NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings: Murray State explodes; Vermont finding rhythm

Murray State continues its storybook season while Vermont continues to dominate the America East, as highlighted in our new NCAA mid-major Top 25 rankings.

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, though all blurbs were written by the former this week.

Before diving into our teams of the week, we have a rules change to announce! For the remainder of the season in this poll, the following are excluded from consideration: Power 6, AAC, A10, MWC, Gonzaga and BYU. Both Andy and I are voters in the Field of 68 mid-major poll, so we have adapted to follow their voting rules in our series as well.

Introduction aside, our biggest winners of the week were Murray State and Vermont.

The Racers added arguably the biggest mid-major victory of the week. Resume-building wins are at a premium in mid-major conference play, but Murray State was able to secure exactly that on the road against Belmont by taking down the Bruins by 22 points. It was a remarkably impressive performance and Murray State is firmly in the thick of the at-large conversation.

Vermont did not add a signature victory but dominated three straight opponents en route to a massive jump in efficiency rankings. The Catamounts beat Stony Brook (home), UMBC (away) and NJIT (away) by an average of 22 points. Vermont has a .833 winning percentage in conference play since John Becker took over in 2012.

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

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25. Princeton Tigers (14-3)

Princeton is riding one of the longest winning streaks in the country. The Tigers have won nine straight and have emerged as the clear favorite to win the Ivy League. Head coach Mitch Henderson is guiding a team that ranks in the top 30 nationally in both 2-point and 3-point percentages. They also limit turnovers. Jaelin Llewellyn is a star to watch.

24. Hofstra Pride (11-7)

Hofstra started this season extremely slow, with four losses in its first five games (all on the road). Head coach Speedy Claxton has led the team to 10 wins over its last 13 and is excelling in taking care of the little things. The Pride rank seventh nationally in free-throw percentage and are limiting turnovers at the 10th-best rate. Oregon transfer Aaron Estrada has put together a very strong season.

23. Liberty Flames (13-6)

Liberty entered this season with an .844 winning percentage in ASUN play since joining the conference in 2019. Through the first couple of weeks of this year’s conference play, much of the same is taking place. The Flames are 4-0 in the ASUN and appear poised to win their third consecutive automatic bid from the league. Darius McGhee might be undersized but he is as deadly of a scorer as there is in all of college basketball. McGhee is someone who high-majors will want to avoid in the NCAA Tournament.

22. Furman Paladins (13-7)

Furman is one of the most dangerous teams in the SoCon as a result of elite 3-point shooting. The Paladins are unafraid of letting it fly from three (fifth-highest attempt rate) and they are connecting on 38.2 percent of those looks (16th-best nationally). They move the ball exceptionally well and feature the offensive firepower to contend for the conference title. The three-headed monster of Jalen Slawson, Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter leads the way.

21. Santa Clara Broncos (11-6)

Santa Clara appears to have escaped its midseason rut over the past month. The Broncos have put their stretch of five losses in seven games behind them. While they did lose by 32 in their most recent game, not many teams are up to the standard of competing with Gonzaga right now. Santa Clara won the four games prior to that defeat. There’s no denying how much better the Broncos are with Josip Vrankic back in the lineup; they went 4-4 without him and are 7-2 with him.

20. Missouri State Bears (13-6)

Missouri State got off to a bit of a rough start this season but has turned it around over the last month. The Bears have won 10 of their last 12 games, including consecutive blowout victories during this past week. They took down Valparaiso by 17 on the road before returning home and blowing out Illinois State by 25. Missouri State holds a top 30 offense by adjusted efficiency measures thanks in large part to some elite 3-point shooting. Ja’Monta Black (47-for-119; 39.5 percent), Isiaih Mosley (39-for-91; 42.9 percent) and Jaylen Minnett (39-for-91; 42.9 percent) are all snipers.

