Mid-major hopefuls making most of early (and limited) opportunities

The 2020-21 college basketball season always figured to be a strange one for mid-major programs. Scheduling has been a disaster, some teams have been forced to relocate, and COVID-19 quarantine periods continue to shake up the sport’s landscape.

The NCAA’s decision to push the season back to Nov. 25 was significant as well. In “normal” years, most teams have tuneup games before taking on multi-team events or neutral-site showcases. Instead, teams have been forced into high-leverage situations to open the season despite limited familiarity or offseason conditioning (i.e. Kentucky’s 1-3 start).

Rauf Report: Missouri’s fast start, Kansas’ struggles
Hope & Rauf Ep. 13: College hoops’ biggest questions
SUBSCRIBE to today!

After possibly the strongest season ever for non-power conference teams — Gonzaga, Dayton and San Diego State were legitimate Final Four candidates last spring — only one team outside the top seven leagues (Gonzaga) was ranked in the preseason Top 25.

It was the first time in college basketball history that only one non-high-major team appeared in the preseason Top 25.

As always, though, mid-major breakouts will emerge. And with the season shrunk by at least 10 games, it’s especially important for teams to capitalize to earn respect from the selection committee.

Let’s take a look at some mid-major teams (and conferences) that have taken advantage of their early opportunities.

Atlantic 10

The Atlantic 10 is picking up right where it left off last season. There might not be a bona fide Final Four contender like Dayton last March, but the conference is taking care of business through the first two weeks.

Richmond leads the way, checking in at 3-0 while sitting at the No. 19 slot in the latest AP poll. The Spiders stunned Kentucky in Lexington, immediately legitimizing the offseason belief that Chris Mooney’s team is poised for a March Madness run. Plenty of tests await: Northern Iowa (Wednesday), at West Virginia (Dec. 13), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 16) and the A-10 opener vs. Duquesne (Dec. 19).

The top of the conference is deep overall. Saint Louis might be just as good or even better than Richmond thanks to its hot shooting start that lended its way to a big home win over LSU. Also keep an eye on Rhode Island — which already has wins over Seton Hall, San Francisco and South Florida and nearly beat Arizona State and Boston College — and VCU, which took down Utah State and Memphis in South Dakota.

WCC

Gonzaga will rightfully receive the bulk of the attention of the WCC with victories against Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia but it’s hardly a one-man show out west. Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU are a combined 17-4, highlighted by USF’s stunning upset against Virginia. Don’t sleep on Pepperdine either, which sits at 2-2 but took UCLA to three overtimes and led San Diego State by as many as 16 on the road.

Western Kentucky

What a difference a healthy Charles Bassey makes for Western Kentucky. The former 5-star recruit has been a force, averaging 14.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and four blocks through five games. Bassey also ranks in the top 10 nationally in defensive-rebounding percentage and block rate, which has aided WKU in notable victories over Northern Iowa and Memphis. Rick Stansbury’s squad exchanging punches with West Virginia in Sioux Falls was further validation of this team’s skill level.

Mercer

The SoCon has emerged in recent years as a league worth monitoring for multiple tournament bids. Wofford was a No. 7 seed and a 30-game winner in 2019 and ETSU also won 30 games in a shortened season last year. The next one to watch could be Mercer, which is 5-0 and up over 40 spots from its preseason KenPom ranking. Greg Gary’s team beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta and followed it up with another quality win against Georgia State. If all goes to plan, it could be a while before we see Mercer lose a game.

South Dakota State

Much like Western Kentucky, South Dakota State battling West Virginia for 40 minutes on a neutral site will do a lot for a team’s confidence. The Jackrabbits have three victories over teams ranked in the KenPom top 120, taking down Utah State by 24 and also knocking off Iowa State and Bradley on the road. Eric Henderson’s bunch has three more opportunities for wins away from home before Summit play rolls around, and a 3-0 stretch could help set the foundation for at-large consideration.

Liberty

Given the abundance of talent departing the Atlantic Sun in the spring, the conference race figured to be wide open heading into the season. Ritchie McKay’s group has emerged as the early favorite, testing Purdue to open the campaign before picking up wins against SEC foes Mississippi State and South Carolina. Wednesday marks another opportunity for the Flames as red-hot Missouri will play host in a fascinating matchup.

Winthrop

Even with the cancellation of the season-opening matchup against Seton Hall, Winthrop took advantage of its brief stay in Louisville. The Eagles took care of business against two conference favorites in Little Rock and UNCG, both of which could help the team’s case for a tournament bid come Selection Sunday. One nonconference game remains on the schedule for now, which is a Dec. 19 date against a Furman squad that entered the day ranked 64th in KenPom.