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The Other Top 25: Way Too Early Rankings for 2019-20

A familiar face is up top with havoc lurking.

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s become a tradition unlike any other: Way Too Early rankings the day after the national championship game.

As the Mid-Major Madness staff sits here and watches Virginia celebrate in Minneapolis, we put the finishing touches on our projections for 2019-20. This was, naturally, a difficult list to put together, and it’s one that will change a few times before opening night in November. For now, Gonzaga should be the best team from a non-major conference in the land, while VCU leads a resurgent Atlantic 10 in the east. Saint Mary’s was our clear-cut No. 3 team, but after gets difficult.

Here’s where we landed with 0 percent confidence:

The Other Top 25: Way Too Early 2019-20 Edition

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

2018-19: 33-4, NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

Yes, they lose Josh Perkins, Geno Crandall and some combination of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Killian Tillie to the NBA Draft. Yet as the world of college basketball has come to realize, overlooking Gonzaga is rarely a good move. Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs work their magic again and keep Clarke and Tillie for one more year — after all, Mark Few has a knack of keeping NBA-caliber players in Spokane. Worst-case scenario: Gonzaga’s backcourt leaves, but is replaced with a six-man recruiting class that is one of the best in the nation. Sure, they might not actually have a point guard. Sure, they won’t be as experienced. But they have the fourth-best odds to win the national championship for a reason.

- Kyle Cajero

2. VCU Rams

2018-19: 25-8, NCAA Tournament First Round

First Round losses in the Atlantic 10 and NCAA Tournaments took a little bit of shine off of VCU’s 2018-19 season, and that’s a shame, because the Rams were really, really good. They won the A-10 regular season title, lost only twice between Dec. 22 and March 8, and had the seventh-best defense in the country, according to KenPom. Next year, just about everybody should be back. All-Atlantic 10 performers Marcus Evans and De’Riante Jenkins return, along with Issac Vann, and the three of them will anchor one of the most experienced teams in the country. The A-10 and a whole should be much improved, so don’t expect the road to be easy for the Rams.

- Russell Steinberg

3. Saint Mary’s Gaels

2018-19: 22-12, NCAA Tournament First Round

One of the more notable stories of championship week this season came to us courtesy of the Gaels, whose 60-47 upset of Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament gave them their second NCAA Tournament bid in three years. Fortunately for Saint Mary’s, they’ll be poised to put up a solid title defense, as four starters, including Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, will return to Moraga next season. They already possess one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, and Ford’s senior numbers will surely be enough to put him in contention for WCC Player of the Year.

- Cam Newton

4. New Mexico State Aggies

2018-19: 30-5, NCAA Tournament First Round

In Chris Jans we trust. And with good reason, as the NMSU coach has won 58 games over his two seasons in Las Cruces. Last year he did so with a rotation that stretched at times to 14 players, only three of which are lost to graduation. That should ensure that the Aggies remain the class of the WAC, and there is potential to be even better in 2019-20. The five-man group that nearly came back to upset Auburn in the First Round were all non-seniors, and included two players that may be the co-WAC POY favorites in Terrell Brown and Trevelin Queen. One story to watch? Hyper-athletic Johnny McCants missed the first part of the season due to injury, and could explode with a full season (and offseason) of health.

- Greg Mitchell

5. Davidson Wildcats

2018-19: 24-10, NIT First Round

The Wildcats were a potential at-large team in 2018-19 before a couple late-February losses sent them to the NIT. It was disappointing, considering Davidson had arguably the two best players in the A-10 in Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady. The good news is that both should be back next year. So will their pair of starting freshmen, Luka Brajkovic and Luke Frampton. We’re currently brainstorming nicknames for them. Two-ke? Oh, and with Phil Martelli and Rick Byrd leaving the coaching ranks this offseason, Bob McKillop is never allowed to retire.

