NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings: Dayton slots in at No. 16; BYU rising

The first iteration of Heat Check CBB’s mid-major Top 25 rankings are here! Check out college basketball’s top mid-majors for the 2021-22 season.

Preseason practices are winding down, “secret” scrimmages are underway, and the 2021-22 college basketball season is nearly upon us. While there are still several months until March Madness takes center stage in the sporting world, it is never too early to start looking ahead at potential Cinderella candidates. Mid-major success stories are an integral part of what makes college basketball special. This doesn’t stop at just figuring out the next great mid-major team, but also dives into projecting the next small-school superstar.

Mid-major programs make up the vast majority of the college hoops space, yet receive the minority of coverage. As this upcoming season draws nearer, let’s take a dive into some of the top mid-majors. Gonzaga is inevitably at the top (based on our selection criteria) but there are several other intriguing teams to watch.

For instance, Drake returns a tremendous core from last season, UAB dominated the transfer portal, Nevada boasts a star-studded backcourt, Richmond and Northern Iowa are back to being (mostly) healthy. There is a lot to like from the mid-major ranks this year, and that is just a snippet of those that could make some noise.

These rankings will be a recurring piece throughout this upcoming season, with blurbs on each ranked team being written by myself (Lukas Harkins) and Andy Dieckhoff. The following conferences are excluded from consideration: AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-12. Yes, this does mean Gonzaga is included by nature of its conference affiliation.

Now, without any further ado, let’s dive into our preseason mid-major Top 25. 

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Teams that just missed the cut (in alphabetical order): Chattanooga, Davidson, Georgia State, Iona, Marshall, Murray State, New Mexico State, North Texas, Southern Utah, Toledo, UC Irvine, VCU, Vermont, Western Kentucky and Wright State.

25. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Head coach Joe Pasternack has done an incredible job at UC Santa Barbara during his four-year tenure. The Gauchos are 88-34 (44-20 Big West) under his leadership and reached the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed last season. Jaquori McLaughlin is a star to replace but UCSB returns plenty of solid guards. Incoming freshman Ajay Mitchell could emerge as a big-time contributor. More than anything else, though, forward Amadou Sow is a Big West Player of the Year contender. The Gauchos should be very good again behind solid returners and the transfer additions of Calvin Wishart and Zach Harvey. -Lukas Harkins

24. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Run, Jackrabbit, run! Eric Henderson is doing just that, running it back with a roster that won the Summit League last season. The returning class includes former league POY Douglas Wilson, as well as 6-6 point guard and last year’s leading scorer, Baylor Scheierman. Throw in two more lights-out shooters in Noah Freidel and Alex Arians, add some broth, a potato and 6-8 Matt Dentlinger — and baby, you’ve got a stew going. SDSU fell prey to the late run by Oral Roberts, but expect them to be back in the Big Dance this season. South Dakota State returns five double-figure scorers who now have a chip on their shoulders. -Andy Dieckhoff

23. Saint Louis Billikens

With a heavy heart, we had to drop the Billikens in these rankings just before release following news that star Javonte Perkins will miss the 2021-22 season with a torn ACL. All is not lost, though. Oakland transfer Rashad Williams handled a big share of the scoring load for Greg Kampe‘s team and could do the same for Travis Ford. Gibson Jimerson displayed a nice shooting stroke as a freshman, and 6-3 Fred Thatch is one of the country’s best rebounders for his size. Former Oregon big man Francis Okoro should also have a big impact in his first season for SLU, but the ceiling on this team sadly fell when Perkins did. -AD

22. San Francisco Dons

It seems like a lifetime ago that Todd Golden and the Dons were celebrating an upset win over Virginia. That may be due to the fact that San Francisco went 4-9 in WCC play and 11-14 overall, making the 2020-21 campaign one to forget. The good news is that the dynamic duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz is back. Along with returners like Dmitry Ryuny and Josh Kunen, the Dons snagged a strong corps of transfers. Patrick Tape arrives from Duke via Columbia, along with fellow former Lion Gabe Stefanini, who was last seen scoring 13.8 per game in 2018-19 before an injury and a canceled season shelved him the past two years. -AD

