The volatility of college basketball from year to year keeps us interested and engaged. Success can be fragile. Defeat is not permanent. Optimism abounds in November for teams hoping to rebound from a disappointing season. Coaches aim to build a winner at barren programs or rejuvenate an apathetic fan base.
Last season, with its interruptions and incomplete rosters was easy to erase from memory. The obstacles behind the scenes interfered with daily operations and often went underreported.
The seven mid-major programs listed here made a fresh start this season and are building momentum as March rapidly approaches.
Jacksonville has embraced a physical, defensive-minded outlook in coach Jordan Mincy’s first season, rising to a 15-8 record. The Dolphins - the only team on our list to compete in a Final Four - are second behind powerhouse Liberty in the East Division of the Atlantic Sun with a 7-4 mark. Mincy has turned to guard Kevion Nolan when his squad needs a bucket late in games. Nolan, a 6-2 junior, has hit 37 percent beyond-the-arc and 90 percent of free throws in ASun games.
Northern Iowa stumbled to a 10-15 record a year ago and failed to finish .500 in the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time since Ben Jacobsen became coach in the 2006-07 season. The Panthers have returned to the top of the Valley this season, riding a five-winning streak to 10-3 in the conference. A.J. Green is the known star, however, 6-6 sophomore Noah Carter has been equally instrumental in the turnaround, hitting 62 percent of 2-pointers and 17 3-pointers against MVC competition.
Perhaps no team in the nation suffered more from COVID related interference a year ago than Towson, finishing 4-14 in a lost season. Pat Skerry remade his roster with three impactful transfers yet the returnee in the middle, Charles Thompson, has delivered in the middle to lift the program to a 17-7 record and top-90 KenPom rating - the best in program history. Thompson is an elite offensive rebounder and finisher (62 pct. on 2-pointers) and his physical defense anchors the Tigers around the rim.
There’s not one player to single out on Troy’s roster. After all, 12 players have started at least one game. Still, it’s not surprising that Scott Cross - who was inexplicably dismissed from Texas-Arlington after the 2017-18 season has turned the Trojans around in his third year at the helm. Defense is the foundation of Troy’s success, which includes a 16-7 overall mark (4-12 last year) and second place standing in the Sun Belt Conference. Troy is top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage defense and turnovers forced and has clinched its first winning season since 2017.
Saint Mary’s struggled. Those are unfamiliar words for anyone who has paid attention to college basketball over the last two decades. But a 4-6 record in the West Coast Conference a year ago, snapping a string of 17 consecutive winning conference seasons under coach Randy Bennett, fell well short of the expectations in Moraga, Calif. With less than a month remaining, the Gaels are 19-5 overall, 7-2 in the WCC and in position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The development of 6-10 center Matthias Tass has been a significant factor. The Estonia native is an excellent passer, draws fouls at a high rate and is fifth in the WCC in offensive rating (122.9) in league games.
A 10-12 record doesn’t sound exciting until one considers that USC Upstate played a top-60 nonconference schedule and won only five games a year ago. Dave Dickerson’s squad found its groove in Big South action, employing an uptempo offense loaded with shooters to streak to a 7-3 conference mark, matching its best win total in four years as a Big South member. Dalvin White is the catalyst. The quick, poised point guard has made 50 percent of his 2-pointers, 50 percent of 3-pointers and 87 percent of free throws in conference games entering onight’s battle at North Division leader Longwood.
Long Beach State stumbled to 6-12 overall and 4-8 in the conference in its abbreviated 2020-21 season. Dan Monson has The Beach back on track and then some, at 13-9 overall and 8-1 in the conference. Those familiar with the Netflix series, Last Chance U, will recognize the former East Los Angeles College power forward Joe Hampton, a rotational player for The Beach, who has scored in double figures in seven games this season. A pair of freshman wings - Aboubacar Traore and Jadon Jones - have infused athleticism, energy and scoring into the lineup.