NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings: Healthy Santa Clara rising, Murray State stays steady

Murray State remains steady as the No. 1 in our NCAA mid-major Top 25. Santa Clara — now healthy — is rising up the ranks as well.

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 Santa Clara and Toledo.

Santa Clara has to be thrilled to have Josip Vrankic back in the mix. He missed eight games earlier this season and there is no denying that the Broncos are a much better team with him in the lineup. They are currently riding a four-game winning streak and leaped in our rankings as a result of a home win over Saint Mary’s. Santa Clara is 13-4 with Vrankic available and went 4-4 when he was out. The Broncos are an underrated team in the WCC when healthy.

Toledo was our other big winner, but mainly due to the impact its performances could have on the rest of the season. The Rockets suffered a surprising loss to Ball State but responded by taking down Ohio at home. The latter performance signified a season-sweep of the Bobcats which will give the Rockets the tiebreaker should the regular-season standings end in a tie. Toledo now holds a half-game advantage at the top of the league and owns the sweep.

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

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25. Grand Canyon Antelopes (16-5)

Grand Canyon returned to its winning ways during this past week with victories over Seattle and Cal Baptist. The Antelopes were certainly happy to be home after dropping three consecutive road games. However, they aren’t going to be at home for long as another three-game road trip approaches. Grand Canyon is still right in the thick of the WAC race. Yvan Ouedraogo has been one of the best offensive rebounders in the whole country this year. -Lukas Harkins

24. Northern Iowa Panthers (14-9)

Northern Iowa was expected to experience a bounce-back season this year with a healthier roster. Alas, that did not look to be the case early in the year when the Panthers started 3-7 against Division-I competition. Since then, though, they have won 10 of their last 12 games to emerge as a potential threat near the top of the MVC. Recent victories over Bradley and Drake pushed them into our mid-major Top 25. Both matchups with Loyola Chicago are ahead. -LH

23. Towson Tigers (17-7)

The Tigers missed an opportunity to scoot within a half-game of UNC Wilmington in the Colonial standings, but Towson fell on the road to Northeastern over the weekend. That loss was particularly frustrating because just a few days earlier the Tigers beat Hofstra by 10 in Hempstead, and because a normally hot-shooting team went just 1-of-15 from downtown. KenPom has the Tigers winning out, but the team is 1-3 in league play when shooting under 30 percent on 3-pointers. Streakiness can be a killer. -Andy Dieckhoff

22. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (17-6)

Louisiana Tech has dropped three of its last five games – two of them at home – but remains in our mid-major Top 25. The CUSA is a really solid conference this season that could potentially send two teams to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are not an at-large threat but they are certainly in the mix to win the automatic bid. Amorie Archibald and Keaston Willis have been consistent 3-point threats around star player Kenneth Lofton; they have hit 87 combined threes. -LH

21. Morehead State Eagles (19-6)

When a good team has a star player like Johni Broome, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. In fact, Preston Spradlin has used the same starting lineup in all 22 D-1 games this season — and the Eagles don’t win 19 of those games without all of them playing a part. Meet the supporting cast: Ta’lon Cooper, whose 33.8 percent assist rate is 26th in the nation; Tray Hollowell, who is 39.5 percent on over 150 3-point attempts; Skyelar Potter, another efficient shooter who leads the team in steals; and Jake Wolfe, a quiet assassin who can shoot it from everywhere. Morehead also has a solid bench led by Jaylon Hall. -AD

20. Liberty Flames (18-7)

Liberty has won four in a row since losing its lone ASUN game, and the pleasure cruise should continue in a relatively easy slate of games the next few weeks. The Flames have shooters for days, but the team struggles with turnovers — both committing and forcing them — and that could limit Liberty’s Cinderella potential depending on the matchup. Darius McGhee is the name to know, but he’s not alone in lighting up from outside. Keegan McDowell, Kyle Rode, Shiloh Robinson, Brody Peebles and Micaiah Abii are all shooting over 40 percent on 3-pointers. -AD

19. Drake Bulldogs (17-8)

The Bulldogs have found themselves on the wrong end of the fight twice in a row now, dropping close games to Northern Iowa and Missouri State in a four-day span. As a result, Drake slips to fourth place in the briar patch atop the MVC. Darian DeVries’ squad needs to turn that around immediately to avoid a further drop in the standings — fifth-place Bradley is only a half-game back and Drake must make the trip to Peoria on Saturday. The Braves beat the Bulldogs by 12 in Des Moines just three weeks ago, so keep an eye on this one. -AD

