Four mid-majors with potential in '12
With Butler’s second straight loss in the NCAA championship game, college basketball is still waiting for a traditional mid-major to win a national title.
But give the little guys credit for making progress in recent years. In the past six seasons, traditional mid-majors have made four appearances in the Final Four.
Besides Butler twice, Virginia Commonwealth crashed the party this season and George Mason did it in 2006.
There’s still plenty of time until next year’s Final Four in New Orleans, but the grueling road there starts now. It’s early, but here are four traditional mid-majors that could dance their way to Bourbon Street:
• Butler: Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens figures to have his team right back in the hunt if point guard Shelvin Mack remains for his senior season. He’s one of the nation’s most underrated stars and has the ability to take over games. With Mack and highly touted incoming Australian freshman Jackson Aldridge, a scoring point guard, the Bulldogs’ backcourt could be as explosive as any in the country next season. It’ll be tough to replace forward Matt Howard, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, but sophomore center Andrew Smith has shown glimpses of breaking out, despite his struggles against Connecticut in the championship game. Freshman forward Khyle Marshall’s numbers didn’t show it, but he played a critical role this season and could be the Bulldogs’ next star.
• Creighton: Coming off their championship game appearance in the College Basketball Invitational, the Bluejays should be more than just a force in the tough Missouri Valley Conference next season. Coach Greg McDermott enters his second season in the league and knows it well from when he led Northern Iowa to three straight NCAA tournament appearances from 2004 to 2006. He has a star in his son, wing Doug McDermott, who was the conference’s freshman of the year this season with averages of 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds. The Bluejays also return established sophomore center Gregory Echenique, who played only the second half of the season after transferring from Rutgers, but still averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. They also have a bevy of 3-point shooters, the equalizer for mid-major teams against power-conference teams.
• George Mason: Patriots coach Jim Larranaga knows what it takes to get to the Final Four. And with all of his starters back next season except leading scorer Cam Long from a team that made the NCAA tournament’s second round this season and claimed a 20-point regular-season win at Virginia Commonwealth, Larranaga has the talent and priceless experience to make another magical run. Junior forward Ryan Pearson, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds this season, is more than ready to be his team’s star, and sophomore forward Luke Hancock’s absence in a season-ending blowout loss to Ohio State because of illness highlighted why he’s so invaluable. Junior guard Andre Cornelius has also had his moments the past two seasons. Playing in the brutal Colonial Athletic Conference is another benefit for the Patriots and ensures they’ll be battle-tested come March.
• Fairfield: The Stags have a new coach, Sydney Johnson, who left Princeton to succeed Ed Cooley. Though Cooley moved on to Providence, he left Johnson with one of the nation’s best point guards, sophomore Derek Needham, and one of the top wings, transfer Rakim Sanders, a senior to-be after istting out this past season. Needham averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 assists per game this season, while Sanders was a double-figure scorer in each of his three seasons at Boston College. Needham is turnover prone, though, and the knock against Sanders is that he doesn’t play hard all the time. Ryan Olander, a 7-foot junior center, is a steady inside presence, and junior to-be guard Desmond Wade, a transfer from Houston, is a nice addition. The Stags will cruise through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but the keys are Needham and Sanders, who talent-wise can stack up with just about anybody.