- Russell Steinberg

6. Utah State Aggies

2018-19: 28-7, NCAA Tournament First Round

The Aggies surprised a lot of people when they won a share of the Mountain West title last year, and they’ll enter the 2019-20 season as the favorites to repeat. Craig Smith has proven he’s one of the best young coaches in the game, and he will have reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill and Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Neemias Queta back in the fold. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better duo than that across the country.

- Chris Schutte

7. East Tennessee State Buccaneers

2018-19: 24-10, CIT

The Buccaneers have been among the SoCon elite ever since Steve Forbes came to town in 2015. Next year could be one of the best as the Bucs return over 90 percent of their minutes and possessions from a team that won 24 games last year. Key contributors like Jeromy Rodriguez, Patrick Good and Tray Boyd will be back for a team that will be laden with upperclassmen.

- Chris Schutte

8. Harvard Crimson

2018-19: 19-12, NIT Second Round

The highly touted 2016 recruiting class is yet to break through and make the NCAA Tournament, but the 2019-20 version of the Crimson could be one of the most talented in program history. Led by one of the best lead guards in the country in Bryce Aiken, Tommy Amaker brings back almost all of Harvard’s production from last year. If Seth Towns is healthy and back in the mix, things could be very exciting in Cambridge.

- Chris Schutte

9. Vermont Catamounts

2018-19: 27-7, NCAA Tournament First Round

The pride of the America East just continues to churn on and the Catamounts will once again be led by star forward Anthony Lamb. Two-thirds of the Duncan trio are back (Everett and Robin), as is Stef Smith. John Becker has won at least 20 games in every season at Vermont, and next year should be no different. Becker is going to schedule well, like he does every year, and with the talent that’s returning, there’s no reason to think it won’t be another dominant run through the conference for the Catamounts.

- Chris Schutte

10. Dayton Flyers

2018-19: 21-12, NIT First Round

When most college basketball teams zig to the three-point lane, Dayton zagged to the interior. The Flyers ranked No. 6 nationally in percentage of shots from inside the arc, and for good reason. Senior Josh Cunningham will be gone, but Obi Toppin will be back to man the paint after a stellar freshman campaign. Jalen Crutcher and Trey Landers can hold down the perimeter and will be joined by Chattanooga transfer Rodney Chatman, who averaged 13 points per game for the Mocs two seasons ago. A balanced roster could lead to Anthony Grant’s best season in Dayton yet.

- Chris Schutte

11. UC Irvine Anteaters

2018-19: 31-6, NCAA Tournament Second Round

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: UC Irvine returns a ton next year. Although the Anteaters will have to fare without grad transfer Robert Cartwright, three-time Big West Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Galloway, and Sixth Man of the Year Elston Jones, sharpshooter Evan Leonard, the tenacious Eyassu Worku and promising stretch forward Collin Welp give UC Irvine an edge amongst most mid-majors. Couple these three with Russell Turner’s deep bench, and the Anteaters will overwhelm teams with depth and defense once again. Speaking of which, there’s a catch: Turner has been linked to a myriad of offseason jobs. Even if leading scorer Max Hazzard — who has entered the grad transfer portal, yet opened the door to returning to Irvine — and Turner don’t return next year, Irvine is in the best position to win the Big West and make the postseason again.

- Kyle Cajero

12. San Diego State Aztecs

2018-19: 21-13, no postseason

Even though the Aztecs couldn’t quite make back-to-back tournament appearances for the first time under Brian Dutcher, there’s a lot to look forward to heading into his third season in San Diego. Losing Jalen McDaniels to the NBA Draft was a rough-but-expected loss, but the Aztecs add a pair of high-caliber transfers in KJ Feagin (Santa Clara) and Malachi Flynn (Washington State). Of all the transfers in the Mountain West, Flynn might be the best of the bunch; the former two-star recruit blossomed into one of the nation’s best young scoring point guards while trapped on a couple bad Washington State teams. And that stingy defense isn’t going anywhere. Not only that, Jalen’s younger brother Jaden has the Aztecs on his shortlist — and the younger McDaniels expects to be even better than his older brother.

