Location: Niagara University, NY
Nickname: Purple Eagles
Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic
Last Year’s Record: 26-9
Why they’ll make it: Seeing the Purple Eagles so high in the countdown may surprise a few of you, but this is a very talented basketball team. This guard-laden team was a nightmare to defend last year and looks to be more of the same this season. Led by Pennsylvania products, Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn, the Purple Eagles are fully capable of challenging Siena for conference supremacy. Along with Rob Garrison and Anthony Nelson, they combined for close to 50 points of offense per game. Throw-in transfer Kevon Moore from UNC-Wilmington and this is, without a doubt, a backcourt capable of getting to the Big Dance.
Why they won’t make it: Niagara is going to need someone to step up in the post. While there aren’t many teams with a great low-post presence at the mid-major level, there needs to be some sort of production in the paint. The Purple Eagles had that player last season in second-team all-conference performer, Benson Egemonye, but he’s long gone now. Right now, Demetrius Williamson, Scooter Gillette, and Eric Williams are all applying for Egemonye’s former position. If none of them are capable, Niagara’s Big Dance dreams may not come true.
Location: College Station, TX
Conference: Big 12
Last Year’s Record: 24-10
Why they’ll make it: In a conference with great 1-2 punches, Texas A&M can lay claim to its own. Donald Sloan in the backcourt and Bryan Davis in the frontcourt will be one of the more formidable scoring duos in the country this season. Not only that, they’ll also provide great senior leadership for a team bringing in a top-30 recruiting class. DeMatha product, Naji Hibbert, leads a class that is expected to provide immediate help for the Aggies. The mix of dependable experience and talented youth will pay huge dividends for a team that is expected to be drastically better in March than they’ll be in November. This will be one dangerous team come tournament time.
Why they won’t make it: Losing Josh Carter and Chinemelu Elonu is a big blow to the Aggies lineup. Carter was the general on the court and the leading scorer for the Aggies. He was one of the best players in the Big 12 and, for the most part is irreplaceable. Elonu was a surprise entrant into the NBA draft. He was their best rebounder and low-post defender and he was expected to team with Davis to become one of the best frontcourts in the country. Carter and Elonu’s production will need to be replaced somehow if the Aggies are to make it a fifth consecutive trip to the tournament. Either way, the Aggies will probably have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Location: Oxford, MS
Last Year’s Record: 16-15
Why they’ll make it: Last season, Ole Miss lost two of its top players early on with season-ending injuries. Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice are back and have had plenty of time to recover. Those two, along with highly touted freshman, Reginald Buckner, will provide a much needed boost for a program that’s moving in the right direction. In addition to that trio, the Rebels also return Zach Graham, Murphy Holloway, and Terrico White to help strengthen a solid nucleus. Coach Andy Kennedy’s team may not be able to challenge its cross-state rival in Starkville for the SEC West title, but Ole Miss will certainly be in the mix for an at-large berth.
Why they won’t make it: Unfortunately for the Rebels, the SEC West isn’t as strong as the SEC East so storing their nuts early on may be the route to take. They’re playing in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off, a field includes Dayton, Villanova, and Kansas State. They’ll need to perform well there and maybe even upset West Virginia in December to feel comfortable about their at-large chances. There aren’t many marquee games on the their schedule, especially after they enter conference play. For that reason, it is imperative for the Rebels to do well in the non-conference portion of their schedule.
Location: Spokane, WA
Conference: West Coast
Last Year’s Record: 28-6
Why they’ll make it: There’s only one starter returning for Gonzaga, but what a player he is. Senior Matt Bouldin, a pre-season all-american candidate, is back and is ready to continue the tradition of great Gonzaga guards. He’ll be asked to take more of a leading role this season and with his confidence, he’ll be ready for it. He won’t be alone though. Both Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson played prominent roles for the Bulldogs last season and they’re going to be nice compliments to Bouldin this season. Once again, expect them to be in mix come March.
Why they won’t make it: The Bulldogs lost a lot of pieces to the puzzle over the summer. Austin Daye, Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo have all matriculated out of the program and that production would be tough for any team to replace. For that reason, for the first time in years, they may need to win the WCC Tournament to secure a NCAA Tournament berth. This will be a quality team in March, but replacing those four will be the key to Gonzaga’s season.
Location: Norfolk, VA
Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
Last Year’s Record: 25-10
Why they’ll make it: With five starters returning, the Monarchs are ready to break the Virginia Commonwealth-George Mason stranglehold on the conference. They weren’t that far away last season; finishing only two games out of first place. What helped them to such a successful season was it’s frontcourt. Led by all-conference center, Gerald Lee, and athletic swingman Ben Finney, the Monarchs out-rebounded its opponents by over seven boards-per-game last season. That helped them win the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship last season and looks like it’ll lead to a berth to a slightly bigger tournament this season.
Why they won’t make it: Northeastern finished in a third-place tie with ODU last season and has enough talent to throw a serious scare to ODU’s Big Dance dreams. Matt Janning, Manny Adako, and Chaisson Allen, the top-three scorers for the Huskies, all return. The Huskies are primed to move up in the standings and if the Monarchs should falter, they’ll be heading to NCAA tournament.
Why they’ll make it: Returning four of its starters, Akron is primed for a return trip to the tournament. Led by the McKnight brothers, Brett and Chris, the Zips have the veteran leadership successful mid-major teams always seem to have. They also welcome the arrival of freshman Zeke Marshall, Rivals.com’s highest ranking player to ever commit to a MAC school. None of their numbers will jump out at you on paper, but don’t let that fool you. This team thrives on its defense. Head coach Keith Dambrot has a system in place and it works very well. The Zips held conference foes to a little over 57 points per game last season and it’ll be more of the same since they’re extremely comfortable with Dambrot’s system. Akron is ready to lock up another berth in the Big Dance just as it locks up it’s opponents.
Why they won’t make it: Buffalo still has enough talent to challenge. The Bulls actually finished a game ahead of the Zips in the standings last year so don’t expect confidence to be an issue. This team knows it has more than a fighting chance. Rodney Pierce and Calvin Betts, last season’s leading scorers, return and they’re among the best players in the conference. This may not be the team it was last season, but it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility for it make the NCAA tournament.
Location: Bowling Green, KY
Conference: Sun Blet
Last Year’s Record: 25-9
Why they’ll make it: Its amazing, that as a mid-major, Western Kentucky is getting to the point where it doesn’t rebuild; it reloads. There are only five returning players for the Hilltoppers this season, but its the right five. Led by the frontcourt tandem of Sergio Kerusch and Stephon Pettigrew and second-team all-conference guard, A.J. Slaughter, the Hilltoppers will still have the most talented starting five in conference. The talent doesn’t stop with the starting five though. They have an outstanding recruiting class coming in led by the Gatorade’s Alabama Player of the Year, Jordan Swing and top junior college prospect, Cliff Dixon. Anyone expecting the Hilltoppers take a step back this season need only to look at this roster. Western Kentucky will continue to be difficult to defeat.
Why they won’t make it: Depth will be an issue for the Western Kentucky this season. Among the seven players they lost last season was the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year, Orlando Mendez-Valdez. He’ll be difficult to replace as will the quality depth this club has enjoyed in recent seasons. In addition to that, the Hilltoppers had to dismiss incoming freshman, David Laury from the team in late July. They still have a talented class coming in, but it’s always unclear how a group of freshmen, no matter how talented, will adjust to the college game. If they aren’t able to get solid play off the bench, the Hilltoppers may see their NCAA tournament berth in North Texas’ hands.