Can Belmont break through behind Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy? Check out the mid-major teams poised for huge seasons in 2021-22.
It has already been over two months since Baylor bested Gonzaga for the 2021 national championship. And with the transfer market nearing its endpoint, rosters are as close to set as they can be for the offseason. The NBA Draft still approaches and some decisions loom in that department, but it is now time to start seriously previewing the upcoming campaign. More specifically, who are the potential top candidates to be 2022’s Cinderella?
Mid-major programs fill the majority of the college hoops space, yet receive the minority of coverage. This is the case every year due to the larger fanbases of power conferences, and the few small programs that breakthrough on the national stage either move to high-major conferences (Butler, Wichita State, etc.) or…are Gonzaga. Yet mid-major basketball deserves its attention. Unheralded stars make ESPN+ games worth watching, and they also set the stage for the Big Dance.
Max Abmas, Jason Preston, and Javion Hamlet were stars throughout last season before becoming household names in upset NCAA Tournament victories. And who doesn’t love picking up bragging rights by saying they “found” the next small-school superstar? So while there is still much of the offseason remaining, let’s shed some light on some of the mid-major teams poised for great seasons in 2021-22.
(For the sake of these rankings, I have excluded the following conferences from the mid-major discussion: Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, AAC, A10, and MWC. As the “mid-major” label is delineated by conferences for the sake of this article, Gonzaga *is* included, even if the Bulldogs are a high-major program in a mid-major league.)
25) Yale Bulldogs
The Ivy League sat out this past season due to COVID-19 concerns. That makes it extremely tricky to gauge any of their teams heading into 2021-22. However, Yale is the program that I have the most confidence in when it comes to these rankings. The Bulldogs are well-coached by James Jones and have finished in the KenPom Top 100 in four of their last six seasons. In terms of their roster, you won’t find many better mid-major guards than Azar Swain. He last averaged 16.0 points per game in ‘19-20 and will be the star of the team this season. The supporting cast around him features returnees Jalen Gabbidon, Matthue Hotton, and potential breakout sophomore August Mahoney. Incoming freshman John Poulakidas, who held several high-major offers, should also be a strong fit in the perimeter-oriented offense. We will see how the Ivy League as a whole responds after missing last season.
24) Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Louisiana was perhaps the biggest winner of the transfer market of any mid-major program. This is a program that finished just 201st on KenPom last season but loaded up on talent over the spring. Head coach Bob Marlin was able to add each of the following to his roster: Jordan Brown (Arizona), Greg Williams Jr. (St. John’s), Antwann Jones (Creighton), and Jalen Dalcourt (SJSU). These are all newcomers that will huge roles. While Cedric Russell transferring is a blow, the Ragin’ Cajuns have plenty of depth. The “next man up” in this scenario is Ty Harper, who could be due for a major breakout sophomore season. Big man Theo Akwuba, formerly of Portland, is also coming back. ULL seriously raised its talent level this offseason. This could be a breakthrough season for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
23) UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
UC Santa Barbara entered the NCAA Tournament with a 22-4 record last season before losing to eventual Sweet 16 participant Creighton by one point. It was a truly spectacular season for the Gauchos, who ranked 58th on KenPom, but they have a big hole to fill this offseason. JaQuori McLaughlin carried a huge load last season and he will not be easily replaced in the rotation. Perhaps the biggest piece to monitor heading into 2021-22 is Ajare Sanni, a 6-3 guard fresh off hitting 40 3-pointers last season. Amadou Sow is the team’s top returning scorer, but Sanni could take the leap from “x-factor” to “star”. UCSB’s efforts in the transfer market will also hopefully pay dividends. Miles Norris and Josh Pierre-Louis are both entering their second seasons as Gauchos after starting their careers elsewhere. Additionally, Coach Pasternak added Zach Harvey (Cincinnati) and Calvin Wishart (Georgia Southern) to the roster this offseason.
