Mid-Major Basketball Previews: CUSA, SoCon, Southland, MAC, OVC, Summit

Part two of the mid-major basketball previews by Matt Karner and Matt Waldman for CBB Review is up next. This is considered the next-best tier, containing Conference USA, the SoCon, the Southland, the MAC, the OVC, and the Summit League. You can read up on the first tier of leagues involving the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, WCC, and Ivy League here.

Conference USA

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: Western Kentucky has been favored for a few years straight in Conference USA and yet have not been able to win the conference. The Hilltoppers are returning Taevion Hollingsworth and Carson Williams who both earned All-conference honors last season. Hollingsworth earned a spot on the first team and has really come into his own with the absence of Charles Bassey. Bassey is returning from injury this season and will provide a big lift after missing most of his sophomore season.

Matt W: Western Kentucky seems like they are finally ready to live up the expectations that have been placed on them the last few seasons. The emergence of Taveion Hollingsworth last season bodes well for the Hilltoppers this season. If Charles Bassey can stay healthy and play to his potential, WKU will be a tough out. 

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: If Marshall is knocking down shots, they are an extremely dangerous foe. Marshall finished last season third in the nation in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. They are bringing back Taevion Kinsey and Jarrod West who both earned all-conference last season and return four starters. A dangerous team who can also fall completely flat without a fight.

Matt W: Marshall isn’t that far removed from pulling an upset in the Big Dance, and the Thundering Herd are looking dangerous again. Every key guy returns, and there is a good mix of young and old guys, led by Taevion Kinsey, that shuffle into the rotation. Marshall could easily assert themselves at the top this season. 

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: With Javion Hamlet returning as the reigning POY, it is hard for me to pick against him. His numbers should only get better this season and North Texas will still be relevant for a conference championship. It will not be easy for Hamlet to repeat. Jhivvan Jackson and Taevion Kinsey are my favorites to dethrone Hamlet. Add in the potential for Bryson Williams, Kenton Wallace, Taevion Hollingsworth, and Charles Bassey to make this one of the best races in the country.

Matt W: Javion Hamlet of North Texas is the reigning player of the year and will have a great chance to defend his title as he looks to help the Mean Green win back-to-back titles. Taevion Hollingsworth will be in the mix for WKU. Keep an eye on Jhivvan Jackson at UTSA. He finished just behind Markus Howard for the NCAA scoring title last season.  

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: Steven Henson at UTSA. Henson is entering his fifth season and has a solid roster and Jhivvan Jackson who could lead the NCAA in scoring. Henson is 64-68 overall and has had only one 20-win season. With higher expectations this year Henson needs a solid performance or he may find himself no longer with the program.

Matt W: Grant McCasland is probably one of the best mid-major coaches you don’t know about. He has yet to win less than 20 games in three seasons with the Mean Green, and won the CBI title with them in year one. He already helped UNT win a league title in year three, and a repeat and NCAA Tournament berth may be enough to get him a job at a bigger school.

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: Western Kentucky and North Texas played two outstanding games last season and this season shouldn’t be any different. Marshall could have some exciting games against the two also despite dropping all of their games against WKU and UNT last season. 

Matt W: Western Kentucky and North Texas will probably be duking it out for the title, so those matchups will be big. If WKU is good as advertised, they will get a shot to prove it with a game against Louisville in the Cardinals’ MTE.

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CUSA 1st Team:

Matt K: Javion Hamlet (North Texas), Jhivvan Jackson (UTSA), Taevion Kinsey (Marshall), Bryson Williams (UTEP), Taevion Hollingsworth (WKU)

Matt W: Javion Hamlet (UNT), Jhivvan Jackson (UTSA), Taveion Hollingsworth (WKU), Bryson Williams (UTEP), Taevion Kinsey (Marshall)

CUSA Player of the Year

Matt K: Javion Hamlet (North Texas)

Matt W: Javion Hamlet (UNT)

CUSA Coach of the Year

Matt K: Rick Stansbury (WKU)

Matt W: Rick Stansbury (WKU)

Southern Conference

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: This may be one of the toughest races to call but, I have to go with Furman. It will come down to Furman and UNC Greensboro. For me Furman gets the edge because of the experience they return. Furman returns four starters and four of their top six players in average minutes played. UNC Greensboro retained Isaiah Miller but lost just enough in my eyes to give Furman the upperhand.

