Commentary

A weekly look at the mid-major scene

Originally Published: February 21, 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

UAB now takes over the top spot in Conference USA with a 10-4 league record. Memphis got clobbered at UTEP 74-47 as Randy Culpepper dropped 20 points on an inconsistent Tigers defense. The Tigers, Miners, Southern Miss and Tulsa are tied for second place, sporting 9-5 C-USA records. The Golden Eagles were upset by UCF 65-64, while the Golden Hurricane survived an upset bid by Tulane 66-59.

[+] EnlargeJamarr Sanders
Marvin Gentry/US Presswire Jamarr Sanders and UAB have a one-game lead over four teams in Conference USA.

UTEP head coach Tim Floyd and his assistant Phil Johnson both went the distance in the Memphis game after both were ejected in the previous outing against East Carolina, an 83-76 loss. Floyd's ejection prompted a reprimand from the conference. Can you tell that things are a little tight in C-USA?

Congratulations to Butler's Matt Howard, who was named the Capital One Academic All-American of the Year as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America. Howard is a finance major with a 3.77 GPA. He made the first team for the second year in a row and is the Bulldogs' leading scorer and top rebounder.

Congratulations are also in order for Northern Colorado's Devon Beitzel, who was also named a first-team academic All-American. Beitzel has overcome all odds. Both of his natural parents were drug addicts while he grew up, and his dad spent some time in jail. (Check out this Dana O'Neil column for more on Beitzel.) He is from Lafayette, Colo., and was taken in by a local family. He then became an honor student in high school and is now the leading scorer in the Big Sky, while earning a 3.69 GPA as a finance and accounting major.

Missouri State's Will Creekmore had a pretty good day Wednesday. He was named a third-team academic All-American, then followed that good news up with a career-high 26 points in a 76-58 win at Southern Illinois. Congratulations to the entire CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-America team.

Charles Jenkins was named the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year last season and is a front-runner this season, for good reason. Jenkins and his Hofstra teammates won their home finale on Saturday, a 79-60 victory over Delaware. The Pride retired Jenkins' jersey, and he is the first active Hofstra player to earn such an honor. He has scored a Hofstra-record 2,441 career points.

George Mason has won the CAA outright and owns the nation's longest winning streak at 15 game. In the CAA, I see Mason and ODU in the Dance. Hofstra and a struggling VCU squad still have outside chances to make the tournament, but my suggestion to both teams is to win the CAA tournament to get in.

Indiana State has rebounded from a five-game losing streak by winning five of its past six games.

Saint Mary's has scheduled another game to be played in Moraga, Calif., against Weber State on March 11. The game was scheduled to help both teams bridge the long gap between their conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.

Green Bay's Bryquis Perine was the hero in overtime in an 81-80 win over then-first-place Valpo in a crucial Horizon League game on Feb. 21. Perine finished with 20 points and scored seven of his team's final nine points in the overtime session. The loss cost the Crusaders the Horizon League title.

Wichita State had won eight consecutive road games in the Missouri Valley, the second-longest road winning streak in the country. But that streak ended at Missouri State, as the Bears knocked off the Shockers 69-64 on Saturday. With the win, Missouri State won the Missouri Valley regular-season championship for the first time. Since 1993, the regular-season champions of the Valley have all been invited to the NCAA tournament.

All coach Billy Kennedy and his Murray State Racers do is win games. A winner of 11 of its past 12, Murray State claimed the OVC regular-season championship again. The Racers have won 12 of the past 24 OVC tournament championships. This year's tournament begins this week in Nashville.

Long Island had an eight-game winning streak snapped by St. Francis (Pa.) on Jan. 22. The Blackbirds regrouped after that loss and have won 10 straight games. LIU is clearly the class of the NEC. Look for Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere, who can both score and board, to continue the Blackbirds' winning ways. But Quinnipiac and Robert Morris are the most likely spoilers.

Mike Muscala contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocked shots to lead Bucknell to a 78-64 win over Army in Saturday's Patriot League finale. The Patriot League regular-season champions are 22-8 overall and 13-1 in league play. The Bison will see the Black Knights again in the Patriot League tournament quarterfinals on Wednesday night.

I don't want to brag, but I did pick Wofford to win the SoCon. Although the Terriers are a No. 2 seed, they did win their past five games and tied Charleston for the top conference mark at 14-4. Noah Dahlman can really play, and Wofford is peaking at the right time. This conference tournament has potential for real drama, as Western Carolina, Furman and Chattanooga, along with Charleston and Wofford, have shown championship ability during the regular season.

