NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings: Colorado State rolling, Belmont finding rhythm

Niko Medved, Colorado State

The Colorado State Rams are on a tear, climbing up the latest Heat Check CBB mid-major Top 25 rankings.

Another week of the 2021-22 college basketball season is now complete. And with that, a new edition of our Heat Check CBB mid-major Top 25 is hot off the digital presses. Several teams made moves, although Gonzaga remains steady at No. 1 despite dropping two of its last three games. Perhaps some competition is rising, though.

That competition comes in the form of our most notable team of the week: Colorado State. The Rams continue to pass the eye test with flying colors and picked up a dominant home win over Saint Mary’s (by 16) to rise up a spot in our rankings. They deserve to be nationally ranked and have been playing incredibly well, particularly offensively.

David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens should be household names as the season progresses. They have led the Rams to be rightfully viewed as MWC favorites heading into conference play. 

CSU is far from the only team making waves this week. Belmont seems to be uncovering its rhythm and CUSA teams UAB and Louisiana Tech are both playing well.

Now, without any further introduction, let’s dive into our Week 5 edition of the mid-major Top 25! As always, these rankings were compiled by Lukas Harkins and Andy Dieckhoff. The pari of us was also responsible for the blurbs written below.

Heat Check CBB Top 25 rankings
Why Colorado State deserves your attention
—DPI: Game Predictions | 1-500 Player Rankings

Note: The ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, and AAC are excluded from consideration for these rankings. Gonzaga operates as a high-major program but plays in a mid-major conference. Our mid-major definition for the sake of this article series is based around conference affiliation, thus Gonzaga’s inclusion.

25. Buffalo Bulls (5-3)

The Bulls bounced back from a close loss to St. Bonaventure in a bragging-rights game over the weekend, toppling Western Kentucky without Jeenathan Williams (non-COVID illness). Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly as the team had hoped, but Buffalo is not in dire straits by any means. True road wins over WKU and North Texas are certainly nothing to sneeze at, either. The Bulls do a good job keeping teams from beating them on the 3-ball, but the interior defense has been fertile ground for opponents. Big men Hunter Dickinson, Osun Osunniyi and Gavin Kensmil averaged 20.3 points and 3.7 offensive rebounds per game in defeats of Buffalo. -Andy Dieckhoff

24. Wyoming Cowboys (8-1)

Wyoming’s undefeated start is no more. The Cowboys ran into a buzzsaw known as the Arizona Wildcats over this past week and lost by 29. A road loss to a Top 25 team is far from a killer in these rankings, but it was Wyoming’s first KenPom top-100 opponent of the year. Perhaps it was a much-needed boost in competition level as five of their next seven games will come against top-100 opponents. If there was one positive from the loss, it was another breakout shooting game from Xavier DuSell. The sophomore guard shot 6-for-12 from deep; the Cowboys will need him to be a high-volume shooting star in MWC play. -Lukas Harkins

23. Weber State Wildcats (8-1)

Well, after earning some recognition as one of the last remaining undefeated teams, Weber State saw the distinction vaporize against Washington State. The Wildcats were trounced 94-60 by the Cougars, who are a good team in their own right. Still, 34-point losses never inspire confidence. Don’t make the mistake of writing this team off, though. Koby McEwen and Jamison Overton have been aces after transferring into Orem, while returners Dillon Jones, Seikou Sisoho Jawara and Zahir Porter are all playing great basketball, too. Weber State just got punched in the mouth, but they could absolutely pull off upsets over Utah State and/or BYU in the next 10 days — especially considering the Wildcats are hosting their in-state foes in both games. -AD

22. Saint Louis Billikens (7-3)

SLU was cruising through its early slate in November, going 7-1 with only a loss to Memphis blemishing the report card. With the calendar flipping over to December, though, the Billikens have come on hard times. Right after solid mid-major wins away from home over Stephen F. Austin and Boise State, Saint Louis has dropped consecutive games to UAB and Belmont at home. It shouldn’t be too much of a concern, considering both of those teams show up higher in these rankings. On the other hand, those two games do paint a clearer picture of where the Billikens’ ceiling might be without the injured Javonte Perkins in the fold. -AD

