College basketball rankings: Preseason mid-major Top 25 – Utah State earns top spot

COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: The bench celebrates as Sam Merrill #5 of the Utah State Aggies looks on as they play against the Washington Huskies during the second half of the game in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: The bench celebrates as Sam Merrill #5 of the Utah State Aggies looks on as they play against the Washington Huskies during the second half of the game in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Preseason mid-major Top 25 college basketball rankings. Utah State, Saint Mary’s, VCU, Davidson and more compete for the top spot.

Ah, how wonderful it is to return to the kingdom of mid-major, where the heart and soul of college hoops have been preserved! These rankings may have been born behind The Athletic’s paywall in 2017-2018, but I’m pumped to bring them this season to you on FanSided.

With this being my third year putting together the Cinderella Watch, I hope by now you know the drill. The goal is to highlight the best of the rest, finding teams that are sure to ruin our brackets in March.

Excluded are teams from the top seven conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, AAC — and Gonzaga, due to their overwhelming advantages in the budget, scheduling and recruiting. So get a head start on your bracket homework now, and don’t forget to tell me why these rankings are wrong on Twitter.

Preseason mid-major Top 25 rankings

1. Utah State: The Aggies are this year’s version of the team that would be ranked in the top 10 nationally if you just gave them, say, red and white jerseys and wrote “Indiana” across their chest (see: 2018 Nevada and 2019 Buffalo). At this rate, Indiana would be lucky to have a coach like Craig Smith, who guided Utah State to 28 wins in his first season in Logan. He’s got his whole rotation back, including reigning Mountain West POY Sam Merrill and DPOY Neemias Queta. Merrill is a 6-foot-5 scoring machine who received a handful of votes for the Preseason AP All-American team, and Queta’s 7-foot defensive presence caused teams to shoot 10 percent lower from the field while he was on the floor last season (per hooplens). There’s size everywhere on this roster, serving Smith’s screen-heavy motion offense and paint protection defense: three 7-footers, five more above 6-foot-7, and practically everyone else pushing 6-foot-5. They’re big, experienced, and disciplined, able to go toe to toe with any team in the country.

Trending. FanSided 2019-2020 College Basketball Season Preview. light

2. Saint Mary’s: The name to know here is Jordan Ford, who pitched in over 21 points and 2.5 assists to spearhead an offense ranked in the top 25 in efficiency nationally. A midseason adjustment to off-guard played nicely with his hairpin trigger from deep and elite floater game, as coach Randy Bennett’s reigns on the patient Princeton offense loosened slightly. Still, there’s a reason why this program gets compared to the stability of the San Antonio Spurs system. The Gaels will resemble the style of Bennett’s past teams: slow pace, elite outside shooting, excellent discipline. If Seattle U transfer and 7-foot-3 goliath Aaron Menzies turns out to be the next in a long line of great St. Mary’s big men, they could challenge Gonzaga in the WCC.

3. New Mexico State: Last year’s 14-man rotation felt like a stunt, but coach Chris Jans told me to expect more of the same this season (maybe only 10 or 11, he admitted). Jans is one of the few coaches who openly prioritizes results over process, and the fight for playing time in practice breeds a hunger and competitiveness that manifests in every game. If you beat a New Mexico State player to a loose ball, you better take it home and frame it. Depth also makes the shape-shifting Aggies almost impossible to gameplan against, especially when you consider breakout talents like all-WAC point guard Terrell Brown and Trevelin Queen, two of probably eight players who could break out for 20-plus points on any given night. In Las Cruces, 28-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances are a given. This team is ready to go to the Big Dance and stick around for a song or two.

4. VCU: The Rams were phenomenal on one side of the ball last season, finishing the year seventh in defensive efficiency and top 10 in turnovers forced while being utterly pedestrian on the other, 177th in offensive efficiency. My favorite stat throughout the season was the absence of 20-point scoring performances from anyone on the roster (five total in the team’s first 26 games). That’s when Marcus Evans remembered how to shoot, going from 24 percent from three on the season to hit 13 of 30 triples in the final five games, unlocking his potential as a scorer (19.2 points per game) and finally giving the Rams a consistent option in the half-court. This year’s team will cause havoc once again, and could be special if Evans and the stable of talented guards can score when they get slowed down.

