- ESPN studio anchor
- Writer, ESPN mid-major college basketball top 10
- 4-year member of the Ithaca men’s basketball team
Tell me you didn’t react. Tell me you didn’t spring off your loveseat or lounger. Tell me there’s no joy in watching a young man make the shot of his life — a group live out its wildest dreams. Tell me the mid-major madness is not real.
When David Jean-Baptiste hit the shot heard ’round Chattanooga on Monday it not only sent the Mocs to the NCAA tournament, it confirmed for the umpteenth thousand time, there is no month like March.
Tell me you can’t get behind Griff Aldrich, the former Division III player, turned Division III assistant, turned law student, turned practicing lawyer, turned oil and gas company executive, turned assistant again (at UMBC for the Retrievers’ historic 2018 NCAA tournament upset of Virginia, no less) turned head coach at Longwood University. The 47-year-old followed his hoop dream, galvanized a program and a fan base, and led the Lancers to the school’s first ever Big South Conference championship on Sunday, and with it, a trip to The Big Dance.
The tickets-punched landscape is filled with incredible stories and from Newark, Delaware to Murray, Kentucky to Atlanta, Georgia to Hamilton, New York, Dayton, Ohio to Smithfield, Rhode Island and assorted colleges and universities in between, those stories are being shared. As of Thursday, 12 tickets to the NCAA tournament have been punched with the lion’s share still to come.
Of course the flip side of that reality is the end of the road for more than 250 programs that won’t be participating in postseason play. So with that in mind, we elected to celebrate the game’s top players, from the “Power 25” conferences (every mid-major conference), in the first-ever edition of KC’s mid-major All-American team:
1. Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)
Last week: tie-2nd
To paraphrase coach Matt McMahon following his squad’s 71-67 win over Morehead State in the OVC championship Saturday: No team in college basketball won more games this season and no team lost fewer. Hard to argue with, something The Committee has been preaching since the initial release of KC’s mid-major Poll of Peak Brilliance. MSU became just the sixth program in OVC history to run the table during the regular season and only the second to also win the OVC tournament championship. The Racers haven’t lost since Christmas and their only defeat since Thanksgiving came at AP No. 4 Auburn. With OVC Player of the Year KJ Williams, fellow first-team OVC selection Tevin Brown and McMahon, the league’s Coach of the Year, “KC’s mid-major Team of the Year” will be a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament and will win at least one tournament game. Next up: NCAA tournament
2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (WCC)
Last week: 1
Having already registered the biggest win in college basketball this season, Coach Randy Bennett’s bunch fell short of a repeat performance Tuesday against Gonzaga in the WCC championship game. But Saint Mary’s late February regular season win over the Zags proved to the wine and cheese crowd that this team can beat anyone, anywhere (the enlightened mid-major fans knew this in June.) Bracket enthusiast and friend of the “Power 25” conference teams (the mid-majors) Joe Lunardi currently has Saint Mary’s as a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament, a product of five Quadrant 1 wins and Top 20 standing in all respected metrics-based rankings.
Next up: NCAA tournament
3. Colorado State Rams (Mountain West)
Last week: 5
To best put into perspective what coach Niko Medved’s men have done this season, consider this: The Rams have as many Quadrant 1 wins as Arizona and Duke! CSU also swept the season series from Mountain West regular season champion Boise State, lost just one home game all year and celebrated David Roddy’s MW Player of the Year honor in arguably the most competitive race in any conference. Colorado State has been smoother than the complete catalogue of Curtis Mayfield with a snifter of Courvoisier, all season long, and stands as good a chance as anyone to cut down the nets in Vegas.
Next up: vs. Utah State in Mountain West tournament (Thursday)
4. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)
Last week: 4
Only a consistent residence in the penthouse suite of the finest high-rise in mid-major hoops — KC’s Top 10 — matched the Broncos’ Mountain West regular season title this season, the program’s first outright since the 1987-1988 season. But the feting of Boise State hardly ended there. Leon Rice claimed MW Coach of the Year honors, Abu Kigab and Marcus Shaver Jr. were second-team All-MW selections, and Tyson Degenhart was the MW Freshman of the Year. A season sweep of San Diego State highlights a glittering résumé. A season sweep at the hands of Colorado State is all that’s keeping BSU outside the top 3.