Matt W: UNC Greensboro gets the nod for me. The Spartans will have to fend off Furman, who is a great team in their own right. However, UNCG has a deeper bench and the league’s best player in Isaiah Miller. Both teams are NCAA Tournament worthy in my opinion, but the auto bid belongs to Greensboro. 

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: Western Carolina can make a run in the SoCon tournament. Mason Fulkner has what it takes to give Western Carolina just enough to have a surge. Faulkner is joined by two returning starters and a total of six players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game. 

Matt W: Mercer is not getting enough attention. The Bears finished in fourth place a season ago, and that was without all-league guard Ross Cummings. He is back along with enough guys from last year’s team to make a push. The biggest thing holding this team back is depth in the frontcourt. 

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: The returning POY and DPOY, Isaiah Miller is returning to UNC Greensboro and is the clear frontrunner to win the SoCon POY again. Mason Fulkner will be a strong competitor in what could be a two man race. Clay Mounce and Clay Gurley of Furman also have an opportunity for a breakout season to be considered.

Matt W: Isaiah Miller has earned just about everything he can in this league. He is the reigning POY and has won the DPOY honor two years in a row. He is the frontrunner for this honor by a big margin. Clay Mounce and Noah Gurley from Furman are other candidates, and Mason Faulkner at Western Carolina will make a case as well. 

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: Wes Miller’s name has been thrown around in the past for high major coaching jobs yet he has remained steady at UNC Greensboro. With another outstanding year Miller is one of the top mid major coaches available for any possible open positions.

Matt W: If Bob Richey takes Furman back to their first NCAA Tournament in 40 years, then he has nothing left to accomplish at the school. He has won at least 23 games in each of his first three seasons, and has guided the Paladins to an upset over Villanova and an AP Poll ranking in the process. Don’t be surprised to see him rumored for power conference job openings next offseason. 

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: The SoCon has been one of the best mid major conferences over the last few years and that isn’t going to change this year. It is certainly a must watch and almost always a spectacular race at the top. UNCG and Furman will be the best games of the season. ETSU, WCU, and Mercer should all provide great games to watch.

Matt W: As a SoCon alum, I’m biased in thinking most league games are must-watch. However, UNCG-Furman will go a long way in determining both the league title race and any two-bid hopes the league has. Greensboro is also playing in Louisville’s MTE and will get a shot at the Cardinals as well as other league favorites in Little Rock and Winthrop. 

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SoCon 1st Team:

Matt K: Isaiah Miller (UNCG), Mason Fulkner (WCU), Noah Gurley (Furman), Clay Mounce (Furman), Jeff Gary (Mercer)

Matt W: Isaiah Miller (UNCG), Mason Faulkner (WCU), Ross Cummings (Mercer), Clay Mounce (Furman), Noah Gurley (Furman)

SoCon Player of the Year

Matt K: Isaiah Miller (UNCG)

Matt W: Isaiah Miller (UNCG)

SoCon Coach of the Year

Matt K: Bob Richey (Furman)

Matt W: Wes Miller (UNCG)

Southland

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: Stephen F. Austin may run away with this one. The Lumberjacks won the conference by four games last season and many of the best players in the conference are no longer around. Everyone lost about the same and SFA should remain the favorite to win the Southland.

Matt W: Stephen F. Austin most likely won’t have quite the same season that they did last year, but they are still favored heading into the new season. The Lumberjacks still have a senior core led by Gavin Kensmil that is largely unmatched by their conference foes. SFA needs to make this season count since they are banned from postseason play in 2021-22 due to an APR ban. 

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: Abilene Christian is my favorite to upset SFA in the conference tournament and make their second trip to the NCAA tournament in school history. Abilene Christian finished in third last year in the conference and played SFA tough in both matchups before eventually falling. Abilene Christian returns much of the same team and should have the experience and motivation to get the job done. 

Matt W: Nicholls State surprised many by finishing in second place in this league last season. The Colonels took some hits in the frontcourt, but are very talented and experienced in the backcourt. That kind of roster makeup can still allow teams at the mid-major level to have success. Nicholls is capable of shocking folks once again. 

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: Of the three all-conference teams, only five players are returning so all-conference honors are wide open. The POY however, Zach Nutall of Sam Houston State is the best player in the conference returning. He is easily the favorite to repeat. Gavin Kensmill of SFA will challenge for the crown and Rylan Bergersen of Central Arkansas could also be in the mix.

