Now that we’ve made it through the power conferences, it’s time to analyze the best of the rest. Being a high-major program isn’t a requirement to be an elite team in today’s college basketball landscape – just ask the first two schools on our list.
As the list of Division I teams grows larger by the year, there are always a few programs that don’t get much TV exposure but remain firmly in the mix to win the national championship.
From powerhouse Gonzaga to little-known UAB, we highlight five mid-major schools that could make a deep run in this year’s March Madness.
Gonzaga (28-4) – West Coast Conference
Gonzaga has made 23 straight NCAA Tournaments, won at least 28 games in an otherworldly 10 straight seasons, and won the WCC regular season in each of those campaigns. It is an absolute insult to call the Bulldogs a mid-major team, but for now, they are still classified as such.
Two-time All-American Drew Timme is back for a fourth season in Spokane and will be joined by fellow returnees Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther as the team’s leaders. Transfers Malachi Smith and Efton Reid, along with rising sophomores Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, raise the program’s ceiling.
Based on talent and pedigree alone, Gonzaga is a logical preseason pick to be the nation’s No. 1 team this year. However, if there’s any pitfall, it’s that the squad doesn’t possess the surefire NBA talent it had the previous two seasons with Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren. Still, these Bulldogs are as capable as any team of winning head coach Mark Few’s first national championship.
Houston (32-6) – American Athletic Conference
Thanks to coach Kelvin Sampson’s remarkable rebuild, Houston has been every bit the national title competitor Gonzaga has been over the last few seasons. The Cougars have made four straight Tournaments and reached at least the Elite Eight in the last two. Using elite physicality, rebounding, and defense, Houston is able to consistently take teams out of their comfort zones.
Injuries prevented the Cougars from advancing to their second straight Final Four last year, but they’re back to full health and have added significant reinforcements. Potential All-American Marcus Sasser and wing Tramon Mark will be full-time starters again after playing a combined 19 games last year, and highly touted freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux could be difference-makers.
Houston has as good a chance as any program to cut down the nets in early April after coming very close two years in a row. Between returnees, freshmen, and one of the country’s top coaches, the Cougars are loaded across the board, especially considering they don’t play in a power conference.
San Diego State (23-9) – Mountain West Conference
While not in the same tier as Houston or Gonzaga, San Diego State has a ceiling that could keep it in the AP Poll all season long, having started out at No. 19. The program is traditionally known for having one of the country’s top defenses and ranked second in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating in 2021-22.
The defense should be as good as ever with head coach Brian Dutcher on the sidelines and rim-protector Nathan Mensah manning the middle. The offense, however, could see a major improvement after being the Aztecs’ Achilles’ heel last year. Star Matt Bradley and his 17 points on 40% shooting from deep return to the lineup, and diminutive Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell will provide explosiveness that the team lacked.
Transfer Jaedon LeDee, a former four-star prospect back in 2018, is a wild card who could push his team over the top. LeDee never got it going at either Ohio State or TCU, but after a redshirt season, there have been rumblings of him being one of San Diego State’s best players. If that’s the case, the sky’s the limit for the Aztecs.
Dayton (24-11) – Atlantic 10 Conference
Dayton brings back its seven most used players from last season when the program went 14-4 in conference play and won an NIT game. More importantly, all of those players were freshmen or sophomores, so there’s potentially significant room for growth this season.
Coach Anthony Grant has had a top-tier team in the past, with the Obi Toppin-led Flyers going 29-2 and 18-0 in conference play in 2019-20 before COVID-19 ruined their chance at making an NCAA Tournament run. While this year’s iteration may not be quite as superb, the chance of winning multiple games in March remains very much on the table.
Sophomore big man DaRon Holmes II may not be Toppin, but he’ll need to channel the current New York Knicks forward if Dayton is to reach its full potential. If Holmes is the A-10 Player of the Year, it will go a long way towards another top conference finish for the Flyers.
UAB (27-8) – Conference USA
While Dayton is a top-tier mid-major program that’s running it back, UAB is a top-tier mid-major that added new tools this offseason. The Blazers did bring back Player of the Year Jordan “Jelly” Walker, star big man Trey Jemison, and experienced forward KJ Buffen, but they also added NBA prospect and LSU transfer Eric Gaines and a handful of other new pieces.
Walker and Gaines are sure to form an explosive tandem in the backcourt. Walker made the second-most 3-pointers in the country last season, dropping 20.3 points and 4.9 assists on a deadly 39.6% from beyond the arc. Gaines’ stats were more modest as a sophomore at a power conference school, but his otherworldly speed and athletic burst put him at a level higher than most C-USA foes can match up with.
With veteran head coach Andy Kennedy in charge, UAB truly has the full package needed for a lesser-known mid-major to make a notable NCAA Tournament run. With the exciting backcourt pairing and complementary pieces around them sure to be a joy to watch, fans should be rooting for the Blazers to make it to the big stage.