Sunday, 12 November 2006

College Basketball Preview: Who is this Year's George Mason?

Short answer: No one.

Long answer: There will be some very good Mid-Majors this year. So here's a list of the best Mid-Majors heading into the season (assuming that Gonzaga and Memphis have moved past being called a Mid-Major, and that the MVC is still a Mid-Major conference).

Nevada: These guys have been so good for the past few years it's hard to call them a Mid-Major. Regardless, another trip to The Dance is in order for the Wolfpack. They will again be led by senior Nick Fazekas, one of the best and most skilled big men in the country. Fazekas averaged over 21 points and 10 rebounds a game last year. He is skilled inside and outside and hurts you in many different ways. But Nevada is much more than just Nick Fazekas. Three starters return in the backcourt, including Marcelus Kemp (15 PPG), Kyle Shiloh (8.7 PPG) and PG Ramon Sessions (4.7 PPG, 5.0 APG). Add in the hunger that comes from being upset in round 1, and this will be a very good Nevada team.

Creighton: Last year, when Creighton lost their best player to injury, all they did was keep on winning. Nate Funk was hurt 6 games into the season, but like clockwork Creighton won 20 games and went to a postseason tournament. This year, Nate Funk is back, and so are a lot of other pieces, making Creighton one of the best Mid-Majors in America. The biggest question mark heading into the season is Josh Dotzler, who was excellent at the point as a freshman for Dana Altman. If he's healthy, Creighton will be competing for a high seed in the NCAAs. The aforementioned Funk is back for his second shot as a Senior year, looking to improve on the 17.8 PPG he put up two years ago. The other star for Creighton is big man Anthony Tolliver, who improved a lot last year. He finished averaging over 13 points and nearly 7 rebounds and will combine with Funk for an excellent 1-2 punch.

Southern Illinois: They were second in the MVC, won the conference tournament, and now return all of their starters. Yeah, the Salukis will be very good all again. The best part about them is they play great, lockdown defense, which will again be excellent for this veteran team. In the backcourt, Jamaal Tatum (15 PPG) and Tony Young (11.6 PPG) are back. Upfront, they've got two very active, very solid posts. One is Matt Shaw, the other is Falker. Shaw is probably a better scorer, but I really like Falker. He's active, sound defensively, and a presence on the glass. Add it all up, and the Salukis are my favorites in the MVC.

Wichita St: Expectations are high for the Shockers after their Sweet 16 run, and they have the talent once again to make a run. Gone is Paul Miller, back is almost everything else. In the backcourt is sharpshooter Sean Ogirri, who led the MVC in 3s last season. There are also a couple of versatile forwards back with Kyle Wilson and PJ Cousinard. The guy to watch is Gal Mekel, the freshman from Israel. From what I read, he's drawn comparisons to Steve Nash, who's pretty decent. All in all, another Tourney run appears to be in the works for the Shockers, and they have the talent to get right back to where they were, the Sweet 16.

Missouri St: Of all the teams that missed the NCAA Tournament, Missouri St. probably had the best case. Great RPI, excellent record, and now a huge chip on their shoulder. With four starters back and a good bench, they've got the means to leave no doubt in the committee's minds this year. They're led by Blake Ahearn, who averaged 16 PPG last year and shot a ridiculous 93.6% at the FT line last year. After that it's just a lot of talented role players, who should be very motivated to get to the Tourney this season.

Xavier: After an up-and-down season, Xavier went on to win the A-10 Tournament before nearly pulling off the 14-3 upset on Gonzaga in the Tourney. They couldn't pull it off, but they showed what they're capable of. They return almost everything and will be an experienced group. Stanley Burrell, who averaged over 14 PPG last year will be back for his junior season. Justin Cage, Justin Doellman, and Josh Duncan are also back. But none of that may be as important as the addition of Drew Lavendar. Lavendar started at PG for Big 12 Oklahoma as a freshman and sophomore before deciding to transfer, and Xavier was the beneficiary of that. Lavendar is extremely quick, shoots well, gets others involved, and is a good defender. He should immediately be one of the best players in the A-10 and is one of the main reasons Xavier is the favorite in that conference.

San Diego State: Unfortunately, Marcus Slaughter decided to leave early after his junior year, and he was not drafted. Slaughter averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds per game, and was one of the best players in the Mountain West. But even though he's gone, the cupboard is far from bare. Brandon Heath is still there, and he is now the best player in the conference after averaging over 18 PPG as a junior. Also returning is big man Mohamed Abukar, an extremely skilled and diverse scorer. Even with Heath and Slaughter, Abukar averaged 14 points a game, and is a great outside shooter for his size, as well as having the ability to score in the post. With the addition of another transfer coming in with Lorrenzo Wade (from Louisville), and sophomore Kyle Spain returning, the Aztecs are once again the Mountain West favorites.

Who do you think is the best Mid-Major?