The Mountain West has a pair of surprising teams in Utah State and Wyoming climbing up the mid-major Top 25 college basketball rankings.
The opening month of the 2021-22 college basketball season flew by. Is it really already December? Teams across the country have begun to compile their early-season resumes and preseason expectations are beginning to be weeded out of rankings. As always, our mid-major Top 25 for this week was compiled by Lukas Harkins and Andy Dieckhoff. The pair of us were also responsible for the blurbs written below.
The most notable team of the week was Wyoming. The Cowboys might lack a signature win, but they continued their undefeated start to the season. They were not picked to be one of the top teams in the Mountain West in the preseason but are showing out thus far. Head coach Jeff Linder has already guided his team to a 70-spot increase on KenPom since the preseason; that is the 3rd-biggest jump in the country.
Sticking with the Mountain West, Utah State has also been impressive. The Justin Bean-led Aggies have won six straight games since dropping their season opener.
The MWC is far from the only conference that featured teams making moves in our rankings this week. So, without any more introduction, let’s dive into our Week 4 edition of the mid-major Top 25!
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. Oakland Grizzlies (5-2)
Oakland has played one of the most rigorous nonconference schedules in the country to date, yet still holds a 5-2 record. The Grizzlies haven’t faced an opponent outside of the KenPom top 175 and their lone losses came in true road games to West Virginia and Alabama. While this group has been painfully bad from three (24.4 percent on the 101st-highest attempt rate), they are still loaded in the backcourt and well-coached. Former Marquette forward Jamal Cain has been one of the best down transfers in the country, averaging 22.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. He pairs nicely with point guard Jalen Moore to form a dynamic duo. -Lukas Harkins
24. Murray State Racers (6-1)
The Racers are looking to debunk the idea that the OVC is going to be a one-pony show. Tevin Brown and KJ Williams are combining for more than 36 points per game on the year, and Justice Hill has taken a big step forward in Year 2 at Murray State. The wins aren’t all that impressive just yet — victories over James Madison and Bellarmine are the best ones on the resume — but the team is making shots, grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers. That’s a solid blueprint for success. The competition gets much tougher after this week, though. Murray State faces big December tests against Memphis, Auburn and Chattanooga. -Andy Dieckhoff
23. Davidson Wildcats (5-2)
Sure, Davidson picked up losses to San Francisco and New Mexico State in the first 10 days of the season. Since then, though, Bob McKillop and the crew have reeled off four straight — including three away from home. Considering both losses also came outside of Belk Arena, a neutral-site win over East Carolina and a true road victory at Charlotte mostly cancel things out. The Wildcats are surging behind the efforts of standout junior Hyunjung Lee. They are the country’s third-best team from beyond the arc, knocking down a cool 43.7 percent in November. Lee leads that charge with 21 made 3-pointers, while Foster Loyer is shooting 53.1 percent. -AD
22. Buffalo Bulls (4-2)
Buffalo’s overall talent possibly warrants a higher ranking but its resume-to-date does not. The Bulls have only one victory over a KenPom top-220 opponent and also suffered a hard-fought loss to Stephen F. Austin. The Bulls’ defense forces turnovers at one of the lowest rates in the country and has generally had a hard time getting stops. Buffalo’s offense is excellent but it needs defensive improvements to regain some momentum. Tough road matchups with St. Bonaventure and Western Kentucky loom. -LH
21. Weber State Wildcats (6-0)
Weber State is yet to face a D-1 opponent at home; all five of their D-I matchups have either been at a neutral site or on the road. But that hasn’t stopped the Wildcats from leaping out to an undefeated start. They are also favored to win each of their next two games; might they remain undefeated heading into a road meeting with Washington State on Dec. 8? Possibly, and college hoops fans should circle that one on their calendar. Weber State’s offense has been particularly potent this season, posting the sixth-best effective field-goal percentage in the nation while pushing the tempo to the tune of only 15.5 seconds per possession (No. 28 nationally). Weber State’s offensive rebounding is severely lacking, though. -LH