Matt W: Zach Nutall at Sam Houston State is my frontrunner. The rising junior can score on the offensive end while at the same time picking your pocket on the defensive end. He will be making a ton of plays while trying to get the Bearkats back to the top of the league. Gavin Kensmil of SFA will be around as arguably the best player on the best team. Rylan Bergersen of Central Arkansas is someone else to watch. The Bears may not be good, but he is. 

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: This conference is almost like throwing a dart at a dartboard to see who may be on their way out. I’m going to say that every coach will be back for one more season. The Southland will have a hard time cutting ties with such a lack of financial income this next season. So for that reason I believe the Southland coaches are safe for now.

Matt W: Ron Cottrell at Houston Baptist seems like a great candidate. He has been with the Huskies during the entirety of their time in Division I, but has only had one winning record in 10 seasons. He has actually been with the program for 28 years, all the way back to their NAIA days, and is an associate AD as well. That creates an element of school loyalty, but at some point you have to think there will be an itch to want to be a little more competitive at the D-I level. He could easily still hold his administrative duties while also stepping away as the head basketball coach. 

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: With the Southland being such a regional conference it plays nicely to natural born rivalries. Six teams finished in the standings separated by only two games which should make for an exciting conference season. I am most excited for the top three of SFA, Abilene Christian and Nicholls State.

Matt W: Stephen F. Austin’s rivalry with Sam Houston State is one of the best at the mid-major level that does not get a lot of attention. SHSU relishes the opportunities they get to take out their SFA rivals. Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks best non-conference matchups come from the A-10, playing Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure. While both of those could be fun to watch, they won’t provide much of a boost to any potential at-large hopes SFA might have.

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Southland 1st Team:

Matt K: Zach Nutall (Sam Houston St.), Gavin Kensmil (SFA), Rylan Bergersen (UCA), A.J. Lawson (McNeese), Troy Green (New Orleans)

Matt W: Zach Nutall (SHSU), Rylan Bergersen (UCA), AJ Lawson (McNeese), Myles Smith (TAMU-CC), Gavin Kensmil (SFA)

Southland Player of the Year

Matt K: Zach Nutall (Sam Houston St.), 

Matt W: Zach Nutall (SHSU)

Southland Coach of the Year

Matt K: Kyle Keller (SFA)

Matt W: Kyle Keller (SFA)

MAC

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: Bowling Green was in the race for an outright MAC championship last season. They beat Akron in a pivotal game before losing their final three games of the season to finish in second. The Falcons return Justin Turner and Daeqwon Plowden who both earned All-conference honors and could both be picked to the all-conference first team this year. Much of last years team remains intact, setting up the Falcons for a MAC championship.

Matt W: Bowling Green pushed hard before falling apart late for the MAC title last season. The Falcons breathed a sigh of relief when Justin Turner decided to return after testing the transfer portal. The backcourt is strong behind him, and Daeqwon Plowden is strong in the paint. Bowling Green is ready to win the league this season. 

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: I have to stick with Akron. The Zips will be losing four starters but return MAC player of the Year, Loren Christian Jackson. Jackson has the potential to carry the Zips this season and keep them in contention for a MAC championship.

Matt W: Ball State was much improved last season and returns most of the roster that made that happen. Ishmael El-Amin gets lost in the fold as one of the best guards in the league with all the talent at that position. The Cardinals will need to figure out their post situation, but they still have what it takes to sneak up and snatch the MAC’s bid.

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: Loren Christian Jackson won the POY last season and will need to do even more this year as the only starter returning. He will be challenged by All-Conference first team selections Justin Turner and Jayvon Graves who can both make a push for MAC POY.

Matt W: Loren Cristian Jackson is back after winning POY honors last season and is the frontrunner as he looks to guide Akron to back-to-back titles. However, there are a number of guards who will push him for it. The list includes Justin Turner at Bowling Green, Jayvon Graves at Buffalo, Marreon Jackson at Toledo, and Jason Preston at Ohio.

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: Rob Murphy at Eastern Michigan. Murphy will be coaching his tenth season with the Eagles. Everytime it looks like Murphy may be in trouble he pulls out a good season. Murphy will need another good season this year but either way it may be time for Eastern Michigan to go another direction.