22) Winthrop Eagles
Mark Prosser is the new head coach of Winthrop basketball heading into this season. Having spent several seasons as an assistant under Pat Kelsey, though, I wouldn’t expect the Eagles to change all that much. We also have a year of Prosser as Western Carolina’s head coach that indicates Winthrop will likely remain an up-tempo, offense-first unit. Winthrop finished 23-2 last season but Coach Prosser will not have the luxury of Chandler Vaudrin on his team; there is a major playmaking void without him leading the way. Still, Winthrop will be an experienced team loaded with solid returners and impact transfers. DJ Burns is the team’s top returning scorer, while Michael Anumba and Josh Corbin are also strong pieces coming back. From the transfer market, Winthrop went out and landed Cory Hightower (WCU), Patrick Good (ETSU), and Drew Buggs (Missouri) – all should be major impact pieces for the Big South’s favorite.
21) South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Despite a pair of coaching changes in the past six years, South Dakota State has remained one of the top teams in the Summit League. Current head coach Eric Henderson has logged back-to-back seasons in the Top 120 on KenPom and he has a solid crew to work with for this season as well. While they will be without now-graduated Douglas Wilson, you would be hard-pressed to find many better duos than Noah Freidel and Baylor Scheierman. The two are both highly capable offensive weapons with double-digit scoring seasons under their belts. They also fit the scheme tremendously well as excellent 3-point shooters. SDSU ranked second nationally in 3P% last season. In addition to those two, the Jackrabbits also bring back Alex Arians and Matt Dentlinger after strong seasons. SDSU is likely to be among the favorites in the Summit once again; they have not lost more than three games in conference play since 2017.
20) Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Southern Utah was perhaps the most under-discussed team in the country last season. While they failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, their 20-4 (12-2 BSky) record was highly impressive. The Thunderbirds wielded one of the best mid-major offenses and much of the same should continue into 2021-22. SUU returns over 93 percent of its possession minutes last season. With seniors Tevian Jones, John Knight III, Dre Marin, Maizen Fausett, and Harrison Butler – among others – leading the way, the Thunderbirds are going to be uniquely experienced and adept offensively. If they find more consistency from 3-point range on their many attempts, their offense could take another leap into “elite” status. The big key for head coach Todd Simon is to find improvements defensively; SUU ranked just 240th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and they gave up 80+ points in three of their four losses.
19) UC Riverside Highlanders
The top tier of the Big West projects to be very good this season, and UC Riverside will be in that conversation. The Highlanders are bringing back four of their top six scorers from last season, including a pair of potential breakouts. Zyon Pullin, most notably, averaged 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game as a sophomore last season; he should emerge as the go-to guy this time around. Additionally, Wil Tattersall posted an impressive 6.7 points per game on 42.7 percent from three as a freshman last season; he could be due for a big sophomore leap. Flynn Cameron and Dominick Pickett are both back in the mix as well as veteran leaders. Collum McRae returning from injury (missed all of 2021) raises the ceiling even more as an excellent frontcourt piece. UC Riverside ranked 106th on KenPom last season thanks in large part to excellent defense; they ranked 9th in defensive rebounding rate and 11th in 2P% allowed. Those two staples will hopefully carry over.
18) Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season, but it was a successful campaign nonetheless. The Bulldogs finished 24-8 overall and ranked 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. With a good chunk of talent returning for 2021-22, that defense should remain elite. Armorie Archibald and Isaiah Crawford will be the upperclassmen leaders this season after combing for 22+ per game a year ago. The big difference-maker for this team, though, will be Kenneth Lofton. He put together a superb campaign as a freshman last year and appears poised for a jump into national stardom. Lofton should lead the team in scoring once again while making a name for himself. La Tech’s defense will be elite and they have a trio of double-digit scorers returning; that projects well.
17) San Francisco Dons
San Francisco features an excellent mix of returning talent and valuable newcomers that could push them into at-large contention. Seniors Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, most notably, form a dynamic backcourt duo that combined for over 30 points per game and 100 made 3-pointers last season. Key supporting pieces in Dzmitrty Ryuny, Josh Kunen, and Julian Rishwain are also back in the Golden Gate City. Head coach Todd Golden traversed the transfer portal to add Gabe Stefanini (Columbia), Yauhen Massalski (San Diego), Zane Meeks (Nevada), and Patrick Tape (Columbia/Duke). If the Dons can gel quickly, they will feature a great combination of size and offensive ability.
