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Dickie V’s Elite 8 Mid Majors to Watch!
The first half of the college basketball season has been nothing short of exhilarating, marked by thrilling matchups, unexpected upsets, and the emergence of powerful mid-major programs that are poised to make a significant impact in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The parity in the college basketball landscape has never been more evident, as mid-major programs, armed with talent, depth, and a fearless mindset, have consistently challenged the status quo. These teams have not only secured impressive victories but have also demonstrated a level of consistency and resilience that makes them dangerous adversaries as the season progresses.
As the first half concludes, I eagerly await the opportunity to witness these emerging mid-major powerhouses take on the established giants. The unpredictability of college basketball has been the defining narrative, setting the stage for an exhilarating second half and a tournament that promises to be filled with surprises, upsets, and the potential for mid-major programs to make deep runs and etch their names into the annals of March Madness history.
Here’s my picks to click on the road to the tournament.
Florida Atlantic Owls, American Athletic Conference – It’s been an up-and-down pre-conference journey for the Owls who enjoyed the success of knocking off the Arizona Wildcats on their home floor and neutral site win over a highly regarded Texas A&M Aggies squad to a couple of head scratching Quad 4 losses to the Bryant Bulldogs and the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. With a solid top 20 NET ranking, FAU is favored in every game until the final four games of the season when it faces off twice against the Memphis Tigers for what will likely be for the regular season title.
Princeton Tigers, Ivy League – The class of the Ivy League Princeton Tigers are sitting solidly in the top 30 NET rankings with a 12-1 non-conference record and three Quad 2 wins. The Tigers, who made a Sweet 16 run last year, are looking to make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since three straight from 1996-98. Princeton’s 9-0 start was its best in more than 100 years.
Indiana State Sycamores, Missouri Valley Conference – The Sycamores are on pace to do something that hasn’t been done on the quiet Terre Haute, Ind., campus in over 20 years and that’s post back-to-back 20-win seasons. It’s also on pace to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Last year’s 23-win season gave this team confidence to compete, and they are the favorites to win their first MVC regular season title since 2000. With a top 40 NET ranking, they are solidly in the field and will try to rise up above the No. 12 line in Joe Lunardi’s projections.
Colorado State Rams, Mountain West Conference – The Rams captured their best wins of the season over the Creighton Blue Jays and rival Colorado Buffaloes and are 5-1 versus Quads 1 (2-0) and 2 (3-1) opponents. They also own a neutral site win against the Washington Huskies. Their only loss came to St. Mary’s. Life on the road is tough, so look for CSU to be tested at Nevada, San Diego State and New Mexico. Projected a 5-seed by Joe Lunardi, the Rams need to keep winning to hold that line.
New Mexico Lobos, Mountain West Conference – in his third season at New Mexico, Richard Pitino has brought the Lobos back to relevance on the national scene. Jamal Mashburn Jr., who came with Pitino from Minnesota, returned to the lineup after missing seven games due to injury. With a top 40 NET ranking, the Lobos are positioned to rise about their projected 11-seed .
Nevada Wolfpack, Mountain West Conference – Nevada is another team that rolled through its non-conference schedule and collected a pair of Quad 1 wins over the Washington Huskies and TCU Horned Frogs. The Wolfpack, who find themselves solidly on the No. 8 line in tournament projections with a top 40 NET ranking, will have to hold serve at home and steal a road win or two.
James Madison Dukes, Sun Belt Conference – By far the best team in the Sun Belt Conference, the Dukes have a chance to go undefeated in the regular season and become the first team since Gonzaga in 2021 to enter the Dance without a loss. I know that’s saying a lot in January. Since the season-opening overtime win at Michigan State, the Dukes have put on a scoring clinic, ranking third in the nation with 91.8 points per game, having scored under 80 points one time in the pre-conference slate. With a one Quad 1 win and a NET ranking of 31, JMU needs to run the table to rise into a single digit seed line for the NCAA Tournament.
Grand Canyon Antelopes, Western Athletic Conference – As the only WAC team with a top 50 NET ranking, the Lopes are poised to be the lone conference representative in the latest NCAA tournament projections. Thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, GCU owns three Quad 1 wins and one Quad 2 victory. Bryce Drew enters conference play on a nine-game win streak and is favored to complete a perfect league slate. Drew, took the Lopes to the NCAA tournament in 2021 (No. 15 seed) and 2023 (No. 14 seed), could see this team boast its highest seed ever.