Mids go hunting for at-large bids

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In 1977, Catholic University basketball coach Jack Kvancz was asked to summarize his team’s back-and-forth game against Howard. He responded with a term that has become ever-lasting. 

“For a game between two mid-majors, or whatever you’d call us,” he said, “it had everything you could ask for.” 

While, Catholic, which played in the 1944 NCAA Tournament is no longer relevant, “mid-major” has been part of the college basketball lexicon for four decades now. 

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It’s also the subject of much debate. 

Schools like Creighton and Wichita State have switched conferences and left the label behind. Gonzaga, with its 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament bids and high-major basketball budget, has long been considered a national power. 

As another college basketball season begins, much of the attention was focused on Tuesday’s top-four showdowns at Madison Square Garden. However, let’s look at four mid-major schools that could make noise in this season’s NCAA tournament come March. We’re excluding the Power 6 as well as the American Athletic Conference, Atlantic 10, Mountain West and Gonzaga. 

Harvard: The Crimson returns all five starters, led by senior Bruce Aiken (22 points per game last year) from a team that just missed the tournament. 

Harvard is Top 80 in both offense and defense, per KenPom.com, and if Tommy Amaker’s team can cut down on turnovers, it will score a lot. According to Pomeroy’s early numbers, the Crimson could be favored in 26 of their 27 games. 

New Mexico State: The Aggies missed multiple chances to knock off Auburn in the closing seconds of their first-round tournament game in March. The Tigers went on to make the Final Four. 

Terrell Brown, AJ Harris and Ivan Aurrecoechea all return for a team that has won 28 games in each of the past three seasons. We’ll find out a lot about the Aggies when they take on Arizona in Tucson on Nov. 17. 

Look for New Mexico State to lose three or fewer regular-season games and snag a single-digit seed in March. 

East Tennessee State: The Buccaneers were 24-10 last season but were overshadowed in the Southern Conference by Wofford and UNC Greensboro, both of whom qualified for the NCAA Tournament. 

Coach Steve Forbes has won at least 24 games in each of his four seasons at East Tennessee State, and returns his top six scorers from a year ago. 

Senior Tray Boyd III, who led the team with 12.2 points per game while coming off the bench, will likely have an even bigger role. He leads an experienced group that includes two other seniors and three juniors. 

Saint Mary’s: Although Mark Few has reloaded at Gonzaga, another West Coast Conference title is no gimme. 

The Gaels, who might be the best college basketball team in California, have an all-America candidate in senior guard Jordan Ford, 6-foot-8 forward Malik Fitts, a 15-points-per-game scorer last season, and 7-foot-3 Aaron Menzies, a transfer from Seattle. 

And coach Randy Bennett has addressed one of the program’s problems in the past: the schedule. Saint Mary’s, which opened against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Tuesday, also faces Utah State, Dayton, California, Arizona State and Nevada before Jan. 1. 

Here are this week’s picks:

Wednesday

Florida State -2 at Pittsburgh: The Panthers improved from eight wins in 2017-18 to 14 in Jeff Capel’s first season as head coach last year. Freshman Xavier Johnson is a potential breakout candidate for Pitt, which has the nation’s No. 70 defense, according to KenPom. 

The Seminoles, who were one of the Panthers’ two ACC victims a season ago, lost forward Mfiondu Kabengele to the NBA. PITTSBURGH

Friday

Illinois -6 at Grand Canyon: High hopes went south for the Antelopes, who were no match for New Mexico State in the WAC last season. 

Head coach Dan Majerle added two assistants including former UNLV coach Marvin Menzies and eight players this season. But there’s early uncertainty about the eligibility status of Grand Canyon’s two best players, junior transfer Jaylen Fisher and senior wing Oscar Frayer. 

While Majerle’s defense will be a team strength, Illinois boast a top-20 offense in adjusted efficiency. ILLINOIS

Saturday 

San Diego State at BYU -7: The Aztecs have made the NCAA Tournament just once since riding a top-five defense to a second-round meeting with Duke in 2015. 

But the arrival of former Washington State guard Malachi Flynn has juiced the hopes of the San Diego State faithful. 

Head coach Brian Dutcher needs work to return to the old Aztecs’ style of defense, but his team catches the Cougars without star Yoeli Childs, who was suspended for the first nine games. SAN DIEGO STATE 

Kansas State (-7) at UNLV: UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger during the offseason managed to coax five players out of the transfer window. Among those was 6-foot-2 guard Amauri Hardy, who averaged better than 13 points per game last year. 

The Wildcats will miss the inside presence of Dean Wade from last season’s team that shared the Big 12 regular-season crown but flamed out against UC Irvine in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Bruce Weber might take some time to find his best rotation. UNLV 

 

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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