After a thunderous win over Belmont in its season opener, Ohio surges up the Heat Check CBB mid-major Top 25 rankings.
The 2021-22 college basketball season is here. Finally. The months of waiting are over and we are officially two days into the new campaign. While the sample size of performances is admittedly very small, we promised weekly updates to our mid-major Top 25 throughout this season. Andy Dieckhoff and I (Lukas Harkins) do not back out on promises, and certainly not in the first week!
Due to the minimal number of games played to this point, there were not many changes in the rankings compared to our preseason edition. Additionally, the blurbs of “returning” teams remain mostly the same, with the updated words including comments on their first game or two of the new campaign. As more results and performances come in, we will have entirely new writeups for each team next Thursday.
The biggest early “winner” of our mid-major rankings was Ohio. We were already high on the Bobcats due to their returning core and breakout star Mark Sears, but they were very impressive in a road victory over Belmont. They are very quickly showing potential to be a top-10 mid-major group in the country. Chattanooga also impressed as the SoCon’s representative took down a promising WCC team in Loyola Marymount. Former SoCon program Davidson soared up the ranks as well.
Now, without any further ado, let’s dive into the Week 1 edition of our mid-major Top 25.
25. Chattanooga Mocs
Chattanooga is one of the preseason favorites to win the Southern Conference this year. We were a bit hesitant to include them in our preseason mid-major Top 25, though the Mocs were just on the outside. With one game in the books, though, they have quickly cracked the ranks. Their 11-point road win over Loyola Marymount was particularly impressive. This strong start should carry into a great year for head coach Lamont Paris. David Jean-Baptiste led the team with 26 points while backcourt running mate Malachi Smith added 21 of his own. -Lukas Harkins
24. Iona Gaels
Rick Pitino is an outstanding coach. He also has plenty of talent at his disposal this season. As a result, there is certainly an argument to be made that Iona belongs much, much higher on this list. There are a lot of intriguing pieces in New Rochelle, and watching them all fit together should lead to a rise in the rankings. The Gaels started their season with a 12-point victory over a solid Appalachian State group. SMU transfer Tyson Jolly led the way with 19 points while Dylan van Eyck added 17 points and eight boards off the bench. -LH
23. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Kenneth Lofton Jr. had a fantastic first season for Louisiana Tech, nabbing the Conference USA Rookie of the Year award and a third-team all-league nod. The 6-7, 275-pound big man saw his stock skyrocket over the summer as he helped guide the U.S. national team to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup. Lofton was joined by forward Isaiah Crawford on the All-CUSA third team. Meanwhile, a backcourt featuring Amorie Archibald and Cobe Williams gets a boost from Incarnate Word transfer Keaston Willis, who scored 19.0 points per game last year for the Cardinals. Louisiana Tech will be a major contender for the CUSA crown.
Alas, the Bulldogs’ quest for an at-large bid experienced a rocky start. La Tech’s season opener against Alabama was a huge resume-building opportunity but the team stumbled en route to a 29-point loss against the very talented Crimson Tide. They will look to get back on track against Jackson State next. –Andy Dieckhoff
22. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Head coach Joe Pasternack has done an incredible job at UC Santa Barbara during his four-year tenure. The Gauchos are 88-34 (44-20 Big West) under his leadership and reached the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed last season. Jaquori McLaughlin is a star to replace but UCSB returns plenty of solid guards. Incoming freshman Ajay Mitchell could emerge as a big-time contributor. More than anything else, though, forward Amadou Sow is a Big West Player of the Year contender. The Gauchos should be very good again behind solid returners and the transfer addition of Calvin Wishart.
UCSB jumpstarted its season with a dominant victory over San Francisco State. This was not a surprise, but it was a quality opening performance. Josh Pierre-Louis led the way with 25 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. -Lukas Harkins
21. Saint Louis Billikens
With a heavy heart, we had to drop the Billikens in these rankings just before release following news that star Javonte Perkins will miss the 2021-22 season with a torn ACL. All is not lost, though. Oakland transfer Rashad Williams handled a big share of the scoring load for Greg Kampe‘s team and could do the same for Travis Ford. Gibson Jimerson displayed a nice shooting stroke as a freshman, and 6-3 Fred Thatch is one of the country’s best rebounders for his size. Former Oregon big man Francis Okoro should also have a big impact in his first season for SLU, but the ceiling on this team sadly fell when Perkins did.
