Best Of The Rest Roundup: Can mid-majors make Final Four push?
Coaches like Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart decided to stay with their teams
Will the Mountain West be able to contend with major conference foes this season?
Darkhorse teams like UNLV or San Diego State could make a run for the Final Four
Feel like you're out of the college hoops loop? No problem. SI.com recaps everything you need to know as summer recruiting season winds to a close and a new crop of college players get ready to take the floor. Today Andy Glockner takes a look at the best of the remaining conferences.
No true major-conference heavyweights equals big opportunities for others.
In a year where the coaching carousel was relatively tame, the biggest news was that none of the coaches of these elite programs were poached by a bigger school. We still get to enjoy Brad Stevens at Butler, Shaka Smart at VCU, Mark Few at Gonzaga, etc. The only coach who won't be on the sidelines this season from a top-10 team below is Rick Majerus, due to illness. Continuity is always a key for programs in this category and we have a really strong batch of returning talent this season.
In other news, the conference realignment puzzle jumped up and bit a few of the leagues outside BCS world. The Mountain West welcomes in Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC. The Atlantic 10 admits Butler (from the Horizon League) and VCU (from the CAA). A number of teams (like San Diego State and Memphis) enter their last season in their current leagues, so the picture will change significantly again next season.
A lot of the success teams in this category have comes from the development of less-heralded recruits into major-college talent. That said, highly-regarded players are finding their way to more off-the-standard-path programs, lured by strong coaching and available playing time. For the Class of 2012, 10 of ESPN's top 100 ranked recruits ended up outside the six BCS football leagues. UNLV, Houston and VCU nabbed two potential stars apiece. Here is the full list of guys who should make immediate impacts (in order of ranking):
Anthony Bennett (F, UNLV)
Danuel House (SF, Houston)
Shaq Goodwin (C, Memphis)
Katin Reinhardt (SG, UNLV)
Danrad "Chicken" Knowles (PF, Houston)
Winston Shepard (SF, San Diego State)
Robert Upshaw (C, Fresno State)
Kellen Dunham (SG, Butler)
Fred Van Vleet (PG, Wichita State)
Melvin Johnson (SG, VCU)
Maurice Watson (PG, Boston U.)
Jordan Burgess (SF, VCU)
How well will Butler and VCU transition to the Atlantic 10?: The acceleration of the Bulldogs' and Rams' move into the more rugged A-10 has put significant pressure on rosters built to compete in their former leagues to be able to handle bigger, more physical rosters for a full league season. Both teams are very talented -- VCU especially returns a ton of talent that has developed during the Rams' excellent runs the last two seasons -- so we'll get a good proxy of the age-old, high-major argument that mid-majors couldn't handle playing their league schedules.
How high will the Mountain West rank this season?: Despite 11 NCAA bids in the past three seasons and several top-3 seeds in that timeframe, the conference as a whole has lagged others in Ken Pomeroy's rankings because the quality of depth in the league paled against some bigger-money conferences. That could change this season. UNLV and San Diego State are top-15 caliber teams to start the season, New Mexico, Colorado State and Nevada should be very strong second-level clubs, and even teams like Wyoming and Air Force should be solid. Once again, winning on the road in league play will be at a huge premium, and the sixth- and seventh-place teams should be quality clubs.
What are the chances for a non-BCS league team to make the Final Four?: This is one of those seasons without a clear juggernaut major-conference team where you could see some dark horses make runs at Atlanta. Since George Mason kicked in the glass ceiling in 2006, non-BCS football league teams making the Final Four have become much more frequent. Memphis almost win it all in 2008, as did Butler in 2010. There's no reason to think that one or more of the clubs listed below couldn't make a similar run, especially if strong regular-season play gets them a deserved protected seed in the NCAAs.
1. UNLV (Mountain West)
If Anthony Marshall can capably handle the lead guard role, the sky is the limit for the Rebels. They have a ridiculously deep frontcourt, solid enough shooting and depth that should allow them to defend while still pushing tempo.
2. San Diego State (Mountain West)
The Aztecs very easily could win the league in their final season. The two meetings with UNLV and the contrasts of (relative) frontcourt and backcourt strength should be sensational.
3. VCU (Atlantic 10)
Have every rotation guy back except for Bradford Burgess? Check. Still have Shaka Smart on the bench? Check. Two highly-touted recruits? Check. The Atlantic 10 is not going to enjoy visits to this side of Richmond, either. The Rams should contend strongly in their debut season.
4. Creighton (Missouri Valley)
Doug McDermott is back and so is much of the core of the offensively explosive Bluejays. If they can even show modest improvement defensively, this could be a second-weekend team in the NCAAs.
5. Saint Louis (Atlantic 10)
Even without Rick Majerus on the sideline, the Billikens are the likely A-10 media poll favorite. Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis provide enough shooting to supplement the very stingy defense. The pressure is on interim coach Jim Crews to get this team playing to its potential.
6. Murray State (Ohio Valley)
Last season's almost-unbeaten Cinderella returns a lot of talent, including probable preseason All-America Isaiah Canaan. With Belmont now in the OVC, though, this won't be a cakewalk to the crown.
7. Butler (Atlantic 10)
If Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham shoot like they are capable of, this is a whole new Butler team and one that could be very good. Inside guys Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall should be much more effective with better spacing. Can they hold up to the Atlantic 10 grind?
8. Memphis (Conference USA)
There are really no more excuses for Josh Pastner and this now-experienced core. Adding Shaq Goodwin to the mix is a bonus, but there's enough talent here even without Will Barton to have a big season.
9. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
A young team last season that is a sleeper in the Missouri Valley this season. Ben Jacobson can really coach and the Panthers' tempo control could be the antidote to Creighton's high-powered O.
10. Gonzaga (West Coast)
I like what Saint Mary's has coming back, but I like the Zags' personnel a bit better. One of the better conference rivalries will again come down to the wire, and probably a third game in Vegas in March.
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