Matt W: Michael Huger has done a tremendous job in turning Bowling Green into a league title contender. He has the Falcons on track for their fourth straight season of at least .500 and third straight of 20+ wins. Getting Bowling Green to capture the MAC championship would ice the cake and get his name circulating for higher profile jobs.

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: When Bowling Green and Buffalo played last season they each won on the road in high scoring affairs by no more than four points. These two matching up again as the favorites in the conference will be exciting to watch.

Matt W: Both games between Akron and Bowling Green last season were great, and those matchups will most likely decide the league title again. However, both of those teams will also have to fend off Buffalo, who is ready to try and take the MAC back for themselves.

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MAC Player of the Year

Matt K: Loren Christian Jackson (Akron), Justin Turner (Bowling Green), Javon Graves (Buffalo), Jason Preston (Ohio), Marreon Jackson (Toledo)

Matt W: Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron), Justin Turner (BGSU), Jayvon Graves (Buffalo), Jason Preston (Ohio), Marreon Jackson (Toledo)

MAC 1st Team:

Matt K: Loren Christian Jackson (Akron)

Matt W: Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron)

MAC Coach of the Year

Matt K: Michael Huger (Bowling Green)

Matt W: Michael Huger (BGSU)

Ohio Valley

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: Either Belmont or Murray State have won the conference for 11 straight seasons. The last team to win the outright conference was UT-Martin in 2009, so it’s difficult to pick against either of them. I do believe though that Austin Peay has what it takes to get it done. It won’t be easy but the Governors do return last year’s OVC POY in Terry Taylor and finished only one game behind the duo last season. 

Matt W: Austin Peay has a group that is finally ready to knock down the Belmont-Murray State wall that has been around this league for a decade. The Governors are led by Terry Taylor and Jordyn Adams, who are one of the best duos in the nation. They proved they can beat both of those schools last season, and are looking to seal the deal this time after faltering down the stretch. Watch out for the Govs.

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: Eastern Kentucky. Besides an early season loss to Jacksonville St. and a slip up to SIUE, the only other conference losses the Colonels took were to the top trio of Belmont, Murray State, and Austin Peay. With Murray State and Belmont potentially down this year, Eastern Kentucky has a chance with Jomaru Brown and Tre King returning. The Colonels must avoid any losses to the bottom of the conference to have a chance.

Matt W: Eastern Kentucky is the first team that sits on the next tier of this league, and they are not that far off. Jomaru Brown leads this team, but is just one of a few talented guards on the Colonels. Meanwhile, Tre King and Michael Moreno anchor the paint. EKU will put a scare into the teams that are expected to finish ahead of them.

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: Last season’s POY, Terry Taylor, is returning and is in position to win the award again. Grayson Murphy of Belmont was the conference’s defensive POY last year and finished second in the country in assist to turnover ratio last season. He will see an increased opportunity to score this year making him another possibility to earn POY. Lastly, Tevin Brown of Murray State will also be in the mix.

Matt W: Terry Taylor is already one of the best players in OVC history and is looking to take this award home for a second-straight season. His teammate Jordyn Adams was the freshman of the year and could easily win this as well. Tevin Brown is Murray State’s best option, while Grayson Murphy and Nick Muszynski are Belmont’s top talents.

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: Matt Figger has gone 62-38 at Austin Peay over the last three seasons. In the five seasons before Figger took over, Austin Peay went a combined 57-104 and didn’t finish any of those seasons above .500. Figger has shown that he can coach and recruit and should be on some lists for potential openings among some bigger schools.

Matt W: Matt McMahon at Murray State. The Racer program has a history of being a stepping stone for coaches as they move onto the high major ranks. McMahon has continued the winning trend at the school, winning three-straight regular-season titles and making two NCAA appearances. There is not much more he could do here, so if a larger opportunity comes calling, it would not be a surprise to see him take it.

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: Belmont and Murray State always make for must-see TV. Add Austin Peay to the mix this year and the OVC will be a conference to keep a close eye on and to watch as much as possible.

Matt W: The series between Austin Peay, Murray State, and Belmont is the obvious choice. Those games were fun to watch last season and should be more of the same this season. Non-conference games for those teams are not out yet, but any power conference team that plays them should take them seriously or risk going down. 