21. Northern Iowa Panthers

All eyes are on the health of star point guard AJ Green, who has fringe All-American potential when everything is going right. After playing just three games last year, Green is looking to get back to the form that saw him average 19.7 per game for the Panthers in 2019-20. In a strange way, Green’s absence may have set this year’s team up for more success. Bowen Born and Nate Heise shone as freshmen with the increased workload, and players like Austin Phyfe and Trae Berhow should better serve the squad as ancillary options while Green runs the show. -AD

20. Boise State Broncos

Boise State fits the mold of a potential dark horse behind three strong contenders for the Mountain West title this year. The Broncos lost Derrick Alston and RayJ Dennis this offseason but are set to start five seniors, including Marcus Shaver and Abu Kigab. Head coach Leon Rice deploys a 3-point-oriented system and the Broncos will need to connect at a high rate to compete at the top of the league. Incoming freshman RJ Keene adds another sniper with size (6-7) to the rotation; he could be a major contributor for a bench that has question marks. -LH

19. Ohio Bobcats

Ohio caught fire down the stretch last season. The Bobcats won six of their last seven regular-season games, took the MAC Tournament crown and then upset Virginia in the first round of the Big Dance. Replacing point guard Jason Preston will be the biggest challenge for head coach Jeff Boals. Thankfully, rising sophomore Mark Sears seems ready to take the reins. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Dwight Wilson, Ben Vander Plas, Ben Roderick and Lunden McDay are all returning to Athens after scoring averages in double figures last year. This should be an elite offense again. -LH

18. Liberty Flames

Liberty has won the ASUN regular-season and conference tournament titles in each of the past three seasons. Head coach Ritchie McKay’s run of success deserves recognition, and the Flames are the league’s favorite again this time around. High-scoring point guard Darius McGhee is perhaps the frontrunner to win ASUN Player of the Year, while Blake Preston is back to hold down the frontcourt. Liberty has finished top-100 in effective field-goal percentage in each of Coach McKay’s six seasons at the helm — the team should remain very efficient offensively. -LH

17. Loyola Marymount Lions

While it’s true that there is more to this team than Keli Leaupepe‘s hair, it’s hard to deny that it’s our favorite part of the LMU squad. The reason the Lions are ranked this highly, though, rests in star forward Eli Scott. As an All-WCC first-teamer last year, Scott averaged 18.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists for Stan Johnson‘s team. With a strong supporting cast made up of Leaupepe, Joe Quintana, Dameane Douglas and Ivan Alipiev, the Lions could reprise their third-place league finish, even with the rest of the WCC looking exceptionally strong. -AD

16. Dayton Flyers

With VCU and Saint Louis both suffering critical offseason injuries, Dayton has ever-so-quietly worked its way up the preseason Atlantic 10 rankings. The Flyers have finished in the KenPom top-100 in 13 of the last 14 seasons and should do so again this year. Replacing Jalen Crutcher will be a challenge but there is still a lot to like with this roster. Incoming transfers Kobe Elvis (DePaul) and Toumani Camara (Georgia) should instantly fill starting roles. Camara could be a First Team All-Conference player. Additionally, four-star freshman DaRon Holmes should pair nicely with Mustapha Amzil to form a dynamic frontcourt duo. -LH

15. Missouri State Bears

Missouri State has had the unfortunate luck of timing the resurgence of its men’s program right along the come-ups of Loyola Chicago and Drake. That unfortunate reality has largely deprived the public of one of the best mid-major duos in college basketball: Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim. The frontcourt pair combined to average 36.5 points, 15.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists last year. Sharpshooter Ja’Monta Black and assists leader Demarcus Sharp also return, and the infusion of scoring from IUPUI transfer Jaylen Minnett could tip the scales toward an at-large bid. -AD

14. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Kenneth Lofton Jr. had a fantastic first season for Louisiana Tech, nabbing the Conference USA Rookie of the Year award and a third-team all-league nod. The 6-7, 275-pound big man saw his stock skyrocket over the summer as he helped guide the U.S. national team to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup. Lofton was joined by forward Isaiah Crawford on the All-CUSA third team. Meanwhile, a backcourt featuring Amorie Archibald and Cobe Williams gets a boost from Incarnate Word transfer Keaston Willis, who scored 19.0 points per game last year for the Cardinals. Louisiana Tech will be a major contender for the C-USA crown. -AD

