Commentary

A weekly look at the mid-major scene

Originally Published: December 20, 2010
By Mark Adams | Special to ESPN.com

Here's a look around the mid-major scene at the teams and players you might not know much about (but should):

What You Might've Missed

The mid-major upsets: It was a good week for the mid-majors, as Oakland upset No. 7 and previously-unbeaten Tennessee in Knoxville, Drexel won at No. 21 and previously-unbeaten Louisville and UIC knocked off No. 14 Illinois at the United Center in Chicago.

Count Down to 100: Non-Big Six teams have now won 85 times against the Big Six this season. Triple-digit wins are now within reach, but conference play is just around the corner. While I do not cover the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West because we do not consider those to be mid-majors, here are the non-Big Six conferences with the best win totals over the Big Six leagues:

16 -- Atlantic 10
11 -- Conference USA
8 -- Mountain West
6 -- Colonial Athletic Association
5 -- Missouri Valley
5 -- Atlantic Sun

Conference USA is the best non-power 6 conference top to bottom when it comes strictly to records. C-USA now has the bragging rights of every team being .500 or better in nonconference play. UCF (10-0) and the Mountain West's San Diego State (12-0) are the only non-power 6 teams still undefeated.

[+] EnlargeUIC
AP Photo/Charles CherneyIllinois-Chicago had lost four in a row before stunning No. 14 Illinois on Saturday.
• The Horizon League will not be Butler (6-4) and a race for second place for everyone else this season. Detroit (7-5) is legit, as I just watched Ray McCallum go for 23 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists in a 74-49 road shellacking of Central Michigan on Saturday night. UIC (5-7) and new coach Howard Moore were not on the preseason radar screen, but they are now, as the Flames knocked off Illinois 57-54 behind Robo Krebs' 15 points and five rebounds. Throw in a good Cleveland State team (12-1), led by high-scorer Norris Cole and add in Valpo with Brandon Wood and Wright State with Vaughn Duggins, and the Horizon League becomes very interesting.

• UC Santa Barbara went to Las Vegas and won 68-62 against UNLV. I took some heat on this one for even bringing up the possibility that the Gauchos might beat Lon Kruger's Runnin' Rebels on the road. But the Gauchos can play and Bob Williams can coach. Watch out for UCSB in the Big West and beyond.

What You Shouldn't Miss

Wednesday -- Xavier at Gonzaga: These programs aren't and shouldn't be considered mid-majors, but we'll point it out anyway because this is a big-time game between two high-major programs with impressive NCAA tourney histories. Both teams need to continue to build at-large profiles, after Xavier knocked off Butler 53-49 and followed that up with an 83-75 win over Wake Forest. Gonzaga beat No. 9 Baylor 68-64 Saturday in Dallas. Steven Gray (18.6 points per game and 5.6 assists per game) for the Zags and Tu Holloway (22.3 ppg and 4.4 apg) for the Musketeers make for an entertaining night on ESPN2.

Wednesday -- Temple at Ohio: What a great matchup of Juan Fernandez (10.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) versus D.J. Cooper (20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg) in a battle of two stellar guards. Can Ohio bounce back from a 112-107, 4-OT loss at St. Bonaventure? Cooper had 43 points and 13 assists in that losing effort. Athens will be hopping for this one, and the MAC wants to follow up after two wins over the Big East last week (Ball State over DePaul and Kent State over South Florida). A quality win over the A-10's best team would keep the momentum rolling for the MAC.

Wednesday -- Butler vs. Utah: The Bulldogs received 27 points from Matt Howard, got a much-needed win over Stanford 83-50 and need to carry that positive momentum into the first round of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. It is time for Butler to make its move, and Brad Stevens has a way of getting his Bulldogs to improve each week.

Mid-Major All-Stars

If I had to pick 20 guys to try out for a team and the mission was to beat all of the big boys, these are the 20 guys I would invite (does not include players from the A-10 or MWC):

