At this point a year ago, Saint Peter’s had a 5-6 record and was ranked 228th on the NET. Little did we know the Peacocks were about to start one of the most remarkable runs in college basketball history. There were other far more successful mid-major teams that made it into the NCAA tournament field last season, but it was Saint Peter’s that advanced the furthest.
The Peacocks made it into the Elite Eight at No. 15 and were the only mid-major team to even make the Sweet 16 (no, Gonzaga doesn’t count). Although the Peacocks’ season ended with a 69-49 loss to North Carolina in the East Regional Finals, Saint Peter’s run showed what we love about the big dance.
If you were looking for a mid-sized team to put on a run, the safer bets would have been No. 5 Saint Mary’s, No. 7 Murray State, No. 8 San Diego State, or any number of programs with more restricted appeal than Saint Peter. But ultimately, the Peacocks strutted past Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue on their way into the history books as the longest-lived No. 15 in tournament history.
While we won’t see such a notable run for many years, college basketball is back with several quality mid-major teams this season. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers select the mid-major program they believe is best suited to winning multiple games in the 2023 NCAA tournament.
Saint Mary (16-4)
The Gaels lost top-scorers Tommy Kuhse and Matthias Tass from last season’s roster, who were seeded 5th in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the second round. It’s no surprise that legendary coach Randy Bennett quickly reorganized to create another excellent team. But it’s surprising that Saint Mary’s has actually improved after such catastrophic personnel losses, and it wouldn’t be shocking if this team made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Saint Mary’s was No. 8 on the NET and No. 8 on KenPom.com as of Tuesday and is on track for a No. 6 in the NCAA tournament, according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm. Arguably the biggest factor in the Gaels’ resilience is freshman guard Aidan Mahaney’s play. Ranked as the top 150 prospect in the country by 247Sports, Mahaney is going nuts. In victories over Loyola Marymount and San Francisco last week, he scored 21 and 25 goals while making 18 of 35 shots from the field. Since starting on the starting lineup in early December, he has averaged 16.9 points per game on 52.5% shooting, including a 46.4% mark from 3-point range.
That team is 10-1 since Mahaney came into the starting lineup, and his four losses this season total 15 points. When Saint Mary’s lost to UCLA in the second round of The Big Dance last season, the Bruins couldn’t be absent. But the Gaels have strong defense again this season, and with a bit more luck, they’ll make it back into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010. -David Cobb
At the start of the 2022/23 season, FAU coach Dusty May had amassed a 66-56 record over four (mostly) unforgettable seasons. Three of those four seasons ended in winning records, but not by much, and there was rarely even talk of being a contender for the Conference USA race. However, May and FAU have captured lightning in a bottle this season in one of the best and least talked about stories in sport. The owls howl their way to relevance after a 17-1 start that propelled them into the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history on Monday.
No other team has an unblemished record in the C-USA game – in fact, no team has lost less than two games – making FAU the clear favorites to win the league as of today. That would be the first C-USA title and second regular-season conference championship in program history for the Owls
The 17-1 record isn’t a mirage either. The metrics love FAU. It’s #13 (!) on the NCAA’s net rankings, #35 on KenPom, and #34 on BartTorvik.com. This team has what it takes to make the tournament and make noise in the process. – Kyle Boone
Based on CBS Sports’ Top 25 and 1 on Tuesday morning, my first answer to that question would be Florida Atlantic, which I had in the daily rankings a full seven days before the Owls first entered Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll. My second answer would be Saint Mary’s. But Cobb understandably took the Gaels and Boone understandably took the Owls. So I’m just going to move on to my third option – Boise State.
Leon Rice’s Broncos are doing well again, despite losing four of the team’s top six scorers last season — including top scorer Abu Kigab and third-top scorer Emmanuel Akot, the latter of whom moved to western Kentucky where he likely won’t 2023 NCAA tournament considering the Hilltoppers are 3-4 in C-USA and ranked 160th on the NET. However, Akot’s former teammates are doing well. After stumbling out of the gates and losing two of their first three games, Boise State has won 13 of its last 15 and has worked its way up to 20th place on the NET and 27th on KenPom.com. The Broncos have beaten the Colorado team, which beat Tennessee, the Texas A&M team, which won 4-0 in the SEC, the Saint Louis team, which beat Providence and Memphis, and the Utah State team , which is also in the top 50 at KenPom.
Is it the best resume in the world?
Of course not.
But it’s a good resume that CBS Sports Bracketology pundit Jerry Palm currently projects the Broncos as the No. 10 in the NCAA tournament. If they avoid more bad losses, add some Quadrant 1 wins and win a second straight Mountain West title, this predicted seed will obviously improve – maybe to something like a No. 5 seed or No. 6- Seed. If so, the Broncos would have a realistic path to the Sweet 16, which would be amazing considering the program is still seeking its first NCAA tournament win despite making the Big Dance eight times between 1976 and last season has. – Gary Parish
A flashback from earlier this season. Gonzaga had just beaten Xavier at PK85 and I spoke to Mark Few about his relief at making it 2-1 in that event. Few elaborated on why this was the toughest non-conference schedule he’d ever put together, and after listing all the high-major programs on the board, he threw in something like, “And by the way, we have that too, I have to.” play Kent State in a week and it’s going to be a nightmare.”
Few knew what he spoke. The Golden Flashes led Gonzaga for a good portion of that game, eventually falling 73-66. In fact, Kent State’s only three losses this season have come against teams who are 52-5 combined: Gonzaga, Charleston and Houston. Against Charleston, on the road, Kent State fell by two. In Houston, arguably the best team in college basketball, Rob Senderoff’s team lost by just five points. And then it almost stole the game against Gonzaga.
The Golden Flashes are the best team in the MAC and that’s why they’re my pick for this week’s question: Point Guard Play and Defense. Kent State ranks in the top 20 nationwide for defense effectiveness. That will be in March. It also has Sincere Carry, who is averaging 17 points and five assists a night and is arguably one of the top 10 lead guards in college hoops. Senderoff has been doing it quietly at Kent State since arriving there in 2011. He’s never had such a well-rounded team. A viable Cinderella candidate here, not new to this school. Do you remember 2002? – Matt Norlander