13. Saint Mary’s Gaels

This might not be the most talented team that Randy Bennett has had in Moraga, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Tommy Kuhse is back again to run the show in the backcourt, and Logan Johnson carries some potential for a star turn after making a huge jump as a junior. Matthias Tass and Dan Fotu are back in the frontcourt, too, so there is a ton of continuity in the Gaels’ roster. Before last year’s shortened season, Saint Mary’s had won at least 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons. With the steady hand of Bennett back at the helm of an experienced squad, the Gaels look likely to start a new streak in 2021-22. -AD

12. Buffalo Bulls

Buffalo finished second in the MAC last season and just one win shy of the NCAA Tournament. With the vast majority of their rotation returning for this campaign, the Bulls are the favorite to win the conference. Few mid-major triumvirates are as talented as Ronaldo Segu, Jeenathan Williams and Josh Mballa. All three are First Team All-Conference candidates this season and will guide head coach Jim Whitesell’s roster. Incoming transfers Maceo Jack and Curtis Jones will help increase the team’s spacing as quality 3-point shooters. -LH

11. Richmond Spiders

With fellow A10 hopefuls VCU and Saint Louis decimated by injuries to key contributors — and with the Spiders getting back an injured player of their own — the door is open for Richmond this year. While they may not be the class of the conference (more on their top competitor below), Chris Mooney‘s team has a good chance to earn a bid. Richmond has a wealth of experience returning in four of last year’s starting five, with Nick Sherod on the mend and sliding into Blake Francis‘ old spot. While Richmond looks to steal a bid, guard Jacob Gilyard needs just 28 more steals of his own to set the NCAA’s all-time career record. -AD

10. Belmont Bruins

Casey Alexander has done a tremendous job following in the footsteps of Rick Byrd over his first three years as head coach of Belmont. While the Bruins missed the NCAA Tournament last season, they notched a 26-4 overall record and are hungry to be elite this year. Do-it-all guard Grayson Murphy and offensive hub Nick Muszynski form as good of a duo as there is in the country. There are also formidable supporting cast pieces around them, many of whom contribute to the stellar offense, which ranked ninth nationally in effective field-goal percentage last season. Watch for rising sophomore JaCobi Wood to take a leap and raise Belmont’s ceiling. -LH

9. Nevada Wolf Pack

Good luck finding many better starting backcourts in the country than Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge. Both are All-MWC-caliber guards and will lead the way for head coach Steve Alford this year. Nevada was a middle-of-the-pack (get it?) team in the Mountain West last season but now looks ready to compete for the conference title. All five starters return, plus the additions of AJ Braham (Robert Morris) and Will Baker (Texas) should help bolster a frontcourt that needs improvement. This guard-oriented group thrives in transition and will hopefully force more turnovers this year (239th in defensive turnover rate) to take further advantage. -LH

8. UAB Blazers

Andy Kennedy already had a good team returning, but after grabbing an impressive transfer class with high upside, the Blazers are our early pick to win the C-USA. Tavin Lovan is an underheralded star in the league, and Michael Ertel could be a deep threat if he regains the touch he showed before transferring in last year. Quan Jackson and Trey Jemison key the team’s major strength: defense. The additions of Jordan Walker (Tulane), KJ Buffen (Ole Miss), Josh LeBlanc Sr. (LSU) and Tyreke Locure (South Alabama) highlight the transfer class. This team is deep. -AD

7. Drake Bulldogs

Roman Penn is one of the most important players in the entire country. Prior to him going down with an injury near the end of last season, Drake held a 20-2 record. The Bulldogs went just 4-3 from that point forward. While head coach Darian DeVries will need to replace Joseph Yesufu this season, bringing back a healthy Penn and the supporting cast around him sets the stage for another great year. D.J. Wilkins, Tremell Murphy and a healthy Tank Hemphill are all returning as double-digit scorers while Garrett Sturtz will reprise his glue-guy role. Four-star wing Tucker DeVries should be a valuable reserve right away; he will hopefully replicate some of the 3-point shooting ability that Yesufu brought as a sixth man. -LH