The Billikens showed no mercy in their opening two games of the season. They took down Central Arkansas by 35 on the opening night of the season and defeated Harris Stowe the next day by 73. Jimerson tallied 38 points on 6-for-11 from three over the two games. -AD
20. Boise State Broncos
Boise State fits the mold of a potential dark horse behind three strong contenders for the Mountain West title this year. The Broncos lost Derrick Alston and RayJ Dennis this offseason but are set to start five seniors, including Marcus Shaver and Abu Kigab. Head coach Leon Rice deploys a 3-point-oriented system and the Broncos will need to connect at a high rate to compete at the top of the league.
Boise State did not shoot the ball well from distance (4-for-20; 20 percent) at all in its season opener but dominated the paint en route to a 20-point win over Utah Valley. Devonaire Doutrive poisted 18 points to lead the team in scoring. Naje Smith scored 15 on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting. -LH
19. Davidson Wildcats
Davidson did not crack our preseason rankings but is already making that potentially look foolish. Michigan State transfer Foster Loyer was tremendous in his first game with the program. He dropped 27 points to lead the Wildcats in a 22-point thumping of a decent Delaware team. Loyer shot 6-for-6 rom three on the night as the leading contributor to Davidson’s 60.9 percent shooting from deep as a team. Head coach Bob McKillop is an outstanding offensive mind and has lots of talented weapons at his disposal. If the season opener is any indication, Loyer might be able to outperform being the preseason X-factor for this team and emerge as a star. -LH
18. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Run, Jackrabbit, run! Eric Henderson is doing just that, running it back with a roster that won the Summit League last season. The returning class includes former league POY Douglas Wilson, as well as 6-6 point guard and last year’s leading scorer, Baylor Scheierman. Throw in two more lights-out shooters in Noah Freidel and Alex Arians, add some broth, a potato and 6-8 Matt Dentlinger — and baby, you’ve got a stew going. SDSU fell prey to the late run by Oral Roberts, but expect them to be back in the Big Dance this season. South Dakota State returns five double-figure scorers who now have a chip on their shoulders.
The Jackrabbits’ quest got off to a strong start with a blowout of Bradley on opening night. They leapt out to a 21-point lead by halftime and never looked back. Wilson led the way with 20 points while Scheierman posted a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds. -AD
17. San Francisco Dons
It seems like a lifetime ago that Todd Golden and the Dons were celebrating an upset win over Virginia. That may be due to the fact that San Francisco went 4-9 in WCC play and 11-14 overall, making the 2020-21 campaign one to forget. The good news is that the dynamic duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz is back. Along with returners like Dmitry Ryuny and Josh Kunen, the Dons snagged a strong corps of transfers. Patrick Tape arrives from Duke via Columbia, along with fellow former Lion Gabe Stefanini, who was last seen scoring 13.8 per game in 2018-19 before an injury and a canceled season shelved him the past two years.
The Dons got off to a fast start with an offensive explosiion in a 34-point win over LIU to begin their season. The aforementioned star backcourt of Bouyea and Shabazz combined for 30 points. Julian Rishwain hit four 3-pointers off the bench. -AD
16. Liberty Flames
Liberty has won the ASUN regular-season and conference tournament titles in each of the past three seasons. Head coach Ritchie McKay’s run of success deserves recognition, and the Flames are the league’s favorite again this time around. High-scoring point guard Darius McGhee is perhaps the frontrunner to win ASUN Player of the Year, while Blake Preston is back to hold down the frontcourt. Liberty has finished top-100 in effective field-goal percentage in each of Coach McKay’s six seasons at the helm — the team should remain very efficient offensively.
Liberty is yet to play a game this season. -LH
15. Belmont Bruins
Casey Alexander has done a tremendous job following in the footsteps of Rick Byrd over his first three years as head coach of Belmont. While the Bruins missed the NCAA Tournament last season, they notched a 26-4 overall record and are hungry to be elite this year. Do-it-all guard Grayson Murphy and offensive hub Nick Muszynski form as good of a duo as there is in the country. There are also formidable supporting cast pieces around them, many of whom contribute to the stellar offense, which ranked ninth nationally in effective field-goal percentage last season. Watch for rising sophomore JaCobi Wood to take a leap and raise Belmont’s ceiling.