Kenneth Faried, Morehead State: The best rebounder in America, period.
Shelvin Mack, Butler: The Mack truck is strong as a bulldog with skills.
Keith Benson, Oakland: Some say a late-first-round to second-round pick. Wrong. I say mid-first round and quickly moving up. Just ask Bruce Pearl.
Norris Cole, Cleveland State: A focal point of a Vikings' offense that is on a roll. He is from a place where they make 'em tough -- Dayton, Ohio.
Cameron Moore, UAB: The most improved player in the country. Don't even try to argue this one.
Gary Flowers, Southern Miss: This guy does everything for coach Larry Eustachy -- scores, boards, finishes, stretches defenses and blocks shots. If he was a baseball player, he would considered five-tool.
Andrew Goudelock, Charleston: Scores and drains 3-pointers with regularity and is unselfish and willing to rebound. Putting up All-American numbers like some guy who used to play in the SoCon named Stephen Curry at Davidson.
[+] EnlargeAdrian Oliver
AP Photo/Joe NicholsonSJSU's Adrian Oliver is averaging 24.2 ppg for the 7-3 Spartans.
Steven Gray, Gonzaga: There is a lot of Gray area when talking about the Zags. Gray carries the load while scoring 15 ppg, dishing out 5 apg and shooting 41 percent from long range.
Adrian Oliver, San Jose State: At 25.4 ppg, he is carrying a program that is normally not even on the radar screen.
Charles Jenkins, Hofstra: He is 6-3 and 220 pounds and is a matchup nightmare. Good luck guarding this guy.
Marcus Jordan, UCF: Not because his Dad could play but because Marcus Jordan can play. Everywhere you look in the C-USA stats, his name comes up. Doing everything for a very good, undefeated team.
D.J. Cooper, Ohio: Scores, passes, defends and rebounds as a point guard. This lefty has some Nick Van Exel in his game. Dropped 43 points and dished out 13 dimes on St. Bonaventure.
Brian Qvale, Montana: Interior defender who has intimidated UCLA and everyone else in the paint on offense and defense. The "Q" is the highest-quality big man in the Big Sky since Steve Hayes of the 1977 Idaho State Bengals and Larry Krystkowiak of the mid-1980s Montana Grizzlies.
Donald Sims, Appalachian State: Yeah, he gets 25 a game but also defends like a cornerback jumping a route.
Xavier Silas, Northern Illinois: Hard to leave the nation's leading scorer off this list. He is the son of James Silas, who played nine seasons in the NBA. I like his blood lines.
Justin Greene, Kent State: A smaller Jared Sullinger who continues to get better every night out.
Michael Glover, Iona: The Gaels got off to a rough 0-3 start, then Glover became more hands-on and is currently on a six-game streak of double-doubles, including a 25-point, 16-board performance in this weekend's narrow loss at Syracuse.
Justin Rutty, Quinnipiac: A double-double guy who will continue to dominate the Northeast Conference.
Kyle Weems, Missouri State: A team player who scores, rebounds and defends. Maybe not the gaudy numbers of the others on this list but he's a winner.
Ray McCallum, Detroit: He was rated 17th nationally on the ESPNU 100 coming out of high school last sesaon. In my opionion, he's even better than that.

Who Else Is Hot

Quinnipiac (7-2): The Bobcats have the best 1-2 punch in the NEC. James Johnson can score (17.6 ppg), rebound (4.7 rpg), distribute (4.3 apg) and bang 3s (41 percent). Add Justin Rutty, who is a double-double machine, and the Bobcats look like heavy favorites in the NEC.
Midwest mid-majors: The Midwest states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky have some of the best mid-major players and teams in the country. Just think Oakland, Butler, Cleveland State, Kent State, Ohio, Morehead State and Murray State. All will be in the hunt for conference titles.
Oakland (6-6): Great win over Tennessee in Knoxville. Benson turned a lot of heads, as he was the best player on the court. The Golden Grizzlies have now played at WVU, at Purdue, at Illinois, at Michigan State, at Tennessee, at Michigan and will play at Ohio State on Thursday. The key is to get better against this level of competition, but most teams who face this type of murderer's row come out on the other side psychologically damaged. Not the Grizzlies, as Greg Kampe's bunch is simply preparing to maul the Summit League and then make a tourney run.
Drexel (8-1): The Dragons are grinders. Bruiser Flint's team can guard. It beat down Louisville 52-46 and held the Cardinals to 32 percent shooting and 25 percent from 3. Gerald Colds had 20 points in the win.
Wichita State (8-2): The Shockers lost a heartbreaker early to UConn in Maui, Hawaii, and lost at San Diego State. Other than those two respectable losses, everything else has gone well, especially the 70-69 win against LSU on Saturday.Garrett Stutz, the 7-foot center, hit the game-winning 3 with seven seconds to go. LSU isn't great, but that is the kind of win that can send a team like Wichita State to another level, which is bad news for the rest of The Valley.

Who's Not

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Tom RettigHoly Cross was 9-22 last season and has started 1-8 under first-year coach Milan Brown.
Holy Cross was picked to win the Patriot League last season and failed miserably. So athletic director Dick Regan fired his head coach, Sean Kearney, after only one season. "It was a disappointing year," Regan said after the season. "We were picked to finish first in the league. We went from the championship game to 5-9 in the league. It was a disappointing year. The other thing, too, is what this really says is basketball is very important to us. I see the ability to win the league championship next year, and I felt I had to do whatever it took to get to that point."

With so many returning players, Regan felt that it was best to move right away and bring in another coach. Enter Milan Brown, the successful 2009 NEC championship coach at Mount St. Mary's. The early results? Holy Cross is 1-8, with its first win coming Sunday against 2-10 Marist. Brown is a good coach, but he's now in a situation which he has to pick up the pieces from a dysfunctional situation.

