The national college basketball media preview machine has kicked into full gear and with it, some talk about 2021-22 dark horses.
Matt Norlander published his list of 50 things he’s looking forward to this year and in it, said Belmont, Loyola University Chicago, and Buffalo are mid-majors to watch this year. Jon Rothstein published his mid-majors to watch, adding Iona, Drake, BYU, UAB, UC Santa Barbara, Liberty, Cleveland State, and Oral Roberts to the mix.
Those are great picks by both writers and they won’t be the last ones to list each of those programs as potential NCAA Tournament threats. But who else is there? Who are the under-the-radar, under-the-radar programs?
Here are five that could sneak up on you:
Colorado State Rams
The Rams have steadily improved in the Mountain West under Niko Medved, culminating in an NIT appearance last year. CSU has a chance to do even more in 2021-22, even as it battles what should be a multi-bid league again. The team returns every player that averaged more than three points per game last year, including rising junior David Roddy. Roddy put up 15.9 points and pulled down 9.4 rebounds per game in 2020 and scored in double figures in 14 of the team’s final 15 games. Second-team Mountain West selection Isaiah Stevens is also back. He shot 42 percent from three last year and was second in the Mountain West in assist rate.
In addition to bringing almost everyone back, Colorado State adds Dallas Baptist transfer Chandler Jacobs. Yes, it’s a much different level, but Jacobs averaged 20-and-7 last season. Here’s a little bit of what he could do:
The Grizzlies were one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation last year, per KenPom, and, well, that usually means there’s a lot of returning talent. For Montana, that means bringing back three of their big four — a quartet that led the team in scoring, averaging between 9.9 and 10.5 points per game. That’s some Leonard Hamilton-esque balance. The 6’10 Michael Steadman is the only one has moved on, but the Grizz have added some size in Idaho transfer Scott Blakney. Forward Kyle Owens and guard Robby Beasley are both back. Neither was a horribly efficient player, but they did lead the offense on what was a small team to begin with.
As a team, Montana started slow last year with four straight losses — granted two were against Power 5 schools and the other two against KenPom top 150 team Southern Utah. The Grizzlies picked it up down the stretch, though, winning their last four regular season games and advancing to the Big Sky title game.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Last year, Nevada was...inconsistent. The Wolf Pack were excellent at home, including a sweep over Boise State, and abysmal on the road with a loss to Air Force. They had one four-game winning streak but suffered three Mountain West sweeps. We should spend a few dozen words talking about Grant Sherfield — he deserves it — but this site has long been a Desmond Cambridge stan blog and we will stay that way. Cambridge, at approximately 35 years old, will be a senior and returns as the team’s second-leading scorer and positively fearless bucket-getter.
Of course this really wouldn’t be a Nevada team without an impact transfer (Sherfield and Cambridge were both transfers as well). The Wolf Pack add AJ Bramah (Robert Morris), one of the best bigs in the Horizon League last year. The double-double machine shot 51 percent from the field in 2020 and scored at least 17 points in every game he played. This was his best performance last year:
Saint Peter’s Peacocks
Shaheen Holloway has Saint Peter’s in a great position as he enters year four of a really tough MAAC job. Iona will be the clear favorite, as it should be, with Siena in second. But don’t sleep on the Peacocks. They went 10-8 in the MAAC last year but were one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking tops in the nation in two-point percentage defense and second in block percentage, per KenPom. That’s largely because of two-time defending MAAC defensive player of the year KC Ndefo, the nation’s leading shot-blocker in 2020. Ndefo was also a MAAC first-team selection and averaged 13.7 points per game to go with his 3.6 blocks per contest.
In three years, Holloway has made it a priority to build a team through his talent rich backyard of New Jersey/New York. Daryl Banks, out of The Patrick School, is one of those guys. He was one of the most prolific scorers in the MAAC last year en route to an all-Third Team selection.
UC Irvine Anteaters
Zot! Or, Welp! (we’ll make that catch on). UCI redshirt sophomore Collin Welp is climbing the all-time Irvine scoring list and seems primed to be that guy who takes the country by storm after a 13-over-4 upset in March. The All-Big West First Team selection will have plenty of help around him as well. Watch out for Big West freshman of the year Dawson Baker, who averaged 10.7 points per game last year, was the team’s best three-point shooter, and started 17 games. DJ Davis averaged 20 minutes per game off the bench and might get a starting shot at some point. He will, however, either have to stop shooting threes or start making them more often. He was only 28.7% from deep and took more threes than anyone else on the team. For reinforcements, Russell Turner has gone international, bringing in two freshmen from overseas in Akiva McBirney-Griffin (New Zealand) and Bent Leuchten (Germany).