Belmont dropped its season opener to Ohio in what was one of the best mid-major matchups of the early season. The Bruins could not get enough stops as three different Bobcats scored at least 19 points on the night. Ben Sheppard led Belmont with 25 points. This is still a very good team; losing on the road to a fellow top mid-major is not too much of a concern even if it was disappointing. -LH
14. Dayton Flyers
With VCU and Saint Louis both suffering critical offseason injuries, Dayton has ever-so-quietly worked its way up the preseason Atlantic 10 rankings. The Flyers have finished in the KenPom top-100 in 13 of the last 14 seasons and should do so again this year. Replacing Jalen Crutcher will be a challenge but there is still a lot to like with this roster. Incoming transfers Kobe Elvis (DePaul) and Toumani Camara (Georgia) should instantly fill starting roles. Camara could be a First Team All-Conference player. Additionally, four-star freshman DaRon Holmes should pair nicely with Mustapha Amzil to form a dynamic frontcourt duo.
Dayton seemed to struggle a bit with Illinois Chicago in its opener before absolutely turning on the jets down the finish. The Flyers outscored their opposition by 17 points over the final 10 minutes. Georgia transfer Toumani Camara led a balanced offensive attack with 15 points and 10 rebounds. -LH
13. Saint Mary’s Gaels
This might not be the most talented team that Randy Bennett has had in Moraga, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Tommy Kuhse is back again to run the show in the backcourt, and Logan Johnson carries some potential for a star turn after making a huge jump as a junior. Matthias Tass and Dan Fotu are back in the frontcourt, too, so there is a ton of continuity in the Gaels’ roster. Before last year’s shortened season, Saint Mary’s had won at least 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons. With the steady hand of Bennett back at the helm of an experienced squad, the Gaels look likely to start a new streak in 2021-22.
Saint Mary’s glided to a 19-point win in its season-opener against Prairie View A&M. They jumped out to an early lead in the first half, and started the second half strong as well. Alex Ducas was the lead man with 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting from three. -AD
12. Buffalo Bulls
Buffalo finished second in the MAC last season and just one win shy of the NCAA Tournament. With the vast majority of their rotation returning for this campaign, the Bulls are the favorite to win the conference. Few mid-major triumvirates are as talented as Ronaldo Segu, Jeenathan Williams and Josh Mballa. All three are First Team All-Conference candidates this season and will guide head coach Jim Whitesell’s roster. Incoming transfers Maceo Jack and Curtis Jones will help increase the team’s spacing as quality 3-point shooters.
Buffalo is the highest-rated team in these rankings with a loss. Hanging tough against a top-5 team in the country in Michigan, though, shouldn’t result in a major punishment. The Bulls competed and Williams proved why he is such a valuable scoring threat. He scored 32 in the 12-point loss to the Wolverines. -LH
11. Ohio Bobcats
Ohio caught fire down the stretch last season. The Bobcats won six of their last seven regular-season games, took the MAC Tournament crown and then upset Virginia in the first round of the Big Dance. Replacing point guard Jason Preston will be the biggest challenge for head coach Jeff Boals. Thankfully, rising sophomore Mark Sears seems ready to take the reins. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Dwight Wilson, Ben Vander Plas, Ben Roderick and Lunden McDay are all returning to Athens after scoring averages in double figures last year. This should be an elite offense again.
That elite offense was on full display in Ohio’s opener. The Bobcats hung 92 points on Belmont (1.23 points per possession) behind elite 3-point shooting. They shot 16-of-37 from beyond the arc with seven different players hitting at least one. Sears led the way with 27 points while Vander Plas posted a well-rounded stat-line of 19 points, six rebounds, and seven assists. –LH
10. Richmond Spiders
With fellow A10 hopefuls VCU and Saint Louis decimated by injuries to key contributors — and with the Spiders getting back an injured player of their own — the door is open for Richmond this year. While they may not be the class of the conference (more on their top competitor below), Chris Mooney‘s team has a good chance to earn a bid. Richmond has a wealth of experience returning in four of last year’s starting five, with Nick Sherod on the mend and sliding into Blake Francis‘ old spot. While Richmond looks to steal a bid, guard Jacob Gilyard needs just 28 more steals of his own this season to set the NCAA’s all-time career record.