5. Davidson: A heavy reliance on underclassmen and a midseason injury to star guard Kellan Grady handicapped last year’s Wildcats from ever finding a rhythm, but nine games settled by five points or fewer seemed to mature the team by several years. All the attention this year will be on Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson, who returned from NBA Draft dabbles to form one of the most explosive backcourts in all of college basketball (nearly 35 ppg combined). Meanwhile, the piece holding the team together will be 6-foot-10 sophomore Luka Brajkovic, who showed flashes of brilliance on both ends as a freshman and could be set up to make the second-year leap. The Wildcats will score, score, and score some more. Lest we forget, legendary offensive wizard Bob McKillop is still at the helm.

6. East Tennessee State: The consistency of the Buccaneers has been overshadowed by the shooting stars of the Southern Conference in the past two years, UNC Greensboro and Wofford, but ETSU is good for 24 wins and scaring the bejeezus out of a high major every year. The Bucs return their top six scorers from last season, including all-conference forward Jeromy Rodriguez, a rebounding beast who makes their unique three-out-two-in offense work with his high post passing ability. Off of him, they’ll play inside-out with plenty of shooting threats. Watch out for Daivien Williamson coming off an impressive freshman campaign at point guard, and the high major athleticism of swingman Bo Hodges.

7. Vermont: Give a Duncan, get a Duncan. Even though the Catamounts lost Ernie Duncan to graduation, two sharpshooting brothers remain (Everett and Robin), plus the program welcomes Oklahoma State transfer, Duncan Demuth. All of which is fun to talk about, since Vermont annually runs over any and all competition in the America East. The reason why they could make a splash on the national stage this year is Anthony Lamb, a multi-positional 6-foot-6 stat-stuffer who can bang with the bigs and step out with the guards. All told he might be the most valuable player on this list. As he goes, they go, which could be into the national spotlight with non-conference games against St. John’s, Virginia and Cincinnati.

8. San Diego State: One trend you’ll see a ton on this list, beneath the teams who bring rotation continuity into this season, are rosters stacked with talented transfers. Welcome to the new normal in college basketball. Mid-major coaches must now decide whether to recruit flashy high major down-transfers or impactful low major up-transfers. San Diego State has a little of both. KJ Feagin and Trey Pulliam put up numbers at Santa Clara and Navarro Junior College, and Yanni Wetzell comes after stints at St. Mary’s and Vanderbilt. But the Aztecs also got Malachi Flynn from Washington State, a prize of the transfer market, who put up 15.8 points and 4.3 assists playing in the Pac 12 in 2017-18. After a redshirt year in the program, he’ll be the centerpiece of an offense trying to replace the production of NBA draft pick Jalen McDaniels. A lack of size in the backcourt (Flynn and Feagin are both 6-foot-1) is concerning defensively, but if team chemistry can match the talent level over the course of the season, the Aztecs have a good chance to return to the NCAA Tournament they’ve gotten so used to in recent years.

9. Dayton: Anthony Grant finally has some experienced players in his third year as coach of the Flyers, though in many cases it didn’t come at Dayton. They’ve got a redshirt sophomore from Florida, a redshirt junior from Nebraska, a redshirt junior from Michigan, and a redshirt junior from Chattanooga. On paper, they’re loaded, led by legit NBA talent Obi Toppin, a 6-foot-9 specimen who will pretty much dunk anything and everything. One of the best home-court advantages in the country gives the Flyers an advantage come A10 play, but they’ll be tested by a handful of tough non-conference road games early on (Maui Invitation, vs. Saint Mary’s in Phoenix, vs. Colorado in Chicago).

10. Harvard: The long shadow of expectation has loomed over the 2016 recruiting class, which included top 100 recruits Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken and signaled national relevance after then four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Crimson haven’t been back since. Towns and Aiken battling injuries their entire careers. Now, seniors, both appear healthy for their last chance to live up to the hype, making them the two leading candidates for Ivy League POY (Towns won it in 2017-2018 before missing all of last year with a knee injury, leaving Aiken to average better than 22 points in his absence). And the amount of surrounding talent is perhaps equally impressive: another top 100-recruit in freshman Chris Ledlum, reigning Ivy League ROY Noah Kirkwood and the league’s leading shot-blocker Chris Lewis. Coach Tommy Amaker has a power five-caliber roster if they can stay healthy.

