Just a few weeks into the college basketball season, a handful of mid-majors — Harvard, Creighton and Saint Louis — have already ascended from relative obscurity to crack the Top 25 polls.
Then there's another group — Kent State, Iona, Murray State, Long Beach State and others — who have already grabbed a bit of spotlight either with big wins, undefeated starts or by capitalizing on preseason buzz.
And there's a whole wave of them waiting in the wings.
Here's a look at the next group of fledgling mid-majors who, after hot starts to the 2011-2 season, could soon command your attention.
Boise State (8-1): The Broncos aren't just 8-1, but they're 8-1 with 11 fresh faces on their roster. After losing the top four scorers off of his first team at Boise State, Leon Rice's club has come together nicely so far. They're winning and scoring big, with those eight victories coming by an average margin of 29.6 points. The most exciting of the newcomers is 6-foot-6 freshman swingman Anthony Drmic. The Australian import is averaging 15.6 points per game, and is shooting 42.2 percent from long range. However, the Broncos' eight wins have all come at home, and their lone setback — 72-62 to Long Beach State — came on the road. If they want to legitimatize themselves, sweeping an upcoming back-to-back set of road games would be a big help. They play at LSU on Saturday, then at Denver next Saturday.
UW-Milwaukee (8-1): The Panthers made their first significant road statement on Monday, traveling south across the Wisconsin border and slamming DePaul, 87-76. They returned three starters off of a team that clinched the top seed in last year's Horizon League tournament, but then fell flat in the title game in a loss to Butler and were bounced in the first round of the NIT by Northwestern. They, too, are entering a judgement stretch of their non-conference slate, with three of their next four games coming at Northern Iowa (Saturday), at home against Wisconsin (next Tuesday) and at Marquette (Dec. 22). Winning just one of those could go a long way down the road.
Coastal Carolina (8-1): The Chanticleers went 26-4 in the regular season a year ago, despite a wave of controversy late in the season. And despite losing his top three scorers, Cliff Ellis has just as dangerous of a group this year. Returner Anthony Raffa has emerged as the team's leading scorer (18.9 ppg), while Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Chris Gradnigo is making a major impact (16.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg). They already have nice victories over LSU and Clemson, but the Chanticleers will likely have to impress again by winning in bulk, as there's no opponents left on their schedule that will make heads turn. Another season of at least 25 wins should be a cinch.
Ohio (6-1): Behind one of the best point guards in America that no one knows about — junior D.J. Cooper — the Bobcats look strong, with their only loss coming by five points at Louisville in late November. Right now, it's tough to tell who is the class of the MAC East between them and Kent State.
UC Santa Barbara (4-2): This one's a bit more of a longshot, but worthy of your attention. The Gauchos' two losses came by a point in overtime to San Diego State, then by six in double-overtime to UNLV. Long Beach State has gotten plenty of the attention in the Big West so far, thanks to a rigorous schedule and a win at Pitt. But it's debatable which of the two is the best the league has to offer. Bob Williams has an elite-level scorer in senior wing Orlando Johnson (23.8 ppg), and his team has a prime opportunity coming up with road games at Washington (next Friday), at Cal (Dec. 19) and at BYU (Dec. 22).
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