Gilyard certainly got off to a fast start in that department with seven swipes against North Carolina Central. That moves his “Accolade Tracker” down to 21 steals to go. The Spiders won their opener by 10 points. Grant Golden was the top scorer with 19. -AD
9. Nevada Wolf Pack
Good luck finding many better starting backcourts in the country than Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge. Both are All-MWC-caliber guards and will lead the way for head coach Steve Alford this year. Nevada was a middle-of-the-pack (get it?) team in the Mountain West last season but now looks ready to compete for the conference title. All five starters return, plus the additions of AJ Braham (Robert Morris) and Will Baker (Texas) should help bolster a frontcourt that needs improvement. This guard-oriented group thrives in transition and will hopefully force more turnovers this year (239th in defensive turnover rate) to take further advantage.
Nevada took down Eastern Washington by 15 in its opener behind the backcourt of Sherfield and Cambridge combining for 39 points. The Wolf Pack started a pair of seven-footers in the game with Baker and Warren Washington. Both made their impacts with 13 and 15 points, respectively. Bramah was excellent off the bench, nearly posting a double-double with 17 points and nine boards. –LH
8. Drake Bulldogs
Roman Penn is one of the most important players in the entire country. Prior to him going down with an injury near the end of last season, Drake held a 20-2 record. The Bulldogs went just 4-3 from that point forward. While head coach Darian DeVries will need to replace Joseph Yesufu this season, bringing back a healthy Penn and the supporting cast around him sets the stage for another great year. D.J. Wilkins, Tremell Murphy and a healthy Tank Hemphill are all returning as double-digit scorers while Garrett Sturtz will reprise his glue-guy role. Four-star wing Tucker DeVries should be a valuable reserve right away; he will hopefully replicate some of the 3-point shooting ability that Yesufu brought as a sixth man.
Drake secured a 26-point win over Coe on the opening night of the season. Murphy led the way with 14 points and eight rebounds, while the freshman DeVries was impressive. He scored 14 and added six rebounds and two blocks off the bench. -LH
7. UAB Blazers
Andy Kennedy already had a good team returning, but after grabbing an impressive transfer class with high upside, the Blazers are our early pick to win the C-USA. Tavin Lovan is an underheralded star in the league, and Michael Ertel could be a deep threat if he regains the touch he showed before transferring in last year. Quan Jackson and Trey Jemison key the team’s major strength: defense. The additions of Jordan Walker (Tulane), KJ Buffen (Ole Miss), Josh LeBlanc Sr. (LSU) and Tyreke Locure (South Alabama) highlight the transfer class. This team is deep.
The Blazers put on an offensive show in their season-opener, dropping 102 points on UNC Asheville. They played with great tempo offensively, took care of the ball, and spread the wealth. Five players cracked double figures on the night. Quan Jackson and Jordan Walker both scored 19. -AD
6. San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs are not the trendy pick to win the Mountain West this year, and that’s fine. The Aztecs have been the most solid program over the past two seasons, though, despite a good amount of roster overhaul. This year, the annual makeover is highlighted by the addition of Cal transfer Matt Bradley. A 6-4 guard built like a linebacker, Bradley will handle the offensive load for SDSU and should be a contender for the league’s top postseason honors. Nathan Mensah is a defensive maven in the post, and returning guards Trey Pulliam, Adam Seiko and Lamont Butler Jr. all look promising. Duquesne transfer Chad Baker-Mazer could also turn into a key piece for Brian Dutcher.
The Aztecs picked up a sneaky-good win to start their season by taking down UC Riverside by 13. Their strong defense was on display as they limited the Highlanders to just 0.78 points per possession. Bradley was the top man offensively for SDSU, scoring 23 in the win. -AD
5. Colorado State Rams
Preseason hype is higher than it has been in some time as Niko Medved and the Rams come into the year receiving votes in the national polls. That’s thanks to a starring duo of David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, both of whom will factor into the Mountain West POY race. Roddy is a crafty guard in the body of a bruising forward, while Stevens serves as the team’s floor general and late-game killer. Adam Thistlewood and Kendle Moore provide the 3s and the D on the wings, while big man James Moors oozes potential. The addition of D-2 All-American Chandler Jacobs could put CSU over the top and into the NCAA Tournament field.