11. Missouri State: The Bears were one of the most interesting teams to watch last season. First-year coach Dana Ford started the season playing at a blistering pace, run and gun, then midway through the season completely altered their style and started playing slow, grind it out games. It will be fascinating to see which style he’ll choose this season after giving the roster a massive facelift. They picked up Lamont West, a double-digit scorer for West Virginia last season, and get decorated veterans Josh Hall (Nevada) and Tyrik Dixon (Middle Tennessee) eligible off of redshirt, and add four-star point guard Ford Cooper Jr. to returning all-Missouri Valley first-teamer Tulio Da Silva, an athletic 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare. On paper, the roster is better suited for an uptempo attack, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Bears can keep up with the likes of Xavier, Miami, LSU, and VCU in non-conference play.

12. Furman: The graduation of quite possibly the best player in program history, Matt Rafferty, is seemingly a huge obstacle. But I seem to remember Loyola Chicago going to the Final Four the season after losing Milton Doyle (VCU went to the Final Four the year after losing Eric Maynor, Butler went after losing Gordon Hayward, FYI). Underrating the Paladins will not be a mistake made two seasons in a row. In fact, losing a traditional five like Rafferty might make Furman more versatile than last season, provided 6-foot-8 inside-outside forward Noah Gurley is ready to step into a starring role alongside bonafide bucket-getter Jordan Lyons.

13. Rhode Island: The Rams are led by the three holdovers from the Dan Hurley era when the team spent time in the AP Top 25 and advanced a game in the NCAA Tournament. The trio fits together well: everyone’s favorite mighty mouse Fatts Russell out front, Jeff Dowtin on the wing and Cyril Langevine down low. The leadership of two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior provides an excellent backbone for David Cox in his second year as coach. With six of the top seven scorers returning, and a handful of highly touted freshmen and transfers added to the mix, the Rams are a dark horse to win the super-competitive Atlantic 10. That is, once they take their licks from a ridiculous non-conference slate: Maryland, Alabama, LSU, West Virginia, Providence and Western Kentucky. Sheesh.

14. Belmont: It’s odd to say this about a program that just lost its head coach of 33 years and a first round NBA Draft pick, but I’m actually not expecting much to be different in Casey Alexander’s first year as the Bruins’ head man. Alexander was a longtime Rick Byrd assistant and had a superb track record at Lipscomb doing the same things that made Belmont a consistent mid-major powerhouse: bombing threes and taking care of the ball. The team is young but not devoid of talent, especially with Nick “Moose” Muszynski anchoring things down low. Their ceiling might be lower than a year ago, but the Bruins are going to win a ton of games.

15. Nevada: The Muss Buss has left the Reno station, taking with it the familiar faces that made this team such a powerhouse in the last couple of years. But people forget how much success Steve Alford has had in the mid-major ranks. Case in point, talking scoring guard Jazz Johnson out of the transfer portal might have saved Alford’s first season before school was even in session. Lindsey Drew, a key piece of the 2017-18 team, returns from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season. A couple of signature Musselman transfer recruits who burned their redshirts last season are coming eligible, including Jalen Harris (15.3 ppg at Louisiana Tech) and 6-foot-8 forward Robby Robinson (15.3 points and 10 rebounds in JuCo). Point being, Alford takes over a program with an already strong culture in place, with some serious talent. Whispers of a drop off may be exaggerated.

16. Toledo: The best way to predict a MAC champion is to draw from a hat. Still, these Rockets have the pieces to separate themselves from the pack, even after the graduation of all-MAC guard Jaelon Sanford. Because coach Tod Kowalczyk’s offense doesn’t rely on a lot of isolation or ball penetration. It’s all about ball movement, off-ball screening and playing off of a good post scorer, which they have returning in Luke Knapke. Not to mention two other double-digit scorers coming back. You heard it here first folks, the Rockets will beat Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 21.

