Everyone loves a Cinderella story in college basketball, and these five mid-major programs are ones to bet on during the regular season and watch as the NCAA Tournament rolls around in March.
Note: With the Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference in the running for two or more NCAA Tournament bids this upcoming season, those two conferences were excluded from the watch list, although VCU, Dayton, Davidson, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga are going to field some damn fine teams.
Five mid-majors to watch in 2019-20
New Mexico State
The last time we saw the Aggies, they put a scare into eventual Final Four squad Auburn in the opening round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. Last season’s team loved to shoot the 3-ball, and no one did it better than Terrell Brown (42.8%), who returns along with 75.5% of last year’s minutes. They did lose big man Eli Chuha and are vulnerable to size inside, but their stellar guard play anchored by Brown and point guard AJ Harris is more than capable of keeping them in games against stronger competition.
The Aggies will be an underdog just a few times this season, but they are worth considering for a bet in that likely role Nov. 17 against an overrated Arizona team in a sleepy Sunday spot for the home team.
Notre Dame betting preview: Buy low on Irish with deep NCAA Tournament upside
East Tennessee State
The Southern Conference was one of my favorite under-the-radar conferences to watch last season with Wofford and this ETSU team playing Tournament-level basketball. With Wofford guard Fletcher Magee and coach Mike Young out of the conference, the SoCon belongs to the Buccaneers in 2019-20.
Coach Steve Forbes, a Gregg Marshall disciple, is the next mid-major coach to make the leap in the coaching ranks. His teams at ETSU have never fallen below 63rd nationally in effective FG%, and last year’s squad was fifth nationally in offensive rebounding rate and 26th in 2-point shooting percentage. In 2019-20, Forbes has seven of his eight leading scorers return and 79.7% of total minutes. Leading the way is 6-foot-7 senior Jeromy Rodriguez, who averaged a double-double last season and turned down offers to play overseas.
ETSU plays top-level talent in Kansas and LSU this season, the latter in a bet-against spot on Dec. 18, with the Tigers looking ahead to a road trip to Staples Center to play USC.
Only Illinois-Chicago returns more minutes than Harvard (96.4%) this season. Harvard checks in one spot behind ETSU in the preseason KenPom ratings at No. 75. There are injury concerns for the Crimson, as senior guard Bryce Aiken has dealt with them the past two years. He was hot over the last 22 games last season, averaging 22.2 points per game en route to All-Ivy league honors. The 2017-18 Ivy League Player of the Year, Seth Towns is back after a knee injury forced him to miss last season.
Harvard has a weak non-conference schedule, its toughest opponent being KenPom No. 58 Texas A&M, but if they get into the NCAA Tournament, coach Tommy Amaker could pull off another upset (under Amaker, Harvard made four straight NCAA Tournaments, from 2012-15, and beat No. 3 New Mexico in ’13 and No. 5 Cincinnati in ’14).
Vermont has built a dynasty in the American East and again enters the season as the team to beat with pro prospect Anthony Lamb (21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg) leading the way. Lamb is a 6-foot-6 talent who been effective against KenPom’s “Tier A + B” competition each of the past two seasons, showing he can compete against the big boys.
In the NCAA Tournament last season, Vermont lost 76-69 to Florida State despite being tied with 10 minutes left in the game. The Catamounts return 75.7% of their minutes, and Lamb has a solid supporting cast in backcourt players Stef Smith and Ben Shungu, who can stroke it from deep.
Vermont has a winnable Power 6 game against St. John’s and will be in for a cat fight with Cincinnati on Dec. 3.
Confession time, I have a love affair with this Colgate team. They should be replaced by Western Kentucky here, but I can’t help it. I bet on the Raiders against Tennessee in a 2/15 matchup in the ’19 NCAA Tournament, and Colgate gave the Vols a scare en route to covering the 17-point spread.
This team can be a Cinderella because of its sharp-shooting nature. Last season, the Raiders lead the NCAA in effective FG% from Feb. 1 (61.2%) to the start of the Tournament. They had three guys who shot 40% or better from deep and return all three of them this season in addition to all five of their top scorers, lead by 6-foot-10 Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas and point guard Jordan Burns. The 6-foot Burns dropped 32 points on Tennessee in Colgate’s 77-70 opening round loss and should take another step entering his junior season.
Colgate plays Clemson, Syracuse and Auburn from Nov. 10 to 18, and I expect it to win one of those games.