Why you should care
Because the best time to watch these teams is during the holiday season.
College basketball is officially back, and serious fans have already begun scouring box scores for tips on which teams might make a championship run in March. Currently, the usual suspects lead the Associated Press rankings. Duke is loaded with an optimal combination of rising NBA stars and experienced veterans who can lead a locker room through turmoil, while squads like Michigan State, Kentucky, Arizona and Kansas are vying for that No. 1 spot.
But the college basketball season is a grueling exercise, and there are two months of holiday tournaments and nonconference play to go before major conference races begin. In the Power 5 conferences, the cream rises to the top over the course of a full season, but the best chance for curious fans to witness top mid-major contenders is before the new year. Of course, perennial mid-major powers like Gonzaga and Wichita State will be in the Final Four fold, but a long history of success means that those programs are hardly mid-majors at all. Led by an NBA prospect in Aussie center Jock Landale, watch for Gonzaga’s most formidable conference foe — St. Mary’s — to capture that elusive WCC title. The Gaels, along with the five teams highlighted below, have the potential to upset any Goliath come March.
Games to Watch: Maryland (11/25); Syracuse (12/22); Dayton (1/3)
The Bonnies open the season ranked behind only Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 preseason polls, largely because of the transcendent duo manning their backcourt. Jaylen Adams (20.6 ppg) and Matt Mobley (18.5 ppg) formed the nation’s highest-scoring guard tandem last season, with Adams adding a conference-leading 6.5 assists per game. Adams is a legitimate NBA prospect who tested the draft waters this summer before returning to school. Together, he and Mobley provide more than enough firepower to upset any team on a given night.
With this three pointer, junior Jaylen Adams scored his 1,000th point in a St. Bonaventure uniform. Congrats Jay! 1️⃣0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ pic.twitter.com/Qd2eWwCanA
— Bonnies Men's Basketball (@BonniesMBB) December 20, 2016
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Games to Watch: Kansas (11/17); Wichita State (12/5); Colorado (12/15)
Mike Daum. Know the name. Sure, Daum plays in the Summit League for a team nicknamed the Jackrabbits, but a 6-foot-9 forward who averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 41.8 percent from the 3-point line is a rare breed no matter the geography. Daum has game-changing ability, which he flashed via 17 points in a first-round loss to top-ranked Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA Tournament. That was an awful draw for the Jackrabbits, but watch for a potential Cinderella moment if they make it back this season.
Games to Watch: South Carolina (11/30); Wisconsin (12/6); Villanova (12/13)
Temple went dancing two seasons ago, but last year, what began as a promise quickly turned to black. The Owls opened the season with wins over West Virginia and Florida State. Then, when star forward Obi Enechionyia hit a slump, the team stumbled, finishing 16–16 (7–11 in the American Conference). But according to ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, the Owls are ready to make a jump. “They’ve got some very good returning players in [guard] Quinton Rose and Obi Enechionyia,” Bilas tells OZY. “If they get really good guard play, I expect that they’re an NCAA Tournament team.” Watch for senior point guard Josh Brown, who missed last season due to injury, to make the difference.
Games to Watch: UNC (11/15); Maryland (11/18); Vermont (12/2)
With early games against North Carolina, Maryland, Arkansas, Vermont and St. Joseph’s, Bucknell boasts arguably the toughest nonconference schedule of any mid-major. Navigating through that labyrinth is sure to prepare the Bison for a successful run in the Patriot League, where they’ll look to repeat as champs after a 15–3 mark last season. This team returns its top nine scorers, none more important than the reigning conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, center Nana Foulland. Foulland is a bona fide NBA prospect with huge leaping ability and a nice touch around the hoop. Along with forward Zach Thomas, who is averaging 27.5 points and 13 rebounds through two games, Foulland could lead this team to a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Games to Watch: Yale (11/25); Marquette (12/5); St. Bonaventure (12/16)
Last season was a historic year for the Catamounts, going 29–6 — including an undefeated 16–0 in America East play — en route to a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Expect that dominance to continue as Vermont returns their top four scorers and a coach who’s improving as a recruiter in John Becker. The Catamounts looked good in a hard-fought season-opening loss (73–68) at Kentucky. They’ll try to extend their 13-game home winning streak next week.