Top college hoops mid-majors for 2011-12

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

The 2010-11 season taught us that balance and parity exists in college basketball like never before. The gap between the haves and have-nots is closing, and there’s no reason to believe the trend will slow down anytime soon.

For that reason, it won’t be all that surprising if the Final Four features two teams from non-power conferences for the second straight year. Just don’t expect one of them to be Virginia Commonwealth.

Or Butler.

Last season’s NCAA tournament darlings each suffered key personnel losses that will prevent them from repeating last year’s amazing feat of advancing to college basketball’s final weekend. At Butler the Bulldogs must replace Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. VCU lost Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozell, Ed Nixon and Joey Rodriguez.

Here’s a look at some other teams from non-power conferences who have the potential in 2011-12 to be the next Butler or Virginia Commonwealth.

Belmont – The Bruins have been to the NCAA tournament four of the past six seasons, and with four starters returning from last year’s 30-5 squad, there’s no reason to think they won’t earn a berth in 2011-12. Belmont is known for its depth, as 11 players averaged 10 or more minutes last season.

BYU – Life won’t be the same without Jimmer Fredette, but that doesn’t mean the Cougars – who are moving to the West Coast Conference – won’t be any good. Key players such as Brandon Davies, Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo return, and BYU fans are excited about the arrival of point guard DeMarcus Harrison, who chose BYU over Clemson, Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State.

Central Florida – The Knights went into a freefall after a 13-0 start last season, but 2011-12 should be filled with success. Leading scorers Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton return for a team that also adds touted freshman Michael Chandler, a 6-foot-10 center. Virginia transfer Tristan Spurlock, a guard, will also be eligible.

Creighton – The Bluejays will be led by Doug McDermott, the son of coach Greg McDermott. Doug averaged team-highs in points (14.9) and rebounds (7.2) as a freshman last season. Point guard Antoine Young is also back along with former Rutgers standout Greg Echenique.

Detroit – Don’t be surprised if the Titans win the Horizon League title in 2011-12. Sophomore guard Ray McCallum is among the most talented mid-major players in the country. And Detroit has one of the conference’s top big men in 6-foot-10 center Eli Holman, who began his career at Indiana. Both players are NBA prospects.

Gonzaga – The league is mid-major, but the Bulldogs are well past that. With 11 straight West Coast Conference titles, Gonzaga is the proud owner of one of most impressive streaks in college sports. They’ll shoot for No. 12 without guard Demetri Goodson and Steven Gray, but Elias Harris and Robert Sacre return in the paint, and the Zags’ 2011 recruiting class is guard-heavy.

Harvard – All five starters return from a team that went 23-7 last season and narrowly missed making the NCAA tournament. Leading the way for Tommy Amaker’s squad is 6-foot-8 forward Keith Wright, who led the Crimson in points, rebounds and blocks.

Memphis – No non-Big Six team boasts as much talent as the Tigers, whose only significant loss is power forward Will Coleman. Memphis has an incredibly deep backcourt with Will Barton, Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson and Charles Carmouche. Signees Adonis Thomas and Stan Simpson will provide some much-needed help down low.

New MexicoUCLA transfer Drew Gordon averaged 13 points and 10.5 rebounds last season for the Lobos, who are hoping for even better things from him this year. The backcourt of Kendall Williams and Phillip McDonald also returns for a team that went 22-13 in 2010-11 despite having just one senior in point guard Dairese Gary, who will be difficult to replace.

St. Mary’s – The Gaels have lost some stars (i.e. Patrick Mills and Omar Samhan) over the last few years but have yet to experience a severe dropoff. That should be the case again in 2011-12, when forward Rob Jones and guard Matthew Dellavedova will help make up for the departure of senior Mickey McConnell, last year’s West Coast Conference Player of the Year.

Temple – Losing Lavoy Allen will hurt, but the Owls return all four other starters from a squad that was one shot away from making the Sweet 16 last season. Included in that mix is guard Ramone Moore, who averaged a team-high 15.2 points.

UNLV – New coach Dave Rice must feel lucky. As if being hired to coach at his alma mater wasn’t enough, Rice inherited a darn good team. Veterans Derrick Jasper and Tre’Von Willis are gone, but the Runnin’ Rebels return four players who started either full or part-time in 2011-12.

Wichita State – The Shockers lose some key players (including J.T. Durley) from the team that defeated Alabama in last year’s NIT championship. But that’s not to say Gregg Marshall’s squad is without players. Guards Toure Murray, David Kyles and Joe Ragland will be form one of the Missouri Valley’s toughest backcourts.

Xavier – The Musketeers received some good news shortly after the season when leading scorer Tu Holloway announced he’d return to school. The team’s second and third-leading scorers – Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons – are also back.

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