20. Wyoming Cowboys (6-0)
Wyoming is one of just 14 remaining undefeated teams in the country. The Cowboys have also played the fifth-toughest schedule of that group. Head coach Jeff Linder’s team is one of the best in effective field-goal percentage differential with his offense is posting 58.0 effective field-goal percentage (10th nationally) compared to allowing just a 38.1-percent mark defensively (3rd nationally). Sophomores Graham Ike and Xavier DuSell both have star ability. The latter has found his rhythm from three recently, hitting 10-of-16 over his last two games. -LH
19. UC Irvine Anteaters (4-1)
Welp, it’s official: Irvine looks like the class of the Big West through the first few weeks of the season. Big man Collin Welp is the main reason why the team now has wins over top-100 teams in Boise State and Santa Clara. The senior has been a bit cold from the field, shooting a career-low 43.2 percent on 2-pointers, but he is also leading the team in assists with a career-high 2.8 per game. The Anteaters boast an elite defense that is allowing the ninth-lowest effective field-goal rate to opponents, and Welp leads a pack of determined rebounders who limit second chances. They have another couple big games against Fresno State, USC and Buffalo in December. -AD
18. Drake Bulldogs (3-3)
OK, so it’s safe to say the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t go too well for Drake. The Bulldogs took three losses in four days, the last of which hurts the worst. Defeats to Belmont and Alabama probably would not have precluded an at-large bid, but taking eighth place in the MTE after losing a slugfest with North Texas? That might have sealed Drake’s fate as an Arch-Madness-or-bust squad. That said, the talent on this roster is staggering — especially when considering just how good both freshman Tucker DeVries (10.7 points per game) and senior Garrett Sturtz (7.5 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) have been off the bench. Don’t write off this Drake team. -AD
17. Saint Louis Billikens (7-1)
A 16-point road loss to Memphis has not aged well for Saint Louis, but that is the lone blemish on their record thus far. The Billikens also added a pivotal overtime road win over Boise State earlier this week to move up a couple of spots in our rankings. Head coach Travis Ford’s team is dominating the offensive glass (15th in offensive rebounding percentage) and reaching the free-throw line at will. After ranking sub-200 – and often near-dead-last – in free-throw percentage over the first five years under Coach Ford, the Billikens are shooting 76.5 percent at the stripe so far this year. Gibson Jimerson is more aggressive this season and turning into a star. -LH
16. Chattanooga Mocs (6-1)
The stokers of the Chattanooga hype train must have taken a long holiday, because the Mocs picked up an unexpected first loss last Saturday against Pat Kelsey and Charleston. To make matters worse, UTC led by 14 in the second half of that game before the Cougars went on a 25-3 run. The Mocs nearly stole the win back, but alas. Chattanooga fell asleep for 10 minutes, and it cost them dearly. Still, the trio of Malachi Smith, David Jean-Baptiste and Silvio de Sousa is about as strong as any in mid-major hoops. Looking ahead past the team’s slow week upcoming, the Dec. 15 tilt with Belmont should be one of the top mid-major games of the month. -AD
15. Santa Clara Broncos (6-2)
Don’t lose faith on the Broncos just because they picked up a couple of losses to a couple good teams in Fresno State and UC Irvine. Santa Clara has been playing without senior big Josip Vrankic since Nov. 16 after he came down with a case of mononucleosis. The team is much more than just Vrankic, though. Fellow returners Jalen Williams and Keshawn Justice have been great for Herb Sendek, and the additions of PJ Pipes and Parker Braun have worked out very well so far. Once Vrankic returns to the fold, expect the Broncos to be right back in position to contend for third place in the WCC along with San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. -AD
14. UAB Blazers (6-2)
Andy Kennedy and UAB have been going quietly about their business so far, with only two losses by a combined five points in November. Otherwise, the Blazers sport a trio of decent wins over Morehead State, New Mexico and East Tennessee State. The formula for UAB’s success? Lots of defense. The Blazers are a top-five club in terms of forcing turnovers, and they defend 2-pointers about as well as anyone, thanks to Trey Jemison and KJ Buffen. The offense is coming along slowly but surely behind leading scorer Jordan Walker — but the Tulane transfer is shooting just 35.2 percent on shots inside the arc, compared to 46.5 percent from deep. -AD
