NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings: Chattanooga back on track; Montana State rolling

Lamont Paris, Chattanooga

Chattanooga is back on the rise in our NCAA mid-major Top 25. Not many teams have been rolling as much as Montana State lately, winners of 11 straight.

Another week of the 2021-22 college basketball season is complete. With that, a new edition of our Heat Check CBB mid-major Top 25 is hot off the digital presses. As always, these rankings were compiled by Lukas Harkins and Andy Dieckhoff.

Our two biggest winners of the week were Chattanooga and Montana State.

Chattanooga was one of our biggest winners not only because it played well over the past week but several of the teams in front of it in our prior rankings lost. The Mocs did add an impressive road victory over Furman – another team in our rankings – to propel themselves back into our top 10. Chattanooga has been playing without Silvio De Sousa lately and will be even better once he returns to the lineup. The Mocs are the clear SoCon favorite at this point.

Speaking of conference favorites, Montana State has emerged as the frontrunner in the Big Sky. The Bobcats started 1-2 in conference play but have since rattled off 11 consecutive wins to take the lead. They split with second-place Weber State as well, winning on the road by 21 a couple of weeks back. Montana State has been elite defensively in conference play and shoots the 3-ball extremely well (38.1 percent; 13th nationally) — a good recipe for a potential upset should it make the NCAA Tournament.

Now, let’s dive into another edition of the mid-major Top 25!

Ten mid-majors eyeing at-large March Madness bids
—Ranking most likely first-time NCAA Tournament teams
—DPI: Game Predictions | Team Grades | Player Rankings

25. Long Beach State Beach (14-9)

Long Beach State started this season slow, winning only two of its first 11 games against Division-I competition. At that point in time, a spot in our mid-major Top 25 felt impossible. However, the Beach have turned their ship around in an impressive fashion over the last month. They are currently on a nine-game winning streak and have emerged as the leader in the Big West regular-season standings. LBSU ranks tops in the league in limiting turnovers, drawing free-throw attempts, and block rate; its defense has been superb. -Lukas Harkins

24. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (17-7)

The CUSA is full of very good teams this season, even a couple that are on the fringe of the at-large conversation. With that said, though, Middle Tennessee is quietly looking like a dark horse in the league. The Blue Raiders have won eight of their last nine games with their lone loss during this stretch coming at UAB (also in these rankings). They are forcing turnovers at the best rate of any team in the CUSA during conference play. Transfer guard Josh Jefferson has been superb lately, hitting 20 of 32 (61.5 percent) from three over his last five games. -LH

23. Drake Bulldogs (18-9)

The Bulldogs pulled out of a three-game skid by smacking Evansville with a 22-point win on Wednesday night. That is a good way to go into the biggest game left on the schedule: a trip to Chicago to face off with Loyola on Saturday. DJ Wilkins dropped 20 in a Jan. 30 win over the Ramblers at home. If Drake can pull off the season sweep, the Bulldogs will be cruising into a cushy final trio of MVC games — and a chance to improve their seeding for the conference tournament. -Andy Dieckhoff

22. Furman Paladins (18-10)

Furman was able to get back on track during its most recent game, blowing out Western Carolina by 18 points on the road. Yet, that victory came on the heels of a three-game losing streak that resulted in a drop in these rankings. The Paladins are still an elite 3-point shooting team for the entire season but have gone a bit cold of late. They shot just 21-for-81 (25.9 percent) from three during their three-game losing streak. Furman is 17-5 when shooting over 31 percent from three and 1-5 when hitting worse than that mark. -LH

21. Wagner Seahawks (17-3)

It’s not time to hit the panic button just yet, but the timing of the Seahawks’ first NEC loss — just two games into life without the injured Elijah Ford — is definitely some cause for concern. Bryant is hot on Wagner’s tail in league play, but they don’t play again until Feb. 26 in the regular-season finale. In the meantime, Wagner can get its groove back with three straight games against teams in the NEC’s bottom four. -AD

20. Montana State Bobcats (20-5)

Montana State is undefeated (11-0) since the calendars flipped to 2022. While the Bobcats’ suffered two losses before the new year, there is no denying that this team has proven it can contend for the Big Sky’s automatic bid. They boast the best defensive efficiency rating in conference play of any team in the league (tops in eFG% allowed, 2P% allowed, and block rate), plus they are dominating in some offensive categories as well. Montana State is reaching the free-throw line at the Big Sky’s best rate, hitting 39.4 percent from three, and securing the highest offensive rebound rate. -LH

