutely loaded with talent: Dayvion McKnight and 7-foot-5 Jamarion Sharp form a dynamite inside-outside duo and Rick Stansbury can immediately lean on Boise State transfer Emmanuel Akot to make an impact. Oh, and there's also North Texas, which has two regular-season titles and an NCAA tournament appearance over the last three seasons. We're going to hear an awful lot about all three of these teams.

Mid-majors 2022-23 conference champion predictions