13. Iona Gaels (7-2)
Iona got its revenge against Alabama after failing to put away the Crimson Tide in the NCAA Tournament last March, beating Bama 72-68 win on Thanksgiving. It was the first marquee regular-season win for Rick Pitino in New Rochelle, but the squad couldn’t finish all the meat on its plate, subsequently falling to both Belmont and Kansas. The Gaels got back to their winning ways on Wednesday, beating Marist on the road to open MAAC play. Quinn Slazinski had 20 points against the Red Foxes, while Tyson Jolly posted a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The nonconference season isn’t done, though; Iona still has Yale and Seton Hall to play. -AD
12. Belmont Bruins (5-3)
Belmont has only played two home games so far this season, winning both. Their three losses have come at the hands of Ohio (on the road), LSU (on the road), and Dayton (neutral site). They picked up wins over Furman, Drake, and Iona to help buoy their status in these rankings, though. Head coach Casey Alexander’s team has not quite lived up to preseason hype yet but is still excellent offensively and should roll through the OVC. Big man Nick Muszynski is on a tear right now. He has been named the KenPom Game MVP in four of Belmont’s last five games and is averaging 18.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. -LH
11. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (7-2)
There aren’t many more potent offenses than South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are a highly efficient offensive machine and the numbers back up the eye test; they rank 13th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Head coach Eric Henderson’s team is absolutely lighting it up from three to begin the year, connecting on 42.7 percent of their triples. Noah Freidel is the leader in this department as he has already buried 30 on the young season. Former Nebraska transfer has also been a sniper to begin the year, shooting 11-for-17 from deep while mostly coming off the bench. Freidel and Baylor Scheierman form one of the best duos in the country. -LH
10. Ohio Bobcats (5-2)
The Bobcats are undefeated, so long as you don’t count games against the SEC. That is obviously not how things work, but the larger point is that Ohio’s two losses are about as forgivable as they come. One frustrating wrinkle in the Bobcats’ analytical profile: they are one of the worst teams in the country at getting to the line (No. 352 free-throw rate), but they are great once they get there (76.1 percent). Big men Ben Vander Plas and Jason Carter combine to make one of the top mid-major frontcourt duos, and Mark Sears continues to impress at the point. The blossoming sophomore is angling dangerously close to a 20-percent turnover rate, though. -AD
9. Utah State Aggies (6-1)
Are we jumping on the Utah State bandwagon a tad early? Perhaps, but who doesn’t love Justin Bean and Co.? Bean is blossoming into an absolute stud this season. He was always a great rebounder and defender but has taken his scoring to a whole new level this season; Bean is posting 22.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. After shooting 19-for-77 from three over the first 92 games of his career, he is already 10-for-19 this season. The Aggies dropped their season-opener in a head-scratcher to UC Davis but have since looked worthy of a high ranking. They have rattled off six straight wins, including neutral-site victories over Richmond, New Mexico State, and Oklahoma. -LH
8. St. Bonaventure Bonnies (6-1)
Mark Schmidt‘s team had been playing with fire in the first few weeks of the season, surviving consecutive near-death experiences against Canisius, Boise State and Clemson. Well, they finally got burned against a Northern Iowa squad that is 0-4 against all other D-1 competition. The Bonnies are getting rebounds at an alarmingly low rate, currently ranking outside the top 250 in that category after finishing No. 38 last season for offensive rebound rate. The interior defense is a strength, with Osun Osunniyi rating as a top-20 shot-blocker nationally. There are also exceedingly few teams that play as carefully as St. Bonaventure does. -AD
7. Saint Mary’s Gaels (7-1)
