Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Thanks to conference realignment, the
Memphis Tigers will be playing in American Athletic Conference this season. As
a result, their reign as one of the most successful mid-major programs in the
nation will come to a close.
Memphis is not the only well-known mid-major that moved up to a more
competitive league this off-season. Creighton, Butler, Temple, Xavier and UCF
all joined power conferences as well.
Also, the Mountain West sent five teams to the Big Dance last season. UNLV's
Anthony Bennett was selected number one in the NBA Draft. On Thursday night,
the Rebels picked up their second commitment from a high level recruit as
Goodluck Okonoboh chose UNLV over Duke, Florida, Indiana and Ohio State. With
New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State, Air Force and Boise State all on
the rise, top recruits will continue to take a look at what was formerly
considered a lower-level conference. The MWC may not get an automatic bid to a
BCS bowl in football, but it has become one of the major conferences on the
The Atlantic 10 was nearing the upper echelon as well before it was ransacked
by the former and new Big East Conferences. Still, there is plenty to like
outside the power conferences heading into this season.
The following five programs will be playing in mid-major conferences next
season and will most likely end up with invitations to the 2014 NCAA
VCU - Year after year, Shaka Smart's name is mentioned whenever a head
coaching vacancy at a big program becomes available. Smart has stayed loyal to
VCU as his Rams continue to be an NCAA Tournament threat and contender to win
the Atlantic 10 Conference. Smart's trademark full-court press makes it
impossible to defeat the Rams without any quality ball handlers. VCU
completely embarrassed some of its competition last season, including Akron,
which it defeated 88-42 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Rams
suffered a season-ending 25-point loss to the national runner-up Michigan
Wolverines in the third round. Juvonte Reddic (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Treveon
Graham (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are both back to lead the Rams as they attempt to
reach another Final Four under Smart.
WICHITA STATE - Speaking of the Final Four, Gregg Marshall's Shockers were the
surprise team of last year's tournament field. Although the Missouri Valley
Conference produces upsets on a weekly basis, Wichita State should have a much
easier time winning its conference title this year with Doug McDermott and
Creighton no longer an obstacle. Charles Koch Arena was one of the toughest
venues to visit last season as WSU compiled a 15-2 home record. Although the
Shockers will have to replace some of their key players from the Final Four
team, they have back senior forward Cleanthony Early (13.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) to
lead the charge.
GONZAGA - Mark Few's squad earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the
first time in school history only to be upset by the Shockers in the third
round last year. Gonzaga has carved out a place for itself in the Top 25 for
some time now and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Bulldogs only
have one legitimate contender in the West Coast Conference once again as St.
Mary's has fallen off and BYU has improved. Gonzaga lost its starting
frontcourt of Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk to the NBA, which will most likely
prevent it from soaring to the unprecedented heights it reached last season.
Few's team will still be a tough out due to Kevin Pangos (11.9 ppg), who has
one of the most lethal outside shots in the nation. The Zags also have back
son of NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, David Stockton, along with an
excellent wing in Gary Bell, Jr.
HARVARD - Tommy Amaker was fired by the University of Michigan after many felt
his Wolverine teams tended to underachieve and fall apart when it mattered
most. The former Duke point guard and disciple of coach Mike Krzyzewski will
not hear the same criticism at Harvard after leading the Crimson to an upset
of the No. 3 seeded New Mexico Lobos in last year's NCAA Tournament. Harvard
was not expected to even win the Ivy League championship after losing a pair
of 2011-12 All-Ivy selections due to an academic scandal. The Crimson return
four starters from the perseverant group, including Wesley Saunders (16.2 ppg,
1.8 spg) and Laurent Rivard (10.3 ppg). Amaker has done a great job of
mentoring point guard Siyani Chambers (12.4 ppg, 5.7 apg), who became the
first freshman to be named to the All-Ivy League first team in the league's
history. Harvard should be even better this season with Brandyn Curry and Kyle
Casey, the All-Ivy players lost to the academic scandal, both returning.
BUFFALO - Another former point guard of Krzyzewski's will make his head
coaching debut in upstate New York this season as Bobby Hurley takes over the
helm of the Bulls' program. Hurley built an impressive resume as a player at
Duke, winning two NCAA championships and the 1992 NCAA Final Four Most
Outstanding Player Award. Hurley is not expected to be an instant success with
the Bulls, who finished 14-20 overall with a 7-9 standing in the Mid-American
Conference. The Bulls were an underachieving bunch in 2012-13 and never really
found a replacement for starting point guard Jarod Oldham (10.1 ppg, 4.4 apg)
after he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in practice after just 11
games. There is a very good chance that Buffalo will prevail from the MAC,
which is wide open due to key graduations at both Ohio and Toledo. Hurley has
an excellent player to build around in Javon McCrea, who finished second in
the MAC in scoring (18.0), tied for third in rebounding (7.9), third in field
goal percentage (.557), and second in blocked shots (89) last year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Iona, Saint Louis, Florida Gulf Coast, Massachusetts,
Western Michigan, La Salle and South Alabama.
The Sports Network