18. Furman Paladins (17-9)

Furman dropped back-to-back games this week to drop in our mid-major Top 25. The Paladins are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country but they are also one of the most reliant. While they can beat anyone with their shooting, a rough night could spell trouble. They shot just 17-for-58 (29.3 percent) from beyond the arc in those two losses. A big home opportunity against Chattanooga is next on the schedule and rediscovering the shooting touch would help. -LH

17. Missouri State Bears (18-8)

Dana Ford and the Bears couldn’t complete the series sweep over Loyola, but Missouri State recovered to beat Drake on the road Wednesday night. Behind 21 points from Gaige Prim and Isiaih Mosley’s double-double, MSU edged into third place in the Missouri Valley. They should be able to at least tread water — if not make a jump — as the next two games come against squads under .500 in league play, but the Bears can’t start looking ahead to their Feb. 20 date with first-place Northern Iowa just yet. -AD

16. Santa Clara Broncos (17-8)

A healthy Santa Clara leaped out to a 3-0 start this season that included victories over three straight teams that are still ranked in the KenPom top 100. Then star player Josip Vrankic was injured and the Broncos won just four of their following eight games without him. Santa Clara has been much better since his return, and Vrankic is looking more and more like himself of late. He has reached double-figures in seven straight games, including netting 16 in Santa Clara’s upset win over Saint Mary’s.k -LH

15. Wagner Seahawks (16-2)

The Seahawks’ season had been nearly perfect to this point, but the calculus has changed dramatically since the last time we checked in. Elijah Ford, the team’s second-leading scorer and top shot-blocker, went down with a knee injury in Wagner’s win over Long Island and will miss the rest of the season. Suddenly, the Seahawks’ undefeated mark in the NEC looks to be vulnerable. Alex Morales and Raekwon Rogers are still in the fold to carry the offense, but Ford was a big part of a top-100 defense. -AD

14. Ohio Bobcats (19-4)

Ohio is only a half-game back in the MAC standings, but a tough journey approaches in order to notch the regular-season title. The Bobcats trail Toledo – who just swept them for the season – in the standings. Nonetheless, Mark Sears and Co. are a dangerous squad with the ability to contend for the league’s automatic bid. Their two losses to Toledo are their only defeats since the first week of December. Watch for them to get back on track this week. -LH

13. Vermont Catamounts (19-4)

This Vermont offense is one of the best that Burlington has seen in the past 25 seasons. The Catamounts currently rank No. 35 in KenPom offensive efficiency — and if they finish around that mark, it will be the school’s third top-50 offense since 1997. The last time Vermont did it was in 2018, when the team went 27-8 overall and 15-1 in the AE before losing in the conference tournament final to the UMBC team that beat Virginia. The other time? That would be 2005, when UVM upset Syracuse from the parking lot. -AD

12. Chattanooga Mocs (21-5)

In the span of about 100 hours, the Mocs picked up two wins over Mercer and another over Western Carolina — and they’ve done it without Silvio de Sousa, who is nursing an injury. Chattanooga sits two games clear of Furman atop the SoCon, and the last meeting between the two was a close-fought affair. Those two will meet again this weekend as the Paladins host a key fixture in the league race. Even without de Sousa, the elite backcourt of Malachi Smith and David Jean-Baptiste should keep UTC afloat. -AD

11. New Mexico State Aggies (19-3)

The Aggies wrestled the WAC lead away from Seattle over the weekend, completing a perfect three-game homestand that also featured wins over Grand Canyon and Cal Baptist. New Mexico State goes on the road now for the next two, which features a big date with Utah Valley on Saturday. Teddy Allen is on a major tear right now, averaging 27.3 points per game during NMSU’s current four-game streak — a run that started after Allen was held to just two points in a 71-46 loss to Sam Houston State. -AD

10. Belmont Bruins (20-5)

Casey Alexander and the Bruins have reeled off six wins in a row since losing to Murray State and Morehead State in a three-game span last month. A seventh-straight win would not just be good for Belmont’s record, either. The Bruins host Morehead tonight, and a win would pull them back even into second place in the league. Nick Muszynski was dominated on the offensive boards by Johni Broome in the first game, so the Belmont big man will need to have a better strategy for the rematch in Nashville. -AD