Saint Mary’s has only played one game since the Maui Invitational, taking down UC Riverside in a 17-point victory. The Gaels now sit with an impressive 7-1 record that includes neutral-site wins over Notre Dame and Oregon. Head coach Randy Bennett deploys an excellent defensive unit that is limiting assists better than anyone in the country. The WCC will contend for more bids than it has received in recent memory, and Saint Mary’s should be among them. -LH
6. San Diego State Aztecs (5-2)
A rocky start to the season got rockier this week when SDSU announced that promising guard Lamont Butler will miss a month due to a fractured wrist. The budding young guard had broken into the starting lineup after the Aztecs’ loss to BYU and had been the team’s best 3-point shooter. Now, Brian Dutcher has to hope that Adam Seiko, Keith Dinwidde and/or Chad Baker-Mazara can step up to fill that void. Problem is, that trio is shooting under 25 percent from deep so far. The timing couldn’t be much worse, as San Diego State faces a reeling Michigan team on Saturday. It’s too soon to panic, but things are a bit dicey on the Mesa. -AD
5. San Francisco Dons (8-0)
San Francisco is rolling. The Dons have jumped out to an 8-0 start this season that includes three KenPom top-100 victories. This is a balanced unit capable of winning on offense or defense, plus they feature one of the nation’s top players. Jamaree Bouyea might not be a household name for most, but is absolutely deserving. The 6-2 guard is putting on a show to begin this season. Bouyea averages 17.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists on .515/.400/.792 shooting. He is one of four Dons scoring in double figures and will help keep USF in the at-large conversation. San Francisco is for real. -LH
4. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (6-2)
Loyola Chicago suffered back-to-back defeats to Michigan State and Auburn at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. These single-digit, neutral-site losses to Top 25 teams are not much cause for concern; the Ramblers are still one of the top mid-majors in the country. Lucas Williamson is arguably the best individual defender in the country and the Ramblers boast plenty of shooting on the other end. Head coach Drew Valentine’s team ranks fifth nationally in effective field-goal percentage. They are shooting 42.3 percent from three as a team; Braden Norris leads the team in total makes at 17-for-38 (44.7 percent). -LH
3. Colorado State Rams (8-0)
It may not be this week, it may not be next week, but believe me — the Rams are going to be in the national polls someday soon. Colorado State has picked up two more wins since we last checked in on them, including a closer-than-expected tussle with neighboring Northern Colorado and a 31-point laugher over Little Rock. Niko Medved is doing a great job deploying this roster — which is long on talent and short on ego — giving nine players at least 13 minutes per game. John Tonje, the Ram’s third-leading scorer, is in the midst of a breakout off the bench. Newcomers Chandler Jacobs and Jalen Lake are also contributing well from the pine. -AD
2. BYU Cougars (6-1)
BYU climbed all the way into the national top 15 thanks to its 6-0 start with wins over San Diego State, Oregon and Utah. However, an overtime loss to Utah Valley is likely to send the Cougars tumbling down those rankings, even if they did play without Gideon George. In terms of these mid-major rankings, head coach Mark Pope’s group still deserves the No. 2 spot. BYU has been impressive defensively and features one of the better leaders in the country in Alex Barcello. The concerns moving forward revolve around injuries. How will the Cougars recover after losing Gavin Baxter to an ACL tear? He is a huge loss as one of their primary big men; watch for Caleb Lohner to play more at the 5. -LH
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-1)
Let’s be honest: it’s going to take a lot to knock Gonzaga out of the top spot in our mid-major poll. A hard-fought loss to Duke in Las Vegas certainly isn’t going to be the thing to do it. Heck, if Purdue slips up against a dangerous Iowa offense Friday, the Zags could be back on top of the national polls by Monday. Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard received the lion’s share of the hype heading into the season, but Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton have both proven to be invaluable pieces in the early going. Strawther, in particular, has stepped up incredibly (14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds per game) after joining the starting lineup. -AD
Header image courtesy of Wyoming Athletics.