The Redshirt Senior: Finding the needle in the mid-major haystack

by Evan Griffith | 2/4/19 2:00am

Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Especially in basketball. There’s no better feeling than watching some small-time program make a name for itself on the court against bigger and more well-funded competition. Just last year we had the No. 16 seed over No. 1 seed upset and a school that had an elderly nun as moral support on the bench make it to the Final Four. It’s crazy to think that the rules were almost changed to bar mid-majors from the tournament in an effort to keep postseason play more exciting. We have the Ivy League to thank for that, as No.16 seed Princeton University almost upset No. 1 Georgetown University in 1989, but ended up losing 50-49. That game alone ensured that Madness would continue, and mid-major schools would continue to get invited to the Big Dance (Scrabis got fouled by the way). Here’s some of the mid-major teams to look out for in March.

When I talk about mid-majors, it would be remiss of me, at an Ivy League school, to leave out that conference. This means I have to make a prediction regarding who will win the league. At this point in the season, and not to guarantee that a different result will happen come March, I have to go with Yale University. Yale sits at 13-4 with two losses by nine points or less against Memphis University and University of Vermont, a 33-point loss against Duke University (for comparison, Princeton lost to Duke by 51, and a 65-49 loss to Harvard University on Friday. I previously wrote about Yale’s forward Miye Oni and how the offense runs through him. Oni gets a lot of touches for Yale and leads the team in points per game (16.8). In addition to Oni, five of Yale’s players are currently averaging more than 10 points per game, and center Paul Atkinson is currently fourth in the country in field goal percentage, shooting .710 from the field, behind only the the University of Central Florida’s Tacko Fall, the University of Texas’ Jackson Hayes and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Rashaan Holloway. Yale, unlike many of the other Ivy League teams, doesn’t have a bad loss, so I expect Ivy League play to go smoothly for the Bulldogs. Do I expect the team to win in the postseason? Potentially. Bracket Matrix, which aggregates various online March Madness brackets, currently has Yale slotted as a 13 seed as the Ivy League champion, meaning the team would face off against one of the four current four-seeds: Purdue University, Virginia Tech, the University of Nevada or Texas Tech University. The only team I could see Yale taking down is Texas Tech, since the Red Raiders are only managing to score 70.4 points per game, 256th in the nation. Plus, there are some other mid-major teams with an AP Poll appearance under their belts to watch out for in the postseason.

The obvious team is Gonzaga University, which looks like a power conference school although the Bulldogs play in the West Coast Conference. When Gonzaga beat Duke in the Maui Invitational, I thought Gonzaga could be even better once last year’s starting center, Killian Tillie, returns from injury. Well, now he’s back, and … he doesn’t play all that much. Compared to last year when he played and started in almost every game of the season barring injury, this season he’s only been available since the start of conference play, and he hasn’t started in any of the team’s games. That can be attributed to the stellar play of San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke, who started at center in Tillie’s absence and has played phenomenally. Clarke leads the team in field goal percentage (.689), rebounds per game (7.8) and blocks per game (3.0, third in the country), while he’s second on the team in points per game with 16.4, behind future NBA lottery pick Rui Hachimura. Clarke has quietly helped lead Gonzaga to an undefeated WCC record while only recording two losses to former AP number one Tennessee and North Carolina. Gonzaga’s really good this season, and hopefully the Zags can avoid a first-weekend exit like last year.

Speaking of west coast teams that are better than any team in the Pac-12 (there’ll be one Pac-12 dig in every column from now on), the University of Nevada Reno currently sits at 21-1 on the year with an 8-1 record in Mountain West conference play. The Wolf Pack plays with a starting roster of five seniors and, interestingly, all five of these seniors have transferred into the program, speaking to head coach Eric Musselman’s ability as a recruiter (brothers Caleb and Cody Martin transferred from North Carolina State University, Jordan Caroline came from Southern Illinois University, Trey Porter came from Old Dominion University and Tre’Shawn Thurman came from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Nevada’s senior roster should be primed to go far in March.

Believe it or not, the longest current win streak in the nation — before yesterday’s loss to Northeastern University — belonged to a mid-major school: Hofstra University, out of the Colonial Athletic Association. Hofstra had won 16 straight games after an overtime loss to Virginia Commonwealth University in November. The Pride is led by senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who averages 25.5 points per game, if you can believe it, which is third in the country. The only issue with Hofstra that makes me hesitant to give them Cinderella status is their defense. Add that to a soft out of conference schedule, and a bad track record against top teams, and that win streak may come to an end once March hits.

There are plenty of other mid-major schools that are doing good things this time of year ­— who will the shoe fit this season?