21. Drake Bulldogs (6-3)

Unlike SLU, Drake had its troubles in November but are enjoying a peaceful start to December so far — at least in the win column. Unfortunately, point guard Roman Penn went down with a fracture in his left foot and will be out indefinitely. The team has picked up shrug-worthy wins over St. Thomas and Omaha in his absence, but the Bulldogs can’t stay in the Summit League forever. They head to Atlanta to face Clemson in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event on Saturday, but the Tigers have lost four of five coming into the weekend. That game will be a true test of just how much the team can withstand the loss of Penn. But so far, so good for Darian DeVries’ team. -AD

20. Santa Clara Broncos (7-3)

Thanks to the kissing disease, the Broncos can probably kiss their at-large hopes goodbye. Josip Vrankic hasn’t played in almost a month after coming down with mononucleosis, and the team is 4-3 without his brilliant passing in the post. Those losses all came to mid-major programs, so it’s unlikely Herb Sendek and the crew will be participating in the #4BidWCC movement. There is still a lot to like about this team, though, but Santa Clara has simply been hamstrung without it star down low. With road games against Cal and Boise State coming up in the next six days, the team would really benefit from a Willis Reed-type moment right about now. -AD

19. Davidson Wildcats (6-2)

There were not a whole lot of updates coming out of Davidson this past week, other than the fact that they massacred William & Mary by 24 points despite shooting just 30.4 percent from deep (compared to a season average of 42 percent). With upcoming games against Northeastern and Radford, Bob McKillop’s club shouldn’t be tested too severely prior to a massive date with Loyola Chicago on Dec. 22. One feel-good story is Foster Loyer, a former top-100 recruit who never quite broke through in three years at Michigan State. At the highest usage rate of his career, Loyer is hitting a filthy 52.6 percent of his 3s with an assist rate near 20 percent. -AD

18. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (8-3)

South Dakota State’s porous defense reared its ugly head this week. The Jackrabbits surrendered 98 points in a road loss to Idaho, which entered that contest ranked as one of the worst teams in the entire country. While a one-game sample size is small, the defeat led to the largest week-over-week drop in these rankings. South Dakota State is elite offensively but it has a long way to go defensively to reach the mid-major top 10. Road meetings with Washington State and Missouri State close their nonconference schedule; those are huge opportunities. -LH

17. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (6-2)

Louisiana Tech entered this season projected to be one of the better mid-majors in the country and has steadily lived up to that claim. The Bulldogs are 6-2 with their only two losses (Auburn, NC State) coming against high-major opponents. They also recently picked up a very nice road win over Santa Clara to climb in these rankings. Sophomore big man Kenneth Lofton is living up to the hype as one of the best players nationwide; he recorded 36 points and 17 rebounds in the loss to NC State and 31 points plus 14 rebounds in the win over Santa Clara. A neutral-site meeting with LSU looms next weekend. -LH

16. Murray State Racers (7-1)

Murray State is yet to face a KenPom top-100 opponent but is still quietly up to a 7-1 record. The Racers are currently posting their best adjusted defensive efficiency rating since 2019 and 2018, which were the last two times the program reached the NCAA Tournament. Tevin Brown is experiencing his most efficient season as a scorer, shooting 43.9 percent from three. Brown, KJ Williams, and Justice Hill lead the way for this group. Trae Hannibal is also averaging in double figures as a scorer. -LH

15. Chattanooga Mocs (8-1)

Chattanooga lost its first game of the season a couple of weeks ago against Charleston. Instead of letting that ooze into a three-game road trip, the Mocs took the punch and rattled off three straight victories away from home. Tennessee Tech, Lipscomb and UNC Asheville do not represent the toughest competition but road wins are never easy. A couple of huge mid-major matchups loom for the Mocs as they will travel to face Belmont and Murray State before Christmas. Head coach Lamont Paris has put together a strong start to his campaign. Malachi Smith is a star, averaging 18.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. -LH