16) UC Irvine Anteaters
Head coach Russell Turner has done an excellent job at UC Irvine over the years, finishing at or near the top of the Big West in eight straight years. While the Anteaters missed out on the NCAA Tournament this past season, they were one game away and will be in the hunt again this time around. Senior forward Collin Welp will be the go-to leader of the team; he averaged 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season. The supporting stars around him are a pair of rising sophomores set for breakout campaigns. Dawson Baker and DJ David both averaged 9+ per game as freshmen and have bright futures ahead. With the majority of their top scorers returning, the Anteaters will be a team to watch out west yet again.
15) Iona Gaels
Rick Pitino’s first season at Iona was a success. While the Gaels did not take home the MAAC regular-season title, they did earn the conference’s automatic bid to reach the Big Dance. They ranked 20th nationally in eFG% defense. As far as this coming season goes, Iona lost Isaiah Ross and Asante Gist but dominated the transfer market. Reinforcements are coming in the forms of Elijah Joiner (Tulsa), Tyson Jolly (SMU), and Quinn Slazinski (Louisville). These three high-major transfers will instantly raise the talent level for Coach Pitino. The program is also returning Nelly Junior Joseph, who was excellent as a freshman, and Berrick Jean Louis. Iona has the most talent in the MAAC and a coach that, regardless of your opinion of him, simply wins basketball games.
14) Northern Iowa Panthers
Northern Iowa was stung by the injury bug early last season. Star player AJ Green experienced a hip injury in just the second game of the season and then played just once more. The Panthers struggled to just a 10-15 record with their star missing 22 total games. Green is now set to return for his senior year, though, and much of his supporting cast is back in play as well. Austin Phyfe and Trae Berhow, namely, are excellent players in their own right that fill out the core. Bowen Born and Nate Heise both showed potential as freshmen last season and that well-earned experience could pay dividends on a better team. UNI had high hopes for last year that were dashed in a hurry; they are now getting a second chance and should be among the best teams in the MVC.
13) Ohio Bobcats
Ohio started slowly last season and also lost their best player for six games. When the Bobcats hit their stride in mid-January, though, they emerged as one of the better teams in the nation. They won 10 of their last 12 games (NCAA Tournament included) with four KenPom Top 100 victories along the way. Now, head coach Jeff Boals is poised to potentially bring back the vast majority of his rotation. Losing Jason Preston to the NBA is very significant, but Ohio is getting back Ben Vander Plas, Lunden McDay, Dwight Wilson, and Ben Roderick. Jason Carter also transferred back to the program after spending a year at Xavier. The big piece to monitor for this season will be sophomore Mark Sears. He averaged 13.8 points and 7.6 assists per game when he was a starter (five games) and will be filling that role full-time this year. Sears is a star in the making, and will have plenty of familiar faces around him. This is still a balanced group with lots of potential even without Preston.
12) Loyola Marymount Lions
Loyola Marymount boasts a superb mix of returning talent and incoming transfers for this coming season. From the former, the Lions are bringing back senior star Eli Scott, excellent rebounder Dameane Douglas, potential breakout sophomore Jalin Anderson, and cult hero Keli Leaupepe. Whilst traversing the transfer waters, head coach Stan Johnson was also able to reel in Alex Merkviladze (CSUN), Cameron Shelton (NAU) and Kwane Marble (Wyoming) – all of whom averaged in 9+ per game at their last stops. This was a fringe Top 100 team in the nation last season and the coaching staff was able to build on its roster foundation. Gonzaga and BYU control the top of the WCC, but do not be too surprised if we see a pair of Loyolas in the at-large conversation in 2021-22.
11) UAB Blazers
UAB was easily one of the biggest winners of the transfer market and that leads to optimism for a big-time season. The Blazers have not finished in the KenPom Top 100 since 2011, but that could change thanks to the bevy of newcomers. Head coach Andy Kennedy added four transfers from high-majors with Jelly Walker (Tulane), Jamal Johnson (Auburn), Justin Brown (USF), and KJ Buffen (Ole Miss) that will each make big-time contributions. UAB also added Tyreke Locure after he avaeraged 13.5 points per game at South Alabama. Adding these newcomers alongside key returners Tavin Lovan and Trey Jemison makes the Blazers very intriguing. They were very solid last season (22-7) and are ready to build on that.