19. Hofstra Pride (18-9)

The Pride have plenty to be proud of after reeling off five straight wins in the Colonial. The streak is particularly well-timed, as it coincides with the wheels falling off of UNC Wilmington’s surprise run. Even better, the last three came on the road — setting Hofstra up nicely for a four-game homestand against teams in the bottom five of the CAA to close out the season. A league title is very much on the table. -AD

18. Towson Tigers (19-7)

Speaking of CAA contenders, Towson is staring down a much more difficult landing. The Tigers currently sit at 10-3 in league play, but three of its final five games come on the road. Considering Hofstra’s remaining slate, Towson may need to win at least four — including tonight at UNCW — to stay in the running for the league crown. The Tigers lost to Wilmington at home on Jan. 22. They must avoid repeating history. -AD

17. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (18-6)

Louisiana Tech lost both of its home games to the teams ahead of it in the CUSA standings a couple of weeks ago but bounced back nicely over this past week. The Bulldogs took care of business in back-to-back road games against FIU and Charlotte to improve to 18-6 (9-3 CUSA) overall. Amorie Archibald was excellent in those contests, netting 35 total points while shooting 14-for-23 from the field; he also added four steals. The Bulldogs still have road games left against UNT and UAB with hopes of exacting revenge for their prior defeats. -LH

16. Santa Clara Broncos (17-9)

Being swept by San Francisco probably precludes the Broncos from an at-large bid this year, but Herb Sendek’s squad is going to be a pain in the neck during the WCC Tournament. Santa Clara has already beaten both Saint Mary’s and BYU this year, so a dark-horse run to the final is not totally out of the question. The Broncos lost to Gonzaga by 32 at home, so how they fare in Saturday’s rematch will be telling. -AD

15. New Mexico State Aggies (21-4)

Just when it looked like the Aggies were about to break away in the WAC race, they dropped a game in Orem against Utah Valley. As a result, New Mexico State fell to second place in the league. There’s two big ones on the horizon, though, which provides a perfect chance to rekindle momentum and get back on top of the WAC: NMSU’s upcoming road trip includes tilts with Grand Canyon and Seattle. -AD

14. Vermont Catamounts (21-5)

Vermont lost its first America East game of the season during this past week, leading to a slight drop in our mid-major rankings. It is vital to note, though, that the Catamounts’ loss came on the road, in overtime, and while they were playing without star player Ryan Davis. Davis missed Vermont’s next game as well, but the team handled its business on the road against New Hampshire. Vermont’s ceiling this season relies on Davis and fellow star Ben Shungu. They are 21-5 (13-1 AE) for the season and could be a high-major’s nightmare should they earn the league’s automatic bid. -LH

13. Missouri State Bears (20-8)

Missouri State took care of business over this past week with a pair of home wins over Valparaiso and Indiana State. The Bears have now won three in a row – including a road victory over Drake – and sit in a tie for second place in the Missouri Valley. A tough closing schedule approaches as they still have to face Northern Iowa on the road and Bradley at home. Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim form one of the best duos in the country and make them exceedingly dangerous in any game. If Mosley catches fire, particularly from deep, he is almost unstoppable; he has scored over 30 points five times this season. -LH

12. Iona Gaels (21-5)

Despite taking a few stumbles in MAAC play, Iona still sits three games clear of the league’s next best team, Siena. Since losing to the Saints on Feb. 11, the Gaels reeled off back-to-back wins against Monmouth (at home) and Saint Peter’s (on the road) to get back on track. With its toughest games out of the way, Iona can now cruise a bit. Its final five games come against teams with losing MAAC records. -AD

11. Ohio Bobcats (22-4)

Ohio may have been swept in its season series with Toledo, but the latter dropping a few perplexing games has pushed the former back atop the MAC standings. The Bobcats are on a three-game winning streak right now with their final five games all coming against opponents rated outside of the KenPom top 140. For reference, Ohio is undefeated against sub-80 teams on KenPom this year. The Bobcats control their own destiny for the MAC regular-season title; winning out would earn that crown. Ben Vander Plas was incredible in Ohio’s recent home win over Miami-OH; he posted 30 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and a block. -LH