14. UC Irvine Anteaters (5-1)

UC Irvine has seemingly found its rhythm since an opening-day loss to New Mexico State. The Anteaters have won five straight, including adding victories over Boise State and Santa Clara. Head coach Russell Turner is once again leading a steadily strong and disciplined defensive unit. UCI ranks seventh nationally in effective field-goal percentage surrendered and is dominating on the defensive glass as well. This group limits assists and 3-point attempts better than just about anyone. Combine strong defense with an elite star forward in Collin Welp and there is a lot to like from the Anteaters. -LH

13. Iona Gaels (8-2)

Rick Pitino is off to a great start in his second season at Iona, and the Gaels are now 2-0 in MAAC play after beating Marist and Rider. In their latest romp over the Broncs, big man Nelly Junior Joseph went for 17 points, 10 rebounds (five offensive) and four blocks. He is on a shortlist of just eight players to put up that kind of stat line this season, including guys like Keegan Murray, Jalen Duren and Coleman Hawkins. If you thought that Iona was done making noise after beating Alabama on Thanksgiving, just keep in mind that the Gaels have a date with Seton Hall coming up. That is going to be a defensive slugfest, one that Iona just might win. -AD

12. Utah State Aggies (6-3)

Utah State entered its road matchup with BYU shooting nearly 80 percent at the free-throw line for the season. Provo appeared to be their kryptonite at the charity stripe, though, as the Aggies shot just 9-for-20 on the “freebies” during an 11-point loss. Head coach Ryan Odom’s team is still 6-3 with nice wins over Richmond and Oklahoma, but they lost both of their games (Saint Mary’s and BYU) since our last update. Utah State needs to get back on track, and matchups with Weber State and Iowa could prove their true ceiling. -LH

11. UAB Blazers (7-2)

UAB only played once since our last update and notched an impressive road victory over Saint Louis. Guards Jordan Walker and Michael Ertel were superb while combining for 34 points (7-for-14 from three) and 11 assists in the win. Walker, in particular, has emerged as a star for the Blazers this season. The former Seton Hall and Tulane guard is averaging 16.8 points and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 45.3 percent from three. UAB holds a 7-2 record and has cracked the KenPom Top 50 for the first time this season, up 28 spots relative to preseason expectations. The Blazers’ next six games are all at home, including a meeting with West Virginia. -LH

10. Ohio Bobcats (6-2)

The Robertcats haven’t quite hit the high note they reached on Opening Night with a win over Belmont at home, but Ohio is plugging along. Mark Sears put in a 24-point, eight-rebound, five-assist performance against St. Francis (PA), but the team only won by three and Sears had eight turnovers. That said, the team as a whole takes very good care of the ball, providing some cover for the sophomore floor general to hide those missteps. Looking ahead to the three games remaining on Ohio’s nonconference schedule, games against Marshall at home and Stetson on the road stand out as potential trouble spots. Ohio should win both, but they may be close. -AD

9. San Diego State Aztecs (6-3)

San Diego State continues to struggle and may soon find itself tumbling down these rankings if it can’t right the ship. Simply put, the offense looks bad. The Aztecs can’t hit a shot to save their lives at times, and while the record is a comely 6-3, some of the wins have been uglier than expected. Things won’t get easier for SDSU as it rejiggers the lineups in the wake of Lamont Butler’s wrist injury. Matt Bradley, who was touted in these pages as potentially being the most impactful transfer in the country after coming over from Cal, has been mostly underwhelming to this point. If something doesn’t change soon, the Aztecs will have issues in the Mountain West. -AD

8. Belmont Bruins (8-3)

The Bruins have three losses in the early going, but they’ve come to a good Ohio team, a still undefeated LSU team and a Dayton team that played out of its mind for a weekend. You can forgive those, even more so if the team also has wins over Furman, Drake, Iona and Saint Louis on the resume. Casey Alexander brought back so many pieces that it seemed unlikely a new face would emerge; but wouldn’t you know it, freshman Will Richard is knocking down 3-pointers at a 42.5 percent clip and has already made eight starts. Surely the rest of the Ohio Valley will be glad to know that the Belmont basketball machine is leaving town after this season. -AD