Tussle at the Top

Tuesday -- Morehead State at Austin Peay: Morehead knocked off Murray State in the Ohio Valley opener. Austin Peay had a near-miss in an overtime loss at Memphis last week, and the Govs look like they are coming together at the right time. TyShwan Edmondson is a Governor playing more like a president. He leads Austin Peay with 19.1 ppg. Morehead counters with Kenneth Faried (18.6 ppg, 14.0 rpg), who is my choice for OVC Player of the Year so far.

Re-assessing My Preseason Picks

With conference play just around the corner, it's time to review my preseason picks …

America East
Then: Maine
Now: Vermont and Evan Fjeld have made me a believer, but I still like the Black Bears, who readied for an America East run by beating UMass and winning three in a row.

Atlantic Sun
Then: Lipscomb
Now: It's hard to bet against Adnan Hodzic, so I'm not. But Belmont and Jacksonville are right there.

Big Sky
Then: Weber State
Now: I'm sticking with coach Randy Rehe and the Wildcats, but Portland State, Montana, Montana State and Northern Arizona have all caught my eye. Great balance in the Big Sky.

Big South
Then: Coastal Carolina
Now: Coastal Carolina. If you don't believe me, ask LSU or Charlotte.

Big West
Then: UCSB
Now: UCSB, although Pacific and UC Irvine will make it tough on the Gauchos.

Colonial
Then: I bailed and picked Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason. What a wimp.
Now: I'm ready to be a man … Old Dominion.

Conference USA
Then: Memphis
Now: Too much drama on Beale Street. I'm picking UCF. It's nice to see someone besides Memphis make a serious move. And don't sleep on Southern Miss, Marshall, UAB and UTEP. Let's tip it off -- this should be a fun race.

Horizon
Then: Butler, what a shock.
Now: Butler, but I sure like Cleveland State and Detroit. No undefeated HL run for the Bulldogs this season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Wright
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonKeith Wright is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson.
Ivy League
Then: Harvard
Now: Harvard. I made some Ancient Eight followers turn crimson on this pick. Tommy Amaker will prove me right.

MAAC
Then: Fairfield
Now: Fairfield. Derek Needham has struggled to make shots, but he is simply too good to pick against the Stags. Mike Glover and Iona will be right there, though.

MAC
Then: Kent State
Now: Kent State. The Golden Flashes have won five MAC titles in the last dozen years. Justin Greene will carry them to another championship.

MEAC
Then: Morgan State
Now: Hampton. It is hard to pick against Todd Bozeman's Bears based on recent history, but Hampton is 7-2 and has some nice wins over Boston U. and George Washington.

Missouri Valley
Then: Wichita State
Now: Wichita State, but the MVC is again one of the best mid-major conferences from top to bottom. Missouri State, Creighton, Northern Iowa and Illinois State have shown championship pedigrees in the nonconference season. I can't wait to tip it off in the Valley.

Northeast
Then: Quinnipiac
Now: The Q. Rutty is the best player on the best team.

Ohio Valley
Then: Murray State
Now: 1A) Murray State, 1B) Morehead State, 1C) Austin Peay

Patriot
Then: Holy Cross
Now: OK, I definitely missed that one, as HC is 1-8 and I'm laughing along with you as I type this. What was I thinking? So let's go with American. And yes, I can just see coach Jeff Jones cringing as the Adams Patriot curse has now shifted to the Eagles.

Southern
Then: Wofford
Now: Wofford. It is certainly tempting to jump ship for the College of Charleston and Andrew Goudelock, but I'm stubborn and so are the Terriers.

Southland
Then: Stephen F. Austin and Lamar
Now: I still like both, but Northwestern State under coach Mike McConathy has been there and done that. Texas-San Antonio can also make a run. Heck, even Sam Houston State, Texas-Arlington, Nicholls State and McNeese State are capable. It's going to be fun watching the Southland powers beat each other up.

SWAC
Then: Jackson State
Now: Jackson State. Last season the Tigers made it to the NIT. This year they dance.

Summit
Then: Oakland
Now: Oakland. Benson keeps getting better. That was bad news for Tennessee and is still bad news for the Summit … until every team shares their NCAA revenues from a deep tourney run by the Grizzlies.

Sun Belt
Then: North Texas
Now: North Texas. Coach Johnny Jones has the best weapons and knows how to coach those weapons.

West Coast
Then: Loyola Marymount
Now: Gonzaga, Saint Mary's, Portland and Loyola Marymount could win this thing. I hate to jump ship on LMU, but the Zags' win over Baylor was too much to ignore. Gonzaga it is.

WAC
Then: Utah State
Now: Utah State. I learned a long time ago to never bet against the guy with the fourth-best winning percentage in the country (.764) over the last 11 years. Stew Morrill is a Hall of Fame coach. It would be shocking if anyone but the Aggies won this conference.

Mark Adams is a contributor to ESPN.com. He is a game analyst on the ESPN family of networks and was a college basketball coach for 17 years, including a head-coaching stint at Central Connecticut State and assistant jobs at Idaho State and Washington State. For more of his insight, check out www.enthusiadams.com