Next up: vs. Nevada in Mountain West tournament (Thursday)
5. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Missouri Valley)
Last week: 7
Drew Valentine is the youngest coach in Division I college basketball and next week, when the NCAA tournament tips, the 30-year-old (!!!) will lead his team into the Dance thanks to the Ramblers’ run through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Loyola toppled Bradley and Northern Iowa, then avenged a pair of regular season losses to Drake by dumping the Bulldogs in the championship game to claim victory at Arch Madness. Resplendent in their designer pima cotton MVC Championship t-shirts, Sister Jean and company await a destination in the NCAA tournament and a date with a dance partner that undoubtedly wants nothing to do with these Ramblers.
Next up: NCAA tournament
6. San Diego State Aztecs (Mountain West)
Last week: 6
Coach Brian Dutcher’s squad was 12-6 on February 5th and holding a first class ticket to Nowheresville. Then came a victory over Nevada followed by a road win at San Jose State, and faster than you can say Ron Burgundy, San Diego State had won nine of 10 to finish the regular season. The Aztecs will upload a PDF file of their résumé to the powers that be and highlight wins over Saint Mary’s (neutral site), vs. Colorado State and at Wyoming, not to mention a 13-4 mark in Mountain West play. Of course it never hurts to win a game in Vegas, but from this Committee to the NCAA tournament committee, any bracket needs to include second-team All-MW selection Matt Bradley, MW Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Mensah and SDSU.
Next up: vs. Fresno State in Mountain West tournament (Thursday)
7. San Francisco Dons (WCC)
Last week: 8
Like 24 consecutive teams before them, the Dons’ run in the West Coast Conference tournament came to an end in the semifinals, at the paws of Gonzaga. USF fell into a 47-27 halftime hole and, despite pulling within eight late, failed to dig out. Still, the body of work is undeniable: double-digit wins in the Alcatraz-tough WCC, a 24 ranking in the NET, 21 in KenPom and three Quadrant 1 Ws including a neutral-site victory over Davidson. Coach Todd Golden’s group has earned its exclusive access to the plush velvet sectionals and faux chinchilla fur rugs of the swankiest speakeasy in sports, all season. An at-large invite to the NCAA tournament should be an absolute given.
Next up: NCAA tournament
8. North Texas Mean Green (Conference USA)
Last week: tie-2nd
It’s easy for the good folks in Denton to be disappointed with the outcome of Saturday’s regular season finale at UTEP. But for the love of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Mean Joe Greene and Meat Loaf … do not lose sight of what coach Grant McCasland’s men have done this season. The Mean Green were 2-3 before winning 22 of the next 23 games, including a program record 15 in a row. The Conference USA regular season champs may head into tournament play in Frisco on a sour note, but The Committee is hardly rescinding its preferred tee times at the most exclusive club in mid-major hoops.
Next up: vs. Rice in Conference USA tournament (Thursday)
9. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)
Last week: 10
Upgraded to four-diamond status in the Ritz-Carlton of mid-major polls in mid-February, coach Eric Henderson’s club has more than held up its end of the bargain. Tuesday night, behind 21 points and 11 rebounds from Summit League Tournament MVP Douglas Wilson, the Jackrabbits downed North Dakota State 75-69 to win their sixth championship in 11 seasons. Already the first Summit League team to run the table in-conference during the regular season, SDSU also became the first team in conference history to reach 30 wins. The Jacks will take the nation’s longest win streak — 21 games — into the NCAA tournament next week, music to the ears of the entire Brookings community.
Next up: NCAA tournament
10. Davidson Wildcats (Atlantic 10)
Last week: 9
Arguably the greatest coach in mid-major history, Bob McKillop claimed his 10th Coach of the Year award (eight in the Southern Conference, two in the Atlantic 10) following a 25-5 season which included an A-10 regular season title. Wildcats senior Luka Brajkovic was named A-10 Player of the Year after averaging 14.6 points on 58.7% FG shooting, with Hyunjung Lee and Foster Loyer also earning all-conference accolades. Nothing is guaranteed, though you have to think the NCAA selection committee has the Cats in the field no matter what. Still, a long weekend in D.C. would make the folks in Mecklenburg County feel a little better about their chances.
Next up: Atlantic 10 tournament (Friday)
Others receiving votes: Wyoming, UAB, Dayton, BYU
Dropped out: None
ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article.
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