The Rams started their season with a bang in a blowout win over last season’s Cinderella in Oral Roberts. They dropped 109 points in the 29-point victory, turning the ball over on only 6.6 percent of possessions. John Tonje was the top man with 31 points while three other Rams reached double figures. -AD
4. Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Porter Moser is now at Oklahoma. Cameron Krutwig has graduated. Yet, Loyola Chicago looks poised for another strong year. Promoted assistant Drew Valentine is now the top man and he has plenty of returning talent. Most notably, Lucas Williamson is one of the nation’s top defenders and also brings a solid offensive game to the floor. Tate Hall, Aher Uguak and Keith Clemons also used their “free year” of eligibility due to COVID-19 to return this year. Junior point guard Braden Norris is a dark horse to potentially emerge as a go-to scorer. Additionally, Valentine added a couple of newcomers to the frontcourt in Chris Knight (Dartmouth) and Ryan Schwieger (Princeton). Jacob Hutson could be a breakout sophomore.
The “Valentine Era” got off to a strong start this week with Loyola Chicago dismantling Coppin State by 58 points. The Ramblers surrendered just 0.58 (!) points per possession on the night. Marquise Kennedy filled the stat sheet with 8 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals. In total, six Ramblers scored in double-figures. This included freshman forward Saint Thomas. -LH
3. BYU Cougars
Mark Pope has notched back-to-back KenPom top-20 finishes since taking over at BYU, something that had not been done at the program since Jimmer Fredette graced the court. While not nearly as flashy as “Jimmer Range,” there is already a star guard in town: Alex Barcello. The living embodiment of scoring efficiency, Barcello has shot 106-for-220 (.482) from three over his two seasons in Provo. He also led the team in assists last year. He has a couple of new running mates this year with Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight (LSU/SJSU), but the core around him is otherwise comprised of returners. Caleb Lohner is a potential breakout sophomore to watch as well.
BYU took down Horizon League favorite Cleveland State by 10 in its season opener. Unsurprisingly, Barcello led the way with 24 points. He made his mark at the free-throw line, where he shot 13-for-13 on the night. Spencer Johnson was the lone other Cougar to reach double-figures in scoring. -LH
2. Saint Bonaventure Bonnies
Last season ended somewhat unceremoniously for the Bonnies, as LSU walloped them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In turn, Mark Schmidt retained the services of all of his main stars, including potential league POY Kyle Lofton and potential DPOY Osun Osunniyi. Guards Jaren Holmes, Jalen Adaway and Dominick Welch are all back, too. To help with depth, the Bonnies added former Pitt big man Karim Coulibaly for size and JUCO All-American Linton Brown for shooting. Expect them to be a mainstay in the national Top 25 and a potential Sweet 16 team.
There was not much to complain about from St. Bonaventure’s opening game, either. The Bonnies took down Siena by 28 points, thanks in large part to a dominant finish; they outscored the Saints by 19 over the final 10 minutes. Four Bonnies reached double figures as scorers. Lofton posted 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. -AD
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga is the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, and the early favorite to win the national title. While head coach Mark Few lost three starters this offseason, he is bringing back two proven stars in Drew Timme (NPOY frontrunner) and Andrew Nembhard. Anton Watson, Julian Strawther, and Dominick Harris are also returning. The Bulldogs also were not shy about reloading: Rasir Bolton (Iowa State) is a top-notch transfer addition and their 2021 recruiting class comes in at No. 3 nationally. Chet Holmgren is the top-rated freshman in the country, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman are both top-35 guards, and Kaden Perry is a four-star big man. Gonzaga is loaded. Again.
Gonzaga quickly jumped out to a monster 23-4 lead in its opener against Dixie State and never looked back. The Bulldogs won by 34. Star freshman Chet Holmgren stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks. Breakout sophomore Julian Strawther led the team in scoring with 17. –LH
Header image courtesy of Ohio Athletics.