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OVC 1st Team:

Matt K: Terry Taylor (APSU), Tevin Adams (Murray St.), Grayson Murphy (Belmont), Nick Muszynski (Belmont), Parker Stewart (UT-Martin)

Matt W: Terry Taylor (APSU), Jordyn Adams (APSU), Grayson Murphy (Belmont), Tevin Brown (Murray St), Nick Muszynski (Belmont)

OVC Player of the Year

Matt K: Terry Taylor (APSU)

Matt W: Terry Taylor (APSU)

OVC Coach of the Year

Matt K: Matt Figger (APSU)

Matt W: Matt Figger (APSU)

Summit League

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Who is the favorite to win the conference?

Matt K: With all five starters and the Summit POY returning on a team that finished tied for first, South Dakota State is the clear favorite. The Jackrabbits have everything in place for a return to the NCAA tournament and could potentially end the season with three members on the All-Conference team.

Matt W: South Dakota State, and it may not be close. The Jackrabbits return just about everyone from a team that tied for the regular-season title in 2019-20. They are led by Douglas Wilson, who was the player and newcomer of the year in the league a season ago. These expectations are just the status quo for the program, and this is a team capable of winning an NCAA Tournament game once again.

Who is an under the radar team who can make a run to the NCAA tournament?

Matt K: North Dakota State. The Bison finished tied for first and have been right there with the Jackrabbits quite often in the Summit. The Bison are losing some valuable pieces but did split the series with the Jackrabbits last year only losing by two in overtime. South Dakota State is likely to go unchallenged but if they are it will have to be North Dakota State.

Matt W: Omaha has come close to earning their first NCAA bid a few times. The Mavericks have four starters back, including Matt Pile, the reigning defensive player of the year, and Marlon Ruffin, the league’s reigning sixth-man of the year. South Dakota State has slipped up in the conference tournament the past few seasons, which could open the door for Omaha.

Who are the top three players for CPOY?

Matt K: The reigning Summit POY, Douglas Wilson, is returning and will remain the favorite heading into this season. He will be challenged by Stanley Umude of South Dakota and fellow Jackrabbit, Matt Dentlinger, should also have a solid season to be a potential POY.

Matt W: Douglas Wilson should be able to defend his crown here after taking the league by storm a season ago. His rebounding abilities could see him average a double-double when it’s all said and done. Teammate Matt Dentlinger will be in the mix as well. Omaha’s Matt Pile and South Dakota’s Stanley Umude are two others to keep an eye on. 

What coach could potentially be coaching their last season with their team? 

Matt K: With the league going through a few coaching changes the past few years and the financial trouble these schools will be facing over the next year I don’t see anyone coaching their last season with their team. The most likely candidate if it were to happen would be Rodney Billups at Denver. A combined 46-75 over his four years and on a downslide over the last two years are a good indication that his time may be coming to an end.

Matt W: Rodney Billups at Denver. Billups, the younger brother of former NBA star Chauncey Billups, is in a crucial year five with the Pioneers. The last two seasons have been rough, winning 15 games combined. There is not much indicating things will change this season. Perhaps the administration will take it easy since the team is young, Billups is an alum, and we’re in the midst of a pandemic. However, consistently finishing near the bottom of the league is never good for job security. 

What will be the best games to catch this season?

Matt K: The rivalries of the Dakotas are always great to watch. South Dakota State and North Dakota State will be the best of the four teams and provide the most excitement. North Dakota and South Dakota always come ready to play against their in-state rivals.

Matt W: South Dakota State and North Dakota State’s rivalry may be better known on the gridiron, but it can get just as fierce on the basketball court. The Summit League has seen either of these schools be the league representatives in the Big Dance a lot over the last decade, and each loves the chance to spoil the other’s season. SDSU also gets a crack at Creighton on the first night of the college basketball season. 

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Summit League 1st Team:

Matt K: Douglas Wilson (SDSU), Matt Dentlinger (SDSU), Stanley Umude (SD), Matt Pile (Omaha), Brandon McKissic (UMKC)

Matt W: Max Abmas (ORU), Douglas Wilson (SD St), Stanley Umude (S. Dakota), Matt Pile (Omaha), Matt Dentlinger (SD St)

Summit League Player of the Year

Matt K: Douglas Wilson (SDSU)

Matt W: Douglas Wilson (SD St)

Summit League Coach of the Year

Matt K: Eric Henderson (SDSU)

Matt W: Derrin Hansen (Omaha)

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images and John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

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