Commentary

A weekly look at the mid-major scene

Originally Published: February 14, 2011
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

No. 17 Utah State lost to Don Verlin's Idaho Vandals this past Wednesday night 64-56. Verlin is a former Stew Morrill assistant at Utah State, and if anyone in the WAC can develop a game plan to beat the previously invincible Aggies, it's Verlin. The Vandals had been winless against Utah State since 2004, as the Aggies had won 11 in a row over what was a hapless Vandals program. Not anymore. The win by Idaho also snapped a 17-game USU win streak, which was third-longest in the nation, and a 25-game WAC winning streak for Utah State. Junior Deremy Geiger led the Vandals to victory with 12 points and 9 rebounds.

Some analysts had a knee-jerk reaction to the loss and automatically declared Utah State dead in the water for an at-large bid should the Aggies not win the WAC. In the immortal words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend!"

The Aggies' RPI is still in the 20s, and they should continue to win at breakneck speed as all the other bubble teams continue to falter. The Aggies bounced back as expected with a 71-55 drubbing of Fresno State. Don't write these guys off. A BracketBusters matchup at Saint Mary's is on the horizon, and a win will cure whatever hangover the Aggies have from the loss in Moscow.

[+] EnlargeKwadzo Ahelegbe
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireKwadzo Ahelegbe has scored 20-plus points seven times this season.

Last season, Northern Iowa knocked off No. 1 Kansas in the NCAA tournament and earned a spot in the Sweet 16. The Panthers returned Kwadzo Ahelegbe and the toughest sixth man in the Missouri Valley, Lucas O'Rear, along with Jake Koch and Johnny Moran, who also contributed. But the Panthers lost a lot as Ali Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch all graduated.

UNI opened the season 1-2, and, frankly, I wrote them off. After that start, though, the Panthers won eight of their next nine games and caught my eye. Then Northern Iowa opened MVC play 0-2 with a one-point loss at home to Missouri State and a two-point loss at Southern Illinois. The Panthers beat Evansville for their first MVC victory, but were blown out 70-45 at Indiana State to go 1-3. I wrote them off again.

Northern Iowa proceeded to reel off eight wins in a row but now has lost its past three games after falling to Wichita State at home.

"Leadership is our key," coach Ben Jacobson said. "Kwadzo and Lucas refused to let us lose before. They took over the team."

The Panthers now sit at 18-9, 9-6 in the MVC. O'Rear broke his ankle two weeks ago and is out for the season, but I'm certainly not writing this team off again. Still, it has become a much tougher road for UNI without O'Rear.

It pained me to watch Butler's Matt Howard sit out the game with a concussion versus Wright State this past Thursday. Howard is what college basketball is all about. He is a first-class person and a fierce competitor. He suffered his second concussion in less than a year on Feb. 7 when Butler beat Illinois-Chicago at home. Butler showed championship toughness without its leading scorer and rebounder, beating Wright State 71-63. The Bulldogs have to replace Howard's averages of 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds. Shelvin Mack scored 20 points in the win, and Wright State's Vaughn Duggins countered with 19 points as these two went toe-to-toe in one of the best guard matchups in the Horizon League. Howard returned to the lineup this past Saturday against Detroit, scoring 9 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Mack picked up the slack and then some with 32 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal in the 66-51 victory in Indy.

Saint Mary's lost twice in the past three weeks but shook off any aftereffects from that stretch as it won at Santa Clara 65-59 this past Thursday. Mickey McConnell showed great leadership in the crucial WCC road win, scoring 25 points. Rob Jones pitched in a double-double with 10 points and 16 rebounds. Santa Clara has lost 15 straight versus ranked teams. Its last win over a ranked opponent came against No. 4 North Carolina (Nov. 19, 2004).