10. Toledo Rockets (20-6)

The Rockets have the season sweep over Ohio under their belts, but unfortunate missteps at Ball State on Feb. 4 and at home against Kent State on Feb. 15 have put Toledo into second place in the MAC. Tod Kowalczyk’s club has a pretty nice three-game set to close out February, but March 1 brings about one last difficult road test against Buffalo. That said, it’s probably auto-bid-or-bust for Toledo now. -AD

9. UAB Blazers (19-6)

UAB and Alabama are part of the same university system, but the similarities don’t stop there — both have mixed impressive wins with highly questionable losses. The Blazers are tied for second at 9-3 in the C-USA, but those defeats came exclusively against teams .500 or worse in league play. The wins bode well for a deep run in the C-USA Tournament, but the losses raise some concerns about an early exit. -AD

8. Chattanooga Mocs (22-5)

Chattanooga has won four straight games – including a road bout with Furman – since its confounding loss to Samford a couple of weeks ago. The Mocs are once again firmly in control of the SoCon standings and will be the favorite to win the league’s automatic bid. Malachi Smith is as good as it gets as a high-scoring guard; he recently posted 20 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in Chattanooga’s win over Furman. Silvio De Sousa has missed the Mocs’ last four games and is doubtful for its next contest; his eventual return will be huge. -LH

7. Belmont Bruins (22-5)

Belmont has not looked particularly impressive over the last few weeks, but there is no denying the results. The Bruins have won eight consecutive games, including defending home court against Morehead State. They are 22-5 (12-2 OVC) overall with solid efficiency metrics; their nonconference wins over Furman, Drake, Iona, Saint Louis, and Chattanooga are not bad, either. The door is yet to be shut on Belmont’s at-large potential, but they need to exact revenge on Murray State. The Bruins travel to face the Racers on Feb. 24. -LH

6. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (23-4)

There are three D-1 teams still undefeated in league play: Gonzaga, Murray State and South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits have won 14 straight since league play started, and only one game remains as a truly worrisome contest: a Feb. 24 trip to face Oral Roberts. Outside of that game, South Dakota State went 3-0 against its other three remaining opponents, winning by an average margin of 21.7 points. -AD

5. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (20-5)

Reports of the Ramblers’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Alarm bells were ringing for some after Loyola followed up a 5-0 start to MVC play with a 3-4 stretch. Since losing to Bradley on Feb. 9, Drew’s team scored wins on either side of Valentine’s Day. A 27-point dismantling of UNI made a big statement on Feb. 12, while a 71-69 survival-horror win in Valparaiso thrust Loyola back into first place. -AD

4. San Francisco Dons (21-6)

The Dons have responded to their shocking home loss to Portland by churning out wins of 44 and 16 points in their past two games. The latter came on the road against Santa Clara, a win that helped USF solidify its place in the tentative bracketology landscape. San Francisco has three of its last four on the road, but that one home game is the biggest of them all: Gonzaga comes to The Hilltop on Feb. 24. -AD

3. North Texas Mean Green (18-4)

North Texas keeps winning and North Texas keeps rising. A 23-point road win over Rice was just what the doctor ordered for the Mean Green to emerge in the at-large conversation as well. Efficiency measures are catching up to UNT’s elite record (18-4, 11-1 CUSA) as the team now holds a No. 45 ranking on KenPom. A grueling closing schedule will test whether UNT’s at-large potential is for real; back-to-back road games against Florida Atlantic and UAB come next, while they also still have to face Louisiana Tech at home. Make no doubt about it, though: North Texas is one of the best mid-majors in the country. -LH

2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (20-6)

The Gaels’ incredibly tough five-game finish to WCC play got off to a rocky start with a 16-point loss in Spokane, but now the hardest one is out of the way. Down the stretch, Saint Mary’s hosts San Francisco (Feb. 17), BYU (Feb. 19) and Gonzaga (Feb. 26) — a stretch that will determine SMC’s place in the league’s pecking order. The Gaels’ hold on second place in the WCC is hanging on by a thread. -AD

1. Murray State Racers (24-2)

Murray State remains one of the few teams in the country that remains undefeated in conference play. The Racers are 24-2 (14-0 OVC) overall and notched road victories over Tennessee State and Morehead State during this past week. KJ Williams was absolutely dominant in those games, recording 60 points (23-for-36 FG), 18 rebounds, five steals, and three blocks across the victories. He has won KenPom Game MVP in seven of Murray State’s last 10 games. Williams and Tevin Brown are an elite duo. -LH