17. Western Kentucky: The feat of luring top-10 recruit Charles Bassey to WKU over the blue bloods last year can only be topped by talking him into coming back for his sophomore season (in both cases, probably better to not ask questions you don’t want answers to). So yeah, expect an appropriate amount of destruction for a 6-foot-10 future NBA lottery pick playing in Conference USA. But talent has never been the Hilltoppers problem, and the team only eked out a 20-14 record with Bassey last year. The loss of floor general Lamonte Bearden hurts, but the addition of sharpshooter Camron Justice (18.6 ppg at IUPUI last season after a stint at Vanderbilt) should pair well with the double teams Bassey commands. They have to figure some things out, but having the blue-chip big fella is a great place to start.

18. BYU: A new coach and tons of drama cloud what could otherwise be an exciting team in Provo. Yoeli Childs will miss the first nine games after a strange NCAA suspension, leaving about 20 points and 10 rebounds to be accounted for during non-conference play, dropping a huge scoring load on the spindly shoulders of TJ Haws (of the BYU Haws dynasty). The wildcard is Jake Toolson, who won WAC POY last season playing under Mark Pope at Utah Valley before both assumed their new posts with the Cougars.

19. Liberty: Five of the top six scorers are back from the 29- win team that beat Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament, making the Flames clear favorites in the Atlantic Sun. They’ll play any and every team close, good or bad, because of the patient ball rotation and pack line defense that earned them a 349th ranking in KenPom’s adjusted tempo. The speed of their game makes margins for victory razor-thin, but a balanced scoring attack makes them tough to defend in crunch time.

20. UC Irvine: Even if Max Hazzard transferred to Arizona and four seniors graduated, the cupboard is far from bare. The starting backcourt of Evan Leonard and Eyassu Worku return, as does forward Collin Welp, the top scorer off the bench. The Anteaters’ ceiling will be determined by how well the seven freshmen fill out the rotation, but betting on Russell Turner’s defenses year in and year out is beginning to look more and more like safe money.

21. New Mexico: The Lobos don’t have a single player on this year’s roster who came to Albuquerque out of high school, and have become a landing spot for high pedigree down transfers like returning leading scorers Vance Jackson (formerly of UConn) and Carlton Bragg (formerly of Kansas and Arizona State). Not to mention JaQuon Lyle (formerly of Ohio State) who is coming off a yearlong Achilles injury, and the addition of transfers from Texas A&M and Utah. Pedigree runs deep, but transfer Zane Martin from Towson might turn out to be the best of the bunch, having been the only one to put up nearly 20 points per game while at Towson. Needless to say, talent should not be a problem for this sleeping Mountain West giant.

22. Wright State: This much can be said with certainty. The Raiders will win a lot of games this season. A soft non-conference schedule leads to a down Horizon league. If you’re a fan of old school, pound the rock basketball, allow me to introduce you to your new favorite team, led by 6-foot-8, 260-pound Loudon Love going to work on the low block. The real question is whether the Raiders can get back to playing the kind of defense that led them to the Big Dance in 2017-2018 (12th in defensive efficiency in the country).

23. Pepperdine: Colbey Ross doesn’t get much recognition as one of the premier playmakers in college basketball, despite putting up 19.4 points and 7.0 assists per game last season. The run to the WCC semifinals last March felt like a significant moment in the program’s rebuild, especially with Ross and the Edwards brothers bringing back the majority of the scoring production. Things are certainly looking up in Malibu for Lorenzo Romar’s second year.

24. North Texas: The Mean Green were never as good as their 16-1 start might indicate, nor as bad as their 1-8 finish (thanks to an overwhelming number of injuries). Still, coach Grant McCasland has shown a talent for teaching switching man-to-man defense that gives this team a chance to challenge in Conference USA if they can put together enough offense. Three double-digit scorers returning should help on that front.

25. Charleston: People forget Grant Riller had a stretch last season where he was practically unstoppable, putting up 19-plus points in every game and 30-plus four times during a 10-game winning streak. Expect that kind of scoring output to be the norm this season, as the primary ball-handler on a team devoid of established scoring options. The bet is on the infrastructure and Earl Grant, who has put up three consecutive seasons of 24 or more wins, to develop pieces around the prized point guard.

dark. Next. NCAA basketball: Preseason Top 25

For more NCAA basketball news, analysis, opinion and features, check out more from the FanSided college basketball section to stay on top of the latest action.