Sticking with my West Coast theme, Gonzaga seems to be flying below the national radar but is very much on the screen in the WCC. The Zags won at Loyola Marymount 67-57 behind Steven Gray's 15 points, which led four Bulldogs in double figures. They then drilled Pepperdine 63-44 behind Elias Harris' 15 points and 11 rebounds. Gonzaga is 17-9 and 7-3 in the WCC good for a second-place tie with San Francisco in the standings.

The Chattanooga at Western Carolina game was postponed from Thursday to Friday this past week. Chattanooga had a flu epidemic hit its team, and those afflicted were quarantined for 48 hours, then re-evaluated. There were only five healthy players available at that time. The Mocs got semihealthy and played on back-to-back nights, losing to Western Carolina 69-68 and following that up with a 78-68 loss at Appalachian State. Chattanooga is still 10-5 and on top of the SoCon north. Western Carolina is just a half-game back at 9-5. Get well soon, Mocs.

More good news for two fine players in the Horizon League as Cleveland State's Norris Cole was named one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard. Butler's Matt Howard is a Lowe's Senior CLASS finalist and earned Academic All-District V honors for the third straight season.

Last week, I listed my top picks for first-team All-America honors. This week, I want to give you another name to consider: Hofstra's Charles Jenkins. The senior guard is sixth in the country in scoring (23.3 PPG) and is shooting 53.4 percent from the floor. Nobody else in the top 15 in scoring is shooting even 50 percent. He is 126 points shy of reaching 2,500 points for his career. Only 60 other players have done that in NCAA history. Hofstra is 17-9 overall, 11-4 in Colonial play. Mo Cassara got the job under highly unusual circumstances after the resignation of Tim Welsh after a drunken-driving charge. Cassara has pushed the right buttons, and Jenkins has clearly carried the Pride.

Only three mid-major players have made it to the midseason Naismith watch list. Jenkins from Hofstra, McConnell from Saint Mary's and Kenneth Faried of Morehead State all made the list. Where is Andrew Goudelock from the College of Charleston and Cole from Cleveland State?

Geoff McCammon, who is from the Chicago area, has ruled the court within the Chicago city limits the past two seasons. In his past four games against either UIC or DePaul, McCammon has averaged an eye-popping 25.5 points while scorching the nets at a 56 percent clip from behind the arc. I wonder whether the Bulls would be able to use him for home games.

What you shouldn't miss: BracketBusters

I'm going to keep this simple and to the point: Watch these great BracketBusters games. I'll be on the Cleveland State at Old Dominion telecast Sunday to close it all out, so I'll see you there.

Friday, Feb. 18 (all times ET)
7 p.m. -- VCU at Wichita State (ESPN2)
9 p.m. -- Kent State at Drexel (ESPNU)

Saturday, Feb. 19
11 a.m. -- Hofstra at Wright State (ESPNU)
1 p.m. -- Austin Peay at Fairfield (ESPNU)
3 p.m. -- Iona at Liberty (ESPNU)
5 p.m. -- Missouri State at Valparaiso (ESPN2)
5 p.m. -- Vermont at Charleston (ESPNU)
7 p.m. -- George Mason at Northern Iowa (ESPN2)
9 p.m. -- Utah State at Saint Mary's (ESPN2)
11 p.m. -- Montana at Long Beach State (ESPN2)

Sunday, Feb. 20
1 p.m. -- Cleveland State at Old Dominion (ESPN or ESPN2)

Who's hot

[+] EnlargeRyan Pearson
AP Photo/Mic SmithGeorge Mason's Ryan Pearson is averaging 14 points and shooting 53 percent from the field.

George Mason might just be the best team among the mid-majors. The Patriots are 21-5 and lead the CAA with a 13-2 mark. They carry an 11-game winning streak into VCU on Tuesday for a No. 1 versus No. 2 CAA matchup. Then it is off to Northern Iowa for what promises to be a great BracketBusters game between two of the past NCAA darlings. Coach Jim Larranaga is a master strategist and effective psychologist as no coach plays the underdog/no respect card better than Coach Larranaga. Ryan Pearson and Cam Long give Larranaga one of the best one-two punches in college basketball. I love the way this team plays. If I were choosing the NCAA tournament field right now, I like Mason, ODU and VCU.