7. Saint Mary’s Gaels (8-2)

One surefire way to lose some shine is to go toe-to-toe with another mid-major titan … and then lay an egg. The Gaels took on Colorado State over the weekend and were beaten by 16 in Fort Collins in a much less competitive game than many imagined. Take solace, Moraga. That result likely says more about the Rams than it does about Saint Mary’s. Also notable: Randy Bennett earned an unofficial “Sore Winner of the Week” award for his postgame antics after beating Utah State. Uncongenial head coaches notwithstanding, SMC is one of the best in the country at preventing second chances, thanks in large part to Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen. -AD

6. St. Bonaventure Bonnies (8-1)

St. Bonaventure has dropped in efficiency ratings relative to preseason expectations but its resume has lived up to the hype. The Bonnies are 8-1 with wins over Boise State, Clemson, Marquette and Buffalo already on their resume. The loss to Northern Iowa sticks out negatively, but they have otherwise been steady. The Bonnies have a rigorous three-game stretch approaching before beginning conference play: UConn (neutral), Virginia Tech (neutral) and Northeastern (away). Going 2-1 during that stretch would be a great sign moving forward. -LH

5. San Francisco Dons (10-0)

The undefeated San Francisco Dons are one of just nine teams in the country who can still use that adjective. Of those nine, USF and Colorado State are the only lossless mid-majors, with Wyoming and Weber State falling by the wayside on Wednesday. This has not been some cupcake-eating contest, either. San Francisco has six wins over the KenPom top 150, including wins away from The Hilltop against Davidson and UAB. Jamaree Bouyea, in particular, has been on an incredible tear, averaging 28.5 points in two December contests against UNLV and Fresno State. The Dons will take on GCU and Arizona State back-to-back after a 10-day break. -AD

4. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (8-2)

Loyola Chicago has now rattled of four straight wins since dropping back-to-back at the Battle 4 Atlantis event. The Ramblers are now 8-1 overall and away-from-home wins over Arizona State and DePaul help. Young head coach Drew Valentine is quickly proving why he is a budding star on the sidelines. Even without former offensive hub Cameron Krutwig, this team is scoring at an impressive rate. Loyola Chicago ranks fourth nationally in effective field-goal percentage, and the Ramblers have experience, shooting and tremendous balance. Ryan Schwieger, Lucas Williamson, Aher Uguak, Tate Hall, Braden Norris are all shooting 37.5 percent or better from three on at least 18 attempts. -LH

3. BYU Cougars (8-1)

After losing to Utah Valley in overtime — and losing starting big man Gavin Baxter in the process — BYU recovered by scoring consecutive wins over top-75 teams (Missouri State, Utah State). The Cougars do have some weaknesses to address, though; namely, their 3-point shooting has not been up to snuff. BYU is shooting under 30 percent from deep as a team, despite having sharpshooters like Alex Barcello and Spencer Johnson in the fold. The biggest head-scratcher: Caleb Lohner, a 35.8-percent shooter last year, has missed all 14 attempts this year. If the team ever thaws out from deep, they could be set up for a deep tournament run. -AD

2. Colorado State Rams (9-0)

Our Heat Check CBB Top 25 is already higher on Colorado State than the national consensus. The fact of the matter, though, is that the Rams are really, really good. Head coach Niko Medved has guided his team to a 9-0 start that includes wins over Creighton and Saint Mary’s. While the Rams have not played the toughest schedule to date, it’s hard to not be impressed by their eye test. CSU is an elite offense headlined by one of the best players in the country in David Roddy and star guard Isaiah Stevens. The Rams are currently rank top 11 in the country in 3-point percentage (No. 1 nationally), 2-point percentage and free-throw percentage. -LH

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-2)

Gonzaga has lost two of its last three games but this No. 1 spot is reserved unless catastrophe strikes. Recent losses to Duke and Alabama have shown that this team is vulnerable, though. They are still the most talented team in the rankings with an excellent head coach in Mark Few, and will likely be right in the conversation for a No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament later in the year. -LH