10) Murray State Racers
Murray State has struggled a bit in the two seasons since Ja Morant departed for the NBA. That includes last season in which the Racers finished 13-13 and at No. 173 on KenPom. With KJ Williams and Tevin Brown returning, head coach Matt McMahon has an elite senior duo to work with. The Racers also added Carter Collins from the transfer portal. He averaged 10.9 points on 38.5 percent shooting from three while at Davidson last season. He will be a big-time player in the OVC. Trae Hannibal is coming in as well after averaging 6.0 points per game at South Carolina. Adding these quality pieces via the transfer market has seriously bolstered the talent around Williams/Brown. Murray State has a very high offensive ceiling.
9) Missouri State Bears
Missouri State quietly put together one of the better mid-major seasons in the country last season. While they lacked the quality wins of other programs, they simply handled their business in just about every other contest. Aside from their five games against Drake and Loyola Chicago, in which they went 0-5, the Bears were 17-2 last season. They finished in the KenPom Top 100 and now return their top two players in Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim. Prim is a MVC POTY contender while Mosley could be a big-time breakout candidate from a national perspective. The Bears are also bringing back Ja’Monta Black and Demarcus Sharp, in addition to adding a solid transfer in Donovan Clay (Valparaiso). The MVC has a lot of really talented teams at the top for the season; Missouri State is one of them.
8) Liberty Flames
Liberty has finished atop the ASUN standings for three consecutive years thanks in large part to their excellent offense. Head coach Richie McKay deploys a slow-paced but highly-efficient offensive unit that is particularly deadly inside the arc. The Flames have finished in the Top 10 in 2-point percentage in each of the past three seasons. They have also shot the ball well from three (58th, 89th, 9th) and at the foul line 96th, 162nd, 22nd) during this stretch. Looking ahead to this coming season, it is reasonable to expect more of the same. 5-9 leading scorer Darius McGhee is back to lead the way with a talented core around him. The Flames lost two starts this offseason but bring back Kyle Rode, Blake Preston, and Keegan McDowell – among others. Another strong offensive season should be expected; Liberty’s ceiling will depend on defensive improvements.
7) Saint Mary’s Gaels
Saint Mary’s has been one of the most consistently good mid-majors for the last several years. Head coach Randy Bennett has led the program to 14 consecutive KenPom Top 75 finishes, and it is reasonable to expect more of the same in 2021-22. The Gaels stumbled to a 14-10 record last season (No. 75 KP) but now bring back everyone in hopes of a better campaign. A senior class featuring Tommy Kuhse, Matthias Tass, Logan Johnson, and Dan Fotu will lead the way this season. Kuhse projects as the star of the group with his combination of scoring and playmaking. The big key for SMC will be improving from beyond the arc. They ranked 327th nationally in 3P% last season despite ranking near the middle in attempt rate. The late addition of Augustas Marciulionis is also worth noting; he is one of the top international players in the class.
6) Buffalo Bulls
Buffalo, like much of the MAC, flew under the radar this past season. The Bulls played at a frenetic pace, dominated on the offensive glass, and defended the 3-point arc better than just about anyone else in the nation. While they stumbled to a 6-6 record out of the gates, they followed that up by winning 10 of their next 11 games. Head coach Jim Whitesell’s team finished at No. 77 on KenPom and is set to return the vast majority of his rotation. Jeenathan Williams, a former four-star recruit, will be entering his senior year with the program (recently withdrew from the NBA Draft process). A bona fide star, Williams took a huge leap last season into averaging 17.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Key fellow seniors Ronaldo Segu and Josh Mballa are also likely to return. Buffalo boasts a big lineup for a mid-major and should compete near the top of the mid-major ranks. Curtis Jones is an undervalued JUCO transfer arriving for the Bulls as well; he is a versatile performer that can shot it well from deep at Indian Hills.