Cleveland State's Cole stepped up his offensive production by dropping a 41-point avalanche on the Penguins of Youngstown State. Cole also hauled in 20 rebounds, distributed 9 assists and captured 3 steals. CSU heads to Wright State next, then has a BracketBusters showdown with Old Dominion. I can't wait to see Cole in person. He hails from Dayton, Ohio, where they make 'em tough.

Old Dominion went on the road and simply did what it had to do: win at VCU. And the Monarchs did it convincingly, 70-59. Frank Hassell did it all with 18 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block. Although Hassell gets the headlines, Ben Finney was the key to the ODU win with his hustle, enthusiasm and athleticism as he compiled 15 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists with pinpoint passes.

I am now officially jumping on to the UTEP bandwagon in C-USA. The Miners travel to Southern Miss on Wednesday, and if they can find a way to win in Hattiesburg, a conference championship is well within reach. Be sure to mark Feb. 26 on your calendar, as Memphis heads to El Paso for what could be a championship showdown. Randy Culpepper is putting up 19 points per game and effectively anticipates on defense to the tune of 2.2 steals per game. Right now, Culpepper is a serious candidate for player of the year in C-USA. The only question for C-USA is how many NCAA bids? The conference continues to eat its own, but it also is No. 8 in conference RPI. Right now, I like UTEP, UAB, Memphis and Southern Miss, but they need to separate from the pack in these last three weeks of the regular season.

Missouri State and Wichita State are on a collision course for the Valley championship. I believe J.T. Durley will be the key player for the Shockers down the stretch because of his ability to score on the block and pass out of double-teams. He is a big man with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and has shown his ability to change the game when he truly applies himself.

Bobby Cremins was as high-profile coach as there was in the country as the coach at Georgia Tech. He now directs a program nestled in one of the most beautiful and historic towns in America at the College of Charleston. It seems to be working out quite well, thank you. The Cougars have the best record in the SoCon at 12-2, and, in my view, Andrew Goudelock -- like his coach -- is underrated and underappreciated by the national media.

Derek Needham added to his stellar reputation as a winner in the MAAC as he scored 18 points to lead Fairfield over St. Peter's 70-69 in overtime on Sunday. The Stags are 20-5, 13-2 MAAC, and are nearing the MAAC regular-season championship as the Stags have a three-game lead with only four to play.

Vermont has a stranglehold on the America East after a 9-0 run the past three weeks. Evan Fjeld continues to make a good case for player of the year honors with 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game to lead the Catamounts.

What about Belmont? The Bruins are 15-1 in the Atlantic Sun and sport a gaudy 23-4 record. Their four losses have all been to teams from their home state of Tennessee. The Bruins lost twice to Tennessee 85-76 and 66-65, to Vanderbilt 85-76, and to crosstown Nashville and A-Sun rival Lipscomb 73-64. Therefore, the Bruins are undefeated outside of teams from the Volunteer State.

Oakland bounced back with a huge win over IPFW in the Summit League this past Saturday. Reggie Hamilton went for 30 points and blocked a late-game shot to seal the deal, 86-78. Keith Benson continues his dominant play with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 6 blocks for the Golden Grizzlies (18-9, 13-1) in the win. Oakland has a three-game lead with only four to play.

The cream is rising to the top in the MAC. The MAC East has dominated the MAC West, and Kent State leads the conference with an 8-2 record. Next stop for the Golden Flashes is at second-place Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday when two of the best bigs in the MAC square off as Miami's Julian Mavunga and Kent's Justin Greene go head-to-head.

Long Island picked up a tough 82-80 road win at St. Francis (NY) on Saturday, and Central Connecticut lost to Bryant 85-80 in OT. The LIU Blackbirds, 20-5 and 12-2 in the Northeast Conference, have a full two-game lead on the pack. Five Blackbirds average double figures led by Julian Boyd with 12.5 points.