Coach Brad Stevens left the Butler bench at halftime on Saturday with what was reported as a corneal edema in his eye. I wish Stevens a speedy recovery. He is a classy guy, and we need him back on the sideline. Butler beat Loyola (Ill.) 63-56 to earn a share of the regular-season Horizon League championship. The very capable assistant coach Matthew Graves took over the head-coaching duties in the second half.

McNeese State and Texas State are both 10-4 in the Southland. McNeese State has the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, as the Cowboys beat Texas State 97-92 on Jan. 15.

Oakland not only won the fight for the Summit League regular-season championship but also won the Summit League Food Fight. The university's athletic department, along with its 18 intercollegiate sports, raised $4,124.10 in cash and 459.5 pounds of canned food in just two weeks as part of the 2011 Summit League Food Fight competition. According to the school's website, the Golden Grizzlies' men's basketball team won the competition among the sports by raising just more than $21 per student-athlete, edging the men's swimming and diving team.

What you shouldn't miss

Arch Madness in St. Louis is one of the greatest mid-major conference tournaments in the country. The Valley fans turn out in droves, and this is a conference that gets it.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Durley
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireAs Arch Madness gets underway, watch out for J.T. Durley and Wichita State.

Everything, from the banquet to the venue (Scottrade Center) to the competition to the fan interaction, is first-class. If you can attend only one Championship Week tournament, I suggest going to St. Louis and joining in on the Arch Madness from Thursday through Sunday.

I still like Wichita State because of its depth, but Missouri State is the regular-season champion. Don't sleep on Indiana State, a winner of five of its past six games. And if Creighton can get solid guard play, the Bluejays are tough with two great bigs in Doug McDermott and Greg Echenique.

Let the madness begin.

Who's hot

How about those Centenary Gentlemen? They earned their first win of the 2010-11 season by knocking off Western Illinois 73-60 on Thursday. The hard-fought victory broke a 33-game losing streak and was the first win in Adam Walsh's Division I coaching career.

Cleveland State's Norris Cole is one of three guards in the country to average more than 20 points and five assists per game. The other two are Duke's Nolan Smith and Xavier's Tu Holloway.

Speaking of Cole, let's check in on the Horizon League. I can honestly say that having Cleveland State and Butler tied at the top of the conference with identical 13-5 records is no surprise. But guess who has the No. 1 seed in the HL tournament? The Milwaukee Panthers came out of nowhere after opening league play at 4-5, then ripped off nine straight conference wins to gain a share of the regular-season title.

The Panthers went 3-1 versus Butler and Cleveland State. Milwaukee will host the Horizon League tournament and will not play again until a semifinal matchup on Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Arena.

Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter is clearly the Horizon's coach of the year.

Gonzaga has guts. The Zags' 89-85 overtime win at Saint Mary's on Thursday was the defining moment of the season. Mark Few has certainly faced a few challenges with his team, but he never blinked, and now the Bulldogs are playing with his fervor to compete. Sam Dower scored 21 points, and Elias Harris went for 18 points against the Gaels. Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are now tied for the top spot in the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs have won or shared the regular-season WCC title for 11 straight seasons.

Bryant University freshman Alex Francis had a strange week. He scored one point in an 83-77 home loss to Sacred Heart on Feb. 19, then finished with 43 points on 20-of-27 shooting in a 94-85 loss at Long Island. Francis came off the bench in both games. I know that freshmen can be up-and-down, but coach Tim O'Shea would much prefer the 43-point version of Francis.

B.J. Jenkins is a fifth-year senior who is willing to take -- and make -- big shots. At the end of the first half in Murray State's win over Morehead State on Thursday, Jenkins dropped a 3-pointer on the Eagles for a six-point lead at halftime. He then proceeded to torch the Morehead State zone with 14 points during a 17-0 second-half run. He finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals. Murray State has clinched the top spot in the OVC tournament.

Belmont won its final regular-season game by 47 points at Kennesaw State, 88-41. The Bruins dominated the Atlantic Sun, winning conference games by an average of 20.9 ppg.