5) Belmont Bruins
Belmont is in very good hands with Casey Alexander at the helm. I wrote about the Bruins’ excellent run last season and while they fell short of an NCAA Tournament bid, hopes should once again be high in 2021-22. Belmont brings back each of its top six scorers from last season, including stat-sheet-stuffing two-way star Grayson Murphy and do-it-all Nick Muszynski. This returning tandem alone makes the Bruins deadly; they also return Luke Smith, Caleb Hollander, and Ben Sheppard as vital upperclassmen. Belmont projects as one of the most experienced teams in the nation thanks to their superb returnees. Perhaps the player poised to raise their ceiling the most, though, is JaCobi Wood. Wood averaged 11.3 points per game as a freshman last season and might be the most underrated potential breakout sophomore in the nation. Watch for the Bruins to be electric offensively.
4) Drake Bulldogs
Drake surprised much of the basketball world last season while leaping out to an 18-0 record over the first three months of the campaign. They wound up finishing 26-5 (NCAAT included) and ranked at No. 55 on KenPom. With Darian DeVries back on the sideline and six of his top seven scorers from last season also returning, the Bulldogs appear poised for another excellent season. Roman Penn’s injury near the end of last season somewhat derailed Drake last year but he will be at full health heading into this campaign. Critical running mates Tank Hemphill, Tremell Murphy, and DJ Wilkins are all returning as well. Losing Joseph Yesufu to Kansas is certainly a blow but this team still features the steady creator (Penn) and strong perimeter shooting that led them to a Top 40 adjusted offensive efficiency rating last season. Expect the Bulldogs to be near the top of the MVC again this time around.
3) Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Porter Moser is no longer walking the sidelines, nor will the now-graduated Cameron Krutwig be the offensive hub in 2021-22. Yet, Loyola-Chicago appears poised for yet another strong season out of the Missouri Valley. 30-year-old Drew Valentine was promoted to the head job this offseason and he is far from the only familiar face coming back. The Ramblers are returning a decent chunk of their core from last season; Lucas Williamson, Keith Clemons, Tate Hall, and Aher Uguak all decided to use their “extra year” of eligibility to return to the program. Sharpshooting guard Braden Norris is also returning, and he could emerge as the team’s top scorer. You are not going to find many teams in the country with as much experience as Loyola Chicago. The scheme will look very different without Krutwig and with a new head coach, but the Ramblers should remain excellent. Perhaps not as elite as they were this past season, but deserving of a preseason Top 50 placement. Superb defensive play and quality 3-point shooting will lead the way again.
2) BYU Cougars
BYU was one of the oldest teams in the nation last season and was able to turn that into a very strong year. The Cougars earned a No. 6 seed to the NCAA Tournament and finished in the KenPom Top 20. Looking ahead to 2021-22, head coach Mark Pope will no longer have Brandon Averette and Matt Haarms at his disposal. Star point guard Alex Barcello is coming back, though, after a stellar season in which he averaged 16.1 points (47.7 percent from three) and 4.3 assists per game. Barcello’s return is absolutely massive, as his Caleb Lohner’s potential as a sophomore. The 6-8 Lohner led the team in rebounds last season. Those two will form a dagnerous duo in Provo this season, plus the Cougars traversed the transfer market for Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee). A breakout season from 6-11 big man Richard Harward will go a long way in determine just how good this team could be.
1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
This article uses conferences to delineate mid-majors, meaning Gonzaga still fits the definition by playing in the WCC. I understand disagreeing with that, but the Bulldogs firmly deserve this top spot given the criteria of the rankings. Head coach Mark Few’s team is likely to enter 2021-22 as the top-ranked team in the entire nation. Returners Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard, and Anton Watson are all set to fill major roles again while an impressive group of newcomers raises their ceiling even further. Chet Holmgren headlines this group as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, and he is joined by a pair of guards and fellow five-stars Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman. The Bulldogs also added reinforcement from the transfer market with Rasir Bolton. Gonzaga is absolutely loaded…again.
Header image courtesy of Belmont Athletics.