Commentary

Butler, Gonzaga resume role as mid-major favorites

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

Where do the mid-majors stand as we near the end of nonconference play? How did they get to this point? Here's the breakdown:

The favorites

Butler (Horizon League): Graduating four-fifths of the starting lineup from a round of 32 team won't inspire many to expect a repeat performance. But the Bulldogs are back.

[+] EnlargeMatt Howard
Jim Owens/Icon SMIDespite a tough nonconference schedule, Matt Howard and Butler are off to a strong start.

Returnee forward Matt Howard, now a sophomore, anchors a group of youngsters who have achieved a 10-1 record despite playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. Remember names like Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward. They're freshmen, but they're learning how to win very early in their careers -- and Butler's giant nine-point win over Xavier on Tuesday shows that it is already ready for big W's.

Gonzaga (West Coast): Although the Bulldogs' recent struggles (consecutive losses to UConn and Portland State) may raise questions, the talent and depth Mark Few has assembled should return in 2009 meaner for the experience. An improved WCC will toughen them up, a departure from the two-month spring training that softened Bulldogs squads of the past. It's definitely the biggest team of the Gonzaga era, with two high-scoring big men in Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye. This could still be the year they match the Elite Eight run from 1999 that originally put them on the map.

Most surprising teams

Portland State (Big Sky): The Vikings tore through the conference with 14 wins and earned their first NCAA bid last season. Turns out that was just a preview of things to come. PSU is out to a 9-3 start fueled by balanced scoring (five double-figure scorers) and smart ball control. It made a statement in beating Gonzaga 77-70 on Tuesday. Jeremiah Dominguez stands at 5-foot-6 but came up big against the Zags with 25 points.

Cleveland State (Horizon League): Many predicted Cleveland State, coming off its first postseason bid in two decades, to edge past Butler and win the HL. While the Bulldogs have picked up where they left off, the Vikings have been exceeding expectations. A 9-4 record and an active four-game win streak includes a 26-point drubbing of MAC champs Kent State and the iconic 72-69 win over previously unbeaten Syracuse on Dec. 15, sealed by Cedric Jackson's "SportsCenter"-worthy 60-foot buzzer-beater. That miracle shot hides the fact that the Vikings were leading for much of that game.

Most disappointing teams

San Diego (West Coast): Remember the Toreros' thrilling 70-69 overtime upset of Connecticut in last season's NCAA tournament first round? It seems a lot longer than nine months ago after a tough 6-7 start. Returning all key cogs, USD was picked to contend with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the challenging WCC but has dealt with a series of tough issues. Brandon Johnson, who scored 18 in the UConn game, tore his Achilles tendon after eight games and will miss the rest of the season. Head coach Bill Grier also has had to dole out discipline, with 17 man-games (and counting) lost to suspensions for three Toreros.

Siena (Metro Atlantic): Another round of 32 squad that has underachieved is the Saints, who have lived under the mid-major microscope after their crushing 13-over-4 victory over Vanderbilt (in the same Tampa pod that produced the San Diego shocker). A virtually intact team simply hasn't been up to a murderous schedule, going 6-4 with wide losses to Pitt, Tennessee and Oklahoma State. Fran McCaffery's bunch hasn't been able to find compensation for the size disadvantage, something that was overcome with hot shooting and ball control last season. Neither has arrived yet.

Best players

Stephen Curry, Davidson: The brightest star in mid-majordom may be struggling under the expectations and seemingly endless hype, but he has assumed the weight with class and dignity. The nation's runaway leading scorer (30 points per game) has led the Elite Eight Wildcats to wins over North Carolina State and West Virginia and inspired Loyola (Md.) head coach Jimmy Patsos to double-team him all over the court. Take out that scoreless performance, and he'd be averaging 33.3 ppg -- enough to lead the pros, eclipsing NBA BFF LeBron James.

Lester Hudson, Tennessee-Martin: His Skyhawks may have been overwhelmed in TV showcases against USC and Tennessee, but the muscular 6-foot-2 senior is putting up numbers similar to last season, which concluded with an impressive trip to the pre-draft camp and a last-second early-entry withdrawal.

Lester Hudson
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee-Martin's Lester Hudson has picked up where he left off last season.

Hudson is the nation's seventh-leading scorer at 23.8 ppg and hasn't scored fewer than 20 in UTM's first nine games. His rebound numbers might be down a board and a half to 6.2 rpg (other Skyhawks have been picking up the slack), but he's picking up more steals (2.9) and has improved his free-throw shooting to 85.3 percent.

Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's: Soph sensation Patty Mills (20 ppg) is drawing plenty of attention from opponents and the media, but this 6-foot-11 senior is the improved, overlooked hero who's savagely ripping rebounds down and handing Mills the ball to bring up the court. His 15-point, 12-rebound performance at Oregon last week was his fifth double-double of the season (he's averaging one with 14.4 ppg and 10 rpg), and he has helped the Gaels to a 10-1 record. The upcoming WCC battles with Gonzaga's twin towers will be epic indeed.

Top single-game performances

Ben Woodside, North Dakota State, Dec. 12 versus Stephen F. Austin: In the opening round of a minitourney at Drake, the Bison's 5-foot-11 senior went off for 60 points (14-for-32 from the floor and 30-for-35 from the stripe), the most points in a Division I game since Arizona State's Eddie House scored 61 in a double-overtime win over Cal in 2000. The Bison lost 112-111 in triple overtime, but Woodside followed up his 60 by leading NDSU to a win against Georgia Southern the following day, scoring 31 points and dishing 10 assists.