19. Towson Tigers (13-5)

Towson is arguably the most improved team in the country relative to preseason expectations. The Tigers have risen 153 spots on KenPom since the preseason and are currently enjoying a stretch of 10 wins in 12 games. They have not reached the NCAA Tournament since the 1990-91 season, but are the favorite to win the CAA. Bradley transfer Terry Nolan has found a home with Towson and he is putting up strong numbers.

18. Wagner Seahawks (10-2)

Wagner has not played the most rigorous schedule to date (320th on KenPom) but its results are unquestionable. The Seahawks are 10-2 with their lone losses coming on the road to Seton Hall and Penn State. They have won seven consecutive games and their road win over VCU in the second game of the season is aging well. They are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country (348th in percentage) but they know it (352nd in attempt rate). Alex Morales leads the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game.

17. Toledo Rockets (14-4)

Toledo is the winner of five straight games with three of them coming away from home. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk is leading a group that takes care of possessions, can splash from three, and handles its business at the free-throw line. The Rockets are already 6-1 in MAC play and set to contend for the conference title. Sophomore guard Ryan Rollins is a legitimate MAC Player of the Year contender. He and Mark Sears (Ohio) have taken two of the biggest year-over-year leaps in the country. Those two will meet on Friday night in Athens for a massive game.

16. Grand Canyon Antelopes (14-2)

Grand Canyon has played the sixth-easiest schedule in the country, per KenPom, but that doesn’t take away from its impressive 14-2 record. The Antelopes have climbed all the way into the top 100 in adjusted efficiency margin and already boast an elite win over San Francisco. Bryce Drew’s team is holding teams to the eighth-lowest effective field goal percentage in the country and secured the third-most offensive rebounds. Jovan Blacksher leads the team in points and assists.

15. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (15-4)

South Dakota State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams in the country, and not just among mid-majors. They rank first nationwide in 3-point percentage (43.1 percent) and third in effective field goal percentage. The Jackrabbits’ defense remains a major weakness, but they are finishing possessions on the defensive glass and limiting free-throw attempts. South Dakota State’s defense has been improved during its current six-game winning streak.

14. Oakland Grizzlies (13-4)

Three of Oakland’s four losses this season are against KenPom top-50 opponents. While the Grizzlies might not own any “elite” wins, they have not suffered many head-scratching losses either. Wins over Toledo and Vermont have aged rather well. Additionally, they have leaped out to a 7-0 start in the Horizon League. They look like the clear favorite to win the league thanks to the superb duo of Jamal Cain and Jalen Moore. Six of Oakland’s next eight scheduled games are set to be on the road.

13. New Mexico State Aggies (15-2)

It appears as though New Mexico State’s one-year break from being atop the WAC standings was not meant to last. The Aggies are right back to their dominant ways this season as they have leaped out to a 4-0 record in conference play. Nonconference wins over Davidson and Washington State are quite solid as well. NMSU is one of the few teams in the country to rank in the top 35 nationally in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage. Transfer addition Teddy Allen is putting together a strong season.

12. Vermont Catamounts (12-4)

Vermont has found its rhythm over the past month while blossoming into one of the top mid-majors for yet another season. The Catamounts have won six consecutive games and they are making it look easy. UVM’s average margin of victory during this stretch has been 15.8 points and they have risen over 35 spots on KenPom. John Becker is about as consistent as they come on the sidelines and the Catamounts are the America East favorite again. Vermont is an upperclassmen-laden team with Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu leading the way.

11. Chattanooga Mocs (14-4)

Chattanooga is one of the more well-rounded offensive teams in the country. The Mocs rank 33rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency behind top 100 ratings in effective field goal percentage, turnover rate, offensive rebounding rate, 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. Malachi Smith is one of the best guards nationwide and is someone who high-majors will want to avoid in March. A road loss to Western Carolina was a head-scratcher but the Mocs remain the SoCon favorite.

10. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (15-3)

Louisiana Tech entered this season with high expectations and has leaped out to a 15-3 record. Yet, the Bulldogs have not received a ton of national attention. They are simply rock-solid across the board and are one of the top contenders in the CUSA. La Tech is already 6-0 in conference play with three road victories. Kenneth Lofton is one of the best players in the country.