- Kyle Cajero

13. Furman Paladins

2018-19: 25-8, NIT First Round

The Paladins entered the national rankings for the first time in 2018-19, and are poised to remain a SoCon contender next season. They lose one of the country’s best big men in Matt Rafferty, but return four other players that started regularly last year. That includes point guard Jordan Lyons, who turned into a big-time scoring threat in an expanded role last year. Rising juniors Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter provide a sold nucleus around Lyons, as does versatile forward Noah Gurley, who was an important contributor as a freshman. The defense may dip without Rafferty, but count on Bob Richey to produce another solid, efficient team.

- Greg Mitchell

14. Missouri State Bears

2018-19: 16-16, no postseason

Hardly anyone expected the Bears to contend for an MVC title in Dana Ford’s first season at the helm, but when his unique coaching style was combined with a weak Valley field, the Bears were poised for an interesting run. Ultimately, they finished the season on a three-game losing streak, but they showed plenty of promise for next year. Keandre Cook will be the clear leader for a team that is losing Jarred Dixon, but there’s much hope for this team, especially if its offensive efficiency sees an uptick.

- Cam Newton

15. Rhode Island Rams

2018-19: 18-15, no postseason

A-10 play was topsy-turvy for the Rams this season. They followed a mid-season five-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak that featured a major push in the conference tournament. Next year, with basically every single member of the team returning, Rhode Island will absolutely contend for the A-10 title. There’s no doubt that Fatts Russell will once again be the cornerstone of this team’s offensive production, making Rhody a serious threat.

- Cam Newton

16. Wright State Raiders

2018-19: 21-14, NIT First Round

The regular season Horizon League champions return three double-digit scorers in Bill Wampler, Cole Gentry and Loudon Love — the latter being one of the best players in the Horizon League. Couple them with all-league defensive team selections in Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes, and the Raiders look like the most well-rounded Horizon League team heading into 2019-20. Not only that, but Northern Kentucky — the team the Raiders only beat once in three attempts last season — loses Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald, who gave Wright State fits all year long. The door is open for the Raiders to return to the NCAA Tournament.

- Kyle Cajero

17. Belmont Bruins

2018-19: 27-6, NCAA Tournament First Round

For the first time since 1986, someone other than Rick Byrd will lead the Belmont Bruins. While that sort of uncertainty would doom some programs, the names talked about to replace Byrd either hinge on caliber (Lipcomb’s Casey Alexander) or stability (current assistants Brian Ayers and James Strong). Of course, the loss of guys like Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain will sting, but freshman center Nick Muszynski played like a seasoned veteran all season long. With him and Grayson Murphy leading the charge, the Bruins could be favored to win the OVC and build on the historic year they just had.

- Cam Newton

18. Liberty Flames

2018-19: 29-7, NCAA Tournament Second Round

We now live in a world where we’re going to discuss a two-bid ASUN somewhat regularly. Get used to it. FGCU will alway be a factor. Lipscomb has had two straight excellent years. NJIT is on the way up. And now, the ASUN’s addition of Liberty looks like an underrated genius move for a league trying to compete in basketball. The Flames knocked off Mississippi State in the First Round this March and are ready for more. They’ll have to replace outgoing point guard Lovell Cabbil, and that’s no easy task, but they still return the core of a balanced team, including leading scorers Scottie James and Caleb Homesley.

- Russell Steinberg

19. New Mexico Lobos

2018-19: 14-18, no postseason

Could 2020 be the year the Lobos finally return to the Big Dance? With Eric Musselman in Arkansas, Towson transfer Zane Martin (19.8 PPG, 38% from three as a sophomore) suiting up and Ohio State transfer JaQuan Lyle making a comeback from a season-ending Achilles injury, the Mountain West’s best team of transfers could very well reside in Albuquerque. Throw in second-leading scorer Vance Jackson (13.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG) and a full season of Carlton Bragg, who averaged an 11.2 point, 10.2 rebound double-double in March, and the Lobos look like a good darkhorse in the Mountain West. But questions certainly remain. We were saying the exact same things about this team last year, then the Lobos limped to a sub-.500 record and an embarrassing loss to San Jose State. In all likelihood, New Mexico will be not only the most polarizing team in the Mountain West, but also in the mid-major ranks.