Stephen Curry, Davidson, Nov. 18 at Oklahoma: No. 30 in red has provided an ever-growing number of masterpieces, the kind of performances that fans at bars will try and one-up each other with. Remember that NIT Season Tip-Off game on ESPN, when he went shot-for-shot with Blake Griffin and brought Davidson from 21 down in the second half? He couldn't pull out a win (the Wildcats lost 82-78), but Curry's 44-point game on 12-for-29 shooting was something viewers will remember for a long time.

Strangest scores

at Texas-San Antonio 136, East Central 68 (Nov. 22): Most of the time when Division I schools play teams from the lower tiers in the early season, it counts in the Div. I team's standings but is only an exhibition for the road team. So in this high-scoring double-up by a Southland Conference squad over a Division II school from the Lone Star Conference, the Tigers didn't mind much if the score was run up on them Globetrotters-style. After all, East Central had been thrashed at Texas Tech's Legends Classic two days earlier, 167-115, in a similarly structured reality duality.

at Maryland-Eastern Shore 46, New Jersey Tech 42 (Dec. 6): NJIT is 0-11 and hasn't won a game since beating Longwood on Feb. 19, 2007 -- a streak of 44 straight losses. How low is the Highlanders' luck? In this game, they held similarly winless UMES to 26 percent shooting … yet still lost. Tech shot 33 percent and was outrebounded by a 3-to-2 margin. This holiday season, a DVD of this game is a suitable swap-out for stocking coal.

What you might not have realized

The Horizon League is really good. Retooled Butler is just a three-point loss to Ohio State from perfection. Illinois-Chicago beat Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech on the road. Cleveland State's stock rose when the Vikings shocked Syracuse, but it went up even higher after Syracuse turned around and beat Memphis five days later. If the cards fall right in conference play, two tourney bids aren't out of the question.

Some sweet-as-honey basketball is being played in the Beehive State. Utah State looks poised to dominate the Western Athletic Conference, with an 9-1 record, the nation's best shooting (52.9 percent) and WAC POY candidate Gary Wilkinson (16.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg).

[+] EnlargeGary Wilkinson
AP Photo/Douglas C. PizacUtah State is in good hands with WAC POY candidate Gary Wilkinson.

BYU, led by emergent junior Jonathan Tavernari (17.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), is 10-1 and playing some solid defense.

The America East just might feature the country's hottest race for a single bid. After struggling to a 41-74 noncon record last season, teams from this conference scheduled remarkably well, choosing only games they stood a chance to win and staying away from playing too many non-Div. I teams. This season, the AE's winning percentage has consistently hovered around .500. Six of the nine teams have records of .500 or better, including old familiar champions like Vermont (6-3) and Albany (8-4).

Reasons to brag

The Atlantic 10 is doing it again. A-10 teams are taking it to ranked opponents -- look at Xavier's wins over four BCS schools (Missouri, Va. Tech, Cincinnati and Auburn), as well as those of UMass (beat Kansas), Dayton (Marquette) and Temple (Tennessee). The conference's depth and dangerousness have been on full display -- check out its perfect 3-0 record against the Big Ten. If the league table doesn't end up with a giant tangle of 8-8s, as was the case last season, the Big Dance could experience a true A-10 invasion of four or more teams.

A couple of the teams chasing Davidson in the Southern Conference have boast-worthy results early on. The College of Charleston is 10-1, including a 5-0 mark away from its sparkly new Carolina First Center. Chattanooga may have started 0-5, but it exposed the Wildcats' defense in a 100-95 losing effort on Dec. 13, the first game all its players and new transfers were eligible. The Mocs are certainly eyeing that Jan. 28 home date with Davidson. SoCon contenders are lining up to make sure that Stephen Curry & Co. don't go on a 20-0 tear through the league again.

Presbyterian, a school that made the leap to Division I just last season, spent its first season on an endless road trip, going 5-25 with all five wins coming at home. With newfound provisional membership in the Big South, the Blue Hose already have matched their 2007-08 win total with a 5-7 record (2-0 BSC). Al'Lonzo Coleman, a 6-foot-7 sophomore paint presence, has been a standout with 15.8 ppg and 7.4 rpg, but head coach Gregg Nibert plans to redshirt him next season so he'll be eligible for Presby's first postseason-eligible season in 2011-12. The current record is nice, but they're hoping to brag about a shock NCAA bid in three years.

Reasons to worry

The Mid-American Conference: The best and toughest perennial one-bid league in the country got a No. 9 seed out of Kent State last season. This season has been a major step backward. With a noncon winning percentage of .364 (40-70) and no wins over power-conference opponents, the MAC has melted like cheese. Miami (Ohio), after coming close at UCLA and blowing out Temple on the road, was poised to be the league's saving grace. But the RedHawks struggled mightily Saturday in an 82-46 blowout loss at West Virginia marked with poor guard play.

Memphis: The national runner-up Tigers are used to treating the Conference USA championship as a birthright, winning three consecutive titles since the Big East exodus of 2005 stripped away strong competition (such as Louisville and Cincinnati). But with CDR and D-Rose off in the NBA, the young Tigers are 7-3 and are struggling through some severe shooting problems (at least the free-throw percentage is up four percentage points to 65.6). UTEP has posted strong wins over Saint Mary's and Texas Tech; former Auburn transfer Kelvin Lewis is lighting it up for 7-1 Houston, an older and wiser team coming off a 24-win season and a College Basketball Invitation run. Could this finally be the season that the Tigers hear footsteps in the "new" C-USA?

Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).