Middle Tennessee (9-4) is making a late run at Florida Atlantic (10-3) in the Sun Belt East. Coach Kermit Davis and his guys have won five straight, but the Blue Raiders dropped both contests with FAU earlier in the conference schedule. In the West, flip a coin. Arkansas State and Denver are tied at 8-4, with Louisiana Lafayette (7-5) and UALR (6-5) within shooting range.

Bucknell has a two-game lead in the Patriot League with four to play. Its next game is against Lafayette (5-5) on Wednesday, then the Bison have three more games against second-tier teams in the league. The Patriot party is nearly over for everyone else.

It seems that all you have to do is win four games in a row to take over first place in the Southland. Congratulations to Texas State, as it has done just that while everybody else sits at least a half game behind the Bobcats. Flip a coin in this balanced and competitive conference.

Texas Southern won at Jackson State 70-67 on Saturday. This could be "game over" time in the SWAC as the Tigers have a two-game lead. Travele Jones is my top choice for player of the year honors. He contributes 18.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game to help the Tigers' cause.

[+] EnlargeBrian Qvale
AP Photo/Michael AlbansBrian Qvale scored 22 points and grabbed 13 boards in a win over Norther Colorado.

Montana is now in a dead heat with Northern Colorado after knocking off the Bears in Missoula, 55-42. The two big Grizzlies were just too much for UNC as Brian Qvale led Montana (18-7) with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Derek Selvig added 18 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

Anthony Raffa scored 23 points off the bench, including nine straight late-game points as Coastal Carolina defeated Winthrop 61-56 on Saturday. The Chanticleers are 24-2, 15-0 in the Big South, and have won 22 consecutive games. Coastal Carolina is one of two mid-majors left with undefeated conference records. The other is Princeton at 7-0.

Long Beach State is 10-2 in the Big West, but Cal Poly (8-4) has made a significant move up the standings with five wins in a row. The 49ers and Mustangs meet Feb. 24, and although Long Beach State is in the driver's seat, Cal Poly faces a must-win situation at Long Beach, then needs some help.

Although I have been following the downs and ups of Butler, the dynamic play of Cleveland State's Cole and the feel-good story of Valpo, I have completely ignored Milwaukee, and shame on me. Milwaukee has won six in a row and threatens the top of the Horizon League with a 10-5 record. The Panthers close out the season with a chance to do some damage with a home game against Valpo and a road game at Cleveland State. Six-foot-7, 230-pound Anthony Hill, who averages 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, along with Kaylon Williams, who has the ability to affect the game in multiple ways, gives Milwaukee a puncher's chance.

Princeton and Harvard are 1 and 2 in the Ivy League, and they will continue to battle it out until the bitter end. Princeton travels to Harvard on March 5. The Tigers have won nine in a row, and Harvard counters with 11 wins in its past 12 games with its only loss at Princeton.

I've seen this movie before where Murray State wins a ton of games in the second half of the season and then surprises a "BCS" team in the NCAA tournament. The Racers seem to be at it again after last year's run culminated in their NCAA first-round win over Vandy. Now Murray State has won eight in a row and has guards as good as you can find at the mid-major level with Isacc Miles, Isaiah Canaan and B.J. Jenkins. Jewuan Long is pretty good, as well. A date with Morehead State and Faried looms Feb. 24 at Murray State.

Who's not

Centenary is 0-27, but the Gentlemen have three home games remaining: against Oral Roberts, Western Illinois and IUPUI. Their best shot for a win is against WIU, which is 2-12 and 7-18 overall; the Leathernecks will come calling on Feb. 24.

Tussle at the top

George Mason at VCU (ESPNU, 7 ET): Strap yourself in for this classic CAA matchup. Mason is one of the hottest teams in the country, winner of 11 in a row. VCU is licking its wounds after a home loss to ODU. Shaka Smart's team will be ready, but the Patriots have a special quality about them that I have seen before -- in 2006.

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.