- Kyle Cajero

20. Utah Valley Wolverines

2018-19: 25-10, CBI Second Round

Whether Mark Pope leaves for BYU or not, the Wolverines seem loaded coming off a 25-win season. WAC Player of the Year Jake Toolson returns, keeping one the best shooters and most efficient offensive players in the country in Orem. UVU also has a formidable frontcourt in Baylee Steele and Richard Harward, the latter of whom broke into the rotation due to injuries only to flourish down the stretch. That size and shooting will be augmented by UVU’s typical contingent of transfer reinforcements, including former Oklahoma State guard Brandon Averette, who averaged 17.4 minutes per game over two seasons in Stillwater.

- Greg Mitchell

21. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

2018-19: 20-14, no postseason

What many likely see as a disappointing season for Western Kentucky still ended in 20 wins. Even if star freshman center Charles Bassey departs for the NBA Draft as is widely expected, the Hilltoppers return enough talent to contend in CUSA. That begins with an impressive perimeter duo in Taveion Hollingsworth and Jared Savage, as well as forward Josh Anderson. Northern Kentucky transfer Carson Williams also joins the mix, after averaging 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game over two seasons as an important contributor for the Norse. There’s no five-star coming in this season, but the Hilltoppers can dream big nonetheless.

- Greg Mitchell

22. BYU Cougars

2018-19: 19-13, no postseason

BYU is in here as a placeholder right now since the Cougars still do not have a head coach. Once a decision is made there, presumably, the current roster will decide whether or not it will return for 2019-20. Yoeli Childs has decided to enter the NBA Draft with an agent, so you can count him out of BYU’s plans, but TJ Haws should be back. So should Nick Emery, and if he returns to his pre-suspension form, BYU could settle right back into its usual position of being the third-best team in the WCC.

- Russell Steinberg

23. Yale Bulldogs

2018-19: 22-8, NCAA Tournament First Round

Much of Yale’s outlook depends on whether star wing Miye Oni, who declared for the NBA Draft, decides to return. If he does, the Bulldogs will have the Ivy League’s best player back at their disposal, and will pair that with an all-conference level rim protector and rebounder in Jordan Bruner. Rising junior guard Azar Swain, who scored in double figures in three of his last five games, may be able to help replicate the Ivy’s most efficient offense, which loses important pieces in Alex Copeland and Blake Reynolds.

- Greg Mitchell

24. UTSA Roadrunners

2018-19: 17-15, no postseason

One of the most fun things about this past season was tuning into UTSA games to watch the high octane duo of Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace post scoring totals that are completely bonkers. Both of them will return next season, which is especially important because Jackson took 40.1 percent of the Roadrunners’ shots in 2018-19 (the most of any player on any team in the country). Conference USA will have plenty of question marks around which team will be on top, and there’s no reason to believe that Steve Henson’s squad can’t contend.

- Cam Newton

25. Oakland Grizzlies

2018-19: 16-17, no postseason

Greg. Kampe. America’s favorite coach will once again have a competitive team in 2019-20 — maybe the best in the Horizon League, and college basketball is better for it. The Grizz picked it up at the end of this season, winning five of their last six, behind a few dominant performances from Xavier Hill-Mais. The big man was named first-team all-conference and finished the season with six double-doubles in his final 13 games. Oakland did not have any seniors last year that appeared in more than 10 games.

- Russell Steinberg

Also considered: Duquesne, Toledo, North Dakota State, Bradley, Bowling Green, UNC Greensboro, Louisiana Tech, Murray State, NJIT, Charleston, St. Bonaventure