9. North Texas Mean Green (11-4)

North Texas has won nine of its last ten games and is steadily rising up the national rankings. A loss to UAB briefly dropped the Mean Green a few spots in these rankings, but they responded with road wins over Marshall and Western Kentucky. They are one of the top defensive teams in these rankings thanks in large part to elite perimeter defense. UNT is holding opponents to the 15th-lowest 3-point percentage and 17th-lowest 3-point attempt rate. Tylor Perry is shooting 29-for-68 (42.6 percent) from three.

8. UAB Blazers (15-4)

UAB is the highest-rated CUSA by quality metrics and has been steadily rising throughout the year. A recent road loss to Rice set them back slightly, but they bounced back at home against FIU and Florida Atlantic. A critical stretch of conference play approaches as the Blazers will face Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky in upcoming road games. Jordan Walker is leading the team with his 51-for-122 (41.8 percent) 3-point shooting.

7. Iona Gaels (15-3)

Iona needed overtime against Monmouth on the road during this past week but it was able to get the job done. Head coach Rick Pitino’s group is still undefeated in conference play while holding a 15-3 (7-0) record. The Gaels’ No. 75 overall ranking on KenPom is the highest since 2012. They aren’t quite an at-large contender but will be a team that high-majors will want to avoid in March. The Gaels are already 8-3 away from home.

6. Ohio Bobcats (14-2)

Ohio finally put forth a much-needed victory this past week in a 23-point road win over Miami-OH. The Bobcats already boasted a strong resume but needed that kind of high-quality performance to bolster their metrics. They are 14-2 (5-0 MAC) this season and have a good chance to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. Mark Sears is as good as they come in the sophomore class, and Ben Roderick appears to be rediscovering his range a bit. A massive home game against Toledo looms.

5. Belmont Bruins (14-4)

Belmont’s home loss to Murray State this past week was its first in over a month. The Bruins still boast strong quality metrics than they ever have in recent memory and there is a decent chance at a two-bid OVC as a result. The Bruins responded to the loss with a 16-point road win over SIUE. Head coach Casey Alexander’s team is scheduled to play five of its next six games on the road.

4. Saint Mary’s Gaels (13-4)

Saint Mary’s remains entrenched near the top of these rankings with a strong record and no bad losses. The Gaels’ only defeats to date have come at the hands of teams ranked in the KenPom top 40, including a road loss to BYU this past week. Head coach Randy Bennett is once again guiding a strong defensive team with NCAA Tournament potential. SMC is one of four WCC teams hoping to reach the Big Dance.

3. San Francisco Dons (15-3)

San Francisco is another WCC team set to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth (Gonzaga and BYU are ineligible for this poll). The Dons feature a strong defense and one of the best players in the country in Jamaree Bouyea. They rank in the top 40 nationally in offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage. A huge road bout with Gonzaga approaches on the eve of this posting, and an upset victory would do wonders for their postseason resume. In total, four of USF’s next five games are against KenPom top-90 teams.

2. Murray State Racers (15-2)

Murray State just keeps rolling. The Racers added a statement road win over this past week when it took down Belmont. Not only did Murray State add a resume-building victory to its resume, but it also announced that it might be the top team in the OVC. Tevin Brown has taken his game to a whole new level this season and it’s leading to great results. The Racers have won 12 of their last 13 games – including victories over Memphis, Chattanooga, and Belmont – with the lone loss coming at Auburn. This team is legit.

1. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (14-2)

Loyola Chicago has experienced some lumps as of late. The Ramblers needed three combined overtimes to beat Bradley and Valparaiso at home before narrowly defeating Indiana State on the road. While they did not lose any of those games, they played with fire a bit too much. Head coach Drew Valentine’s team then responded with a 29-point road win over Evansville. The Ramblers are 14-2 (5-0 MVC) and haven’t lost since November.

Header image courtesy of Murray State Athletics.



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