9. Iona Gaels (19-4)

Iona suffered its first loss of MAAC play during this past week, thus a slight drop in our rankings. With that said, though, the Gaels are still a very impressive 19-4 (11-1 MAAC) overall and are the favorite to win an automatic bid next month. Rick Pitino’s team ranks eighth nationally in free throw attempt rate; Nelly Junior Joseph has attempted 126 free throws this season. Dylan van Eyck has been an excellent big playmaker for the Gaels. -LH

8. Toledo Rockets (19-5)

Toledo suffered a head-scratching road loss to Ball State to begin this past week only to bounce back and complete its season-sweep of Ohio just a few days later. Ryan Rollins has emerged as one of the best sophomores in the country this season with excellent all-around ability. He is not alone in making the Rockets a dangerous threat for March Madness, though. JT Shumate has been hyper-efficient all season, ranking fourth nationally in ORtg. He is posting shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) of .619/.479/.869 for the season. -LH

7. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (21-4)

South Dakota State is ever-so-quietly rolling. The Jackrabbits are undefeated in Summit League play and are thus on a 12-game winning streak. Their 21-4 record gives them one of the best overall winning percentages in the whole country. If South Dakota State wins an automatic bid, it is going to be a dangerous double-digit seed. There are not many mid-majors capable of posting the 15th-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country; this team can score and take care of the ball better than just about anyone. -LH

6. UAB Blazers (18-5)

The Blazers have not lost back-to-back games all year long, and that pattern held firm on Saturday as UAB rebounded smoothly from its perplexing loss at Marshall. Jordan Walker tied a career-high with 42 points in a big win over Middle Tennessee, his seventh consecutive game over the 20-point mark. The Blazers play three of the next four at home, a stretch that concludes with the rematch with North Texas. UAB has only lost one game all season at Bartow Arena, a 65-59 slugfest with West Virginia on Dec. 18. -AD

5. North Texas Mean Green (17-4)

North Texas started this season at just 2-3 with one of those victories coming over a non-D1 opponent. Since then? Well, the Mean Green have been mean. They have won 15 of their last 16 games to emerge as the leader in the CUSA regular-season standings. North Texas owns the league’s best defense while also shooting the lights out from three (43.1 percent in conference play). Tylor Perry and Madrez McBride are an elite shooting duo. -LH

4. San Francisco Dons (19-6)

Yikes. The Dons may not be dead but losing to Portland at home is not the sort of things that at-large teams typically do. In fairness, the Shantay Legans Pilots are much different from the Terry Porter Pilots — but a Quad-4 loss is a Quad-4 loss. Todd Golden still has one of the best backcourts in America and some very good transfers in Yauhen Massalski and Gabe Stefanini, so this team can’t be counted out. The Dons’ trip to Santa Clara this weekend just became very, very important for their at-large hopes. -AD

3. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (18-5)

Loyola Chicago dropped a Quad-2 road contest to Bradley in its most recent game. The Ramblers are now just 4-3 over their last seven contests and are trending more towards the bracketology cutline. Nonetheless, they are still an analytics darling and predictive metrics indicate that they will find regain their rhythm over the next couple of weeks. Loyola Chicago still ranks 10th nationally in effective field goal percentage. The Ramblers are one of the few true at-large contenders in these rankings. -LH

2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (19-5)

The Gaels took one on the chin on Tuesday night, falling to Santa Clara on the road. Saint Mary’s had won seven in a row before that, though, and this is still a team with a top-20 defense and a top-60 offense. The Gaels have a chance this weekend to prove that they are a real contender. After hosting San Diego Thursday, Saint Mary’s goes to Spokane to try its hand at slaying the Gonzaga juggernaut for the first time since 2019 WCC title game. -AD

1. Murray State Racers (22-2)

Murray State is 22-2 and has not lost yet in 2022. The Racers are 12-0 in OVC play and already beat Belmont on the road by 22. Murray State is playing exceptionally well and its domination has led to a rise into the KenPom top 30. Tevin Brown and KJ Williams form one of the best star duos in the country and they are poised to land a single-digit NCAA Tournament seed. Justice Hill has been an excellent creator at the point guard spot as well. -LH