Just another senior night at Utah State. The Aggies won, and the nets were cut down after a fourth straight regular-season WAC championship. The Aggies avenged an earlier loss to Idaho by beating the Vandals 84-68 en route to their 31st consecutive home win. The six Aggies seniors, who are the winningest senior class in school history with a four-year record of 106-27, combined to score 58 points Saturday. They were led by forward Tai Wesley's game-high 22 points, his seventh 20-point outing of the season. Guard Brian Green netted 15 points off the bench, while backcourt mates Pooh Williams and Tyler Newbold tallied eight and six points, respectively. Forward Nate Bendall added seven points, and fellow forward Matt Formisano tossed in three points.

With a victory over South Carolina State, Bethune-Cookman would win the MEAC outright, and with a player like C.J. Reed, I like the Wildcats' chances.

I like Fairfield, the No. 1 seed in the MAAC and the dynamic Derek Needham, but I really don't see a huge separation among Fairfield, Iona, Rider and St. Peters. Iona intrigues me, as it knocked off conference-leading Fairfield 74-69 on Sunday night. The Gaels are coming together at the right time with seven straight wins and are led by double-double machine Mike Glover and supreme assist man Scott Machado.

Long Beach State is on a roll in the Big West. Casper Ware scored 26 points, and T.J. Robinson chipped in 19 points and 19 rebounds as the 49ers drilled UC Santa Barbara 71-53 on Saturday night. Long Beach State outrebounded UC Santa Barbara 49-29 and has won eight straight to clinch the Big West regular-season title.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Irving
Howard Smith/US PresswireAfter winning eight straight games, D.J. Irving's Terriers are the hottest team in the America East.

In the America East, Vermont has pretty much had its way but right now the best team in the conference is Boston University. On Sunday, the Terriers won at Vermont 66-64 in OT behind D.J. Irving's 18 points. That was the Terriers' eighth straight win and it is hard to pick against this team if John Holland (19.2 ppg) is healthy from an ankle sprain. Vermont is still the No. 1 seed, but BU is clearly the hottest team after winning in Burlington without Holland.

Weber State was 3-4 in the Big Sky and headed nowhere. Now the Wildcats have won eight conference games in a row and are living up to their preseason hype. Even without the injured Damian Lillard, watch out for Weber State in the Big Sky tournament.

Texas Southern is 14-1 and has locked up the No. 1 seed for the SWAC tournament, but it sure makes every game interesting. Last week, the Tigers won consecutive games in overtime, beating Mississippi Valley State 58-55 in a payback game and gutting out an 83-78 win at Alabama A&M. Texas Southern has won eight straight and seems to be peaking at the right time.

Brett Royster is the shot-block leader for Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt Conference. His ability to intimidate inside has been a major factor in FAU's conference-best record of 13-3. He is the best shot-blocker in Sun Belt history, averaging 3.1 blocks per game. However, that doesn't factor in the number of shots that he changes. Every championship team needs a player who can establish a team's defensive identity, and Royster is that guy for the Owls.

Who's not

Towson has lost 18 in a row, the longest losing streak in the nation. This has been a season of injuries and defections in a tough CAA. The Tigers also got stuck in a snowstorm on the way to play George Mason earlier this season and had to play the next night. It's been a rough ride.

Reports of an NCAA investigation at Coastal Carolina regarding leading scorer Desmond Holloway are a distraction at the very least and could be a game-changer for the Chanticleers and the Big South. Coastal Carolina won the regular-season title and home-court advantage in the semifinals. Without Holloway and Kierre Greenwood (knee), teams like Liberty, UNC-Asheville and VMI had better be checking their home-court availability for the Big South championship game on Saturday.

Tussle at the top

Friday: Kent at Akron -- Kent is 10-4 and tied for the top spot with Miami (Ohio), while Akron is still relevant in the MAC title chase at 9-5. What a job Zips coach Keith Dambrot has done with that team. I saw it earlier in the season, and it looked like a down year for Akron. But Dambrot has the Zips positioned to make the final game of the regular season mean a lot at the top of the MAC standings.

Friday: Ohio at Miami (Ohio) -- The RedHawks are at it again. Every season, they're thrown to the "power six" wolves and take some lumps early. Then the MAC schedule begins, and they are battle-tested for league play. Julian Mavunga leads his team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Ohio counters with the No. 3 assist man in the country, D.J. Cooper.

Friday and Saturday: Harvard hosts Penn and Princeton -- It is officially time for Harvard to repel the encroaching protagonists and acquire a crowning achievement in the Ancient 8 for the very first time.

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