6. Colorado State Rams

Preseason hype is higher than it has been in some time as Niko Medved and the Rams come into the year receiving votes in the national polls. That’s thanks to a starring duo of David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, both of whom will factor into the Mountain West POY race. Roddy is a crafty guard in the body of a bruising forward, while Stevens serves as the team’s floor general and late-game killer. Adam Thistlewood and Kendle Moore provide the 3s and the D on the wings, while big man James Moors oozes potential. The addition of D-2 All-American Chandler Jacobs could put CSU over the top and into the NCAA Tournament field. -AD

5. San Diego State Aztecs

The Aztecs are not the trendy pick to win the Mountain West this year, and that’s fine. The Aztecs have been the most solid program over the past two seasons, though, despite a good amount of roster overhaul. This year, the annual makeover is highlighted by the addition of Cal transfer Matt Bradley. A 6-4 guard built like a linebacker, Bradley will handle the offensive load for SDSU and should be a contender for the league’s top postseason honors. Nathan Mensah is a defensive maven in the post, and returning guards Trey Pulliam, Adam Seiko and Lamont Butler Jr. all look promising. Duquesne transfer Chad Baker-Mazer could also turn into a key piece for Brian Dutcher. For now, the MW crown runs through Viejas. -AD

4. Loyola Chicago Ramblers

Porter Moser is now at Oklahoma. Cameron Krutwig has graduated. Yet, Loyola Chicago looks poised for another strong year. Promoted assistant Drew Valentine is now the top man and he has plenty of returning talent. Most notably, Lucas Williamson is one of the nation’s top defenders and also brings a solid offensive game to the floor. Tate Hall, Aher Uguak and Keith Clemons also used their “free year” of eligibility due to COVID-19 to return this year. Junior point guard Braden Norris is a dark horse to potentially emerge as a go-to scorer. Additionally, Valentine added a couple of newcomers to the frontcourt in Chris Knight (Dartmouth) and Ryan Schwieger (Princeton). Jacob Hutson could be a breakout sophomore. -LH

3. BYU Cougars

Mark Pope has notched back-to-back KenPom top-20 finishes since taking over at BYU, something that had not been done at the program since Jimmer Fredette graced the court. While not nearly as flashy as “Jimmer Range,” there is already a star guard in town: Alex Barcello. The living embodiment of scoring efficiency, Barcello has shot 106-for-220 (.482) from three over his two seasons in Provo. He also led the team in assists last year. He has a couple of new running mates this year with Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight (LSU/SJSU), but the core around him is otherwise comprised of returners. Caleb Lohner is a potential breakout sophomore to watch as well. -LH

2. Saint Bonaventure Bonnies

Last season ended somewhat unceremoniously for the Bonnies, as LSU walloped them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In turn, Mark Schmidt retained the services of all of his main stars, including potential league POY Kyle Lofton and potential DPOY Osun Osunniyi. Guards Jaren Holmes, Jalen Adaway and Dominick Welch are all back, too. To help with depth, the Bonnies added former Pitt big man Karim Coulibaly for size and JUCO All-American Linton Brown for shooting. Expect them to be a mainstay in the national Top 25 and a potential Sweet 16 team. -AD

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

What? Are you surprised? While essentially a high-major program in a mid-major league, Gonzaga still fits the criteria for inclusion in this article.

Gonzaga is the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, and the early favorite to win the national title. While head coach Mark Few lost three starters this offseason, he is bringing back two proven stars in Drew Timme (NPOY frontrunner) and Andrew Nembhard. Anton Watson, Julian Strawther, and Dominick Harris are also returning. The Bulldogs also were not shy about reloading: Rasir Bolton (Iowa State) is a top-notch transfer addition and their 2021 recruiting class comes in at No. 3 nationally. Chet Holmgren is the top-rated freshman in the country, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman are both top-35 guards, and Kaden Perry is a four-star big man. Gonzaga is loaded. Again. -LH