The 2006 NCAA Tournament run of George Mason gave hope to mid-majors everywhere.
If a team out of the Colonial Athletic Association can make the Final Four, why can't a team out of the MAC or the WAC or the MEAC? Parity hasn't completely arrived in college basketball - only one Elite Eight team last season was from outside a BCS conference - but neither is it impossible for a team to duplicate the Colonials' feat. Every year there is a mid-major league or two that experiences a spike. A couple of solid teams emerge at the top, and there is good competition throughout.
Which are the mid-major leagues to look out for this coming season? That's the question we posed to Rivals.com Basketball Editor Bob McClellan and staff writer Andrew Skwara. Here's what they told us:
Skwara's pick: Atlantic 10
You won't find the best mid-major team in the Atlantic 10. Memphis, located in Conference USA, is a lock for that label. The Atlantic 10 may not even have the second or third best. The Missouri Valley Conference (which features Southern Illinois), the Southern Conference (Davidson), the Horizon (Butler) or the Colonial (VCU) could all make strong claims.
But, you will find that the A-10 is the deepest mid-major league. Five A-10 teams were selected in Rivals.com's preseason top 64, the most of any mid-major. C-USA and the Colonial are next with three apiece.
All five A-10 teams have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes. Xavier, which would have been in the Sweet 16 last season if not for a gigantic collapse against eventual runner-up Ohio State, returns a backcourt in Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell that many coaches in major leagues would love to have. St. Joseph's frontcourt, which includes three double-digit scorers, would start for many ACC and Big East teams. Rhode Island might have the league's best player in Will Daniels. St. Louis might have the league's best coach in Rick Majerus. He took Utah to 10 NCAA Tournaments. Then, there's underrated Fordham, which returns its top seven scorers from an 18-win team.
You'll find even more depth beyond those five programs.
George Washington must replace three starters, but the Colonials always seem to find a way to contend. They've won the league regular-season title or the league tournament in each of the last three seasons.
Dayton landed the league's top recruit in forward Chris Wright, who turned down scholarship offers from Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Texas.
If just half of those teams live up to their expectations, there won't be any debate over which is the best mid-major conference. The A-10 will win in a landslide.
McClellan's pick: Conference USA
Everyone knows Memphis is a high-major team playing in a mid-major league. The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the Rivals.com preseason poll and No. 1 in several others, have lost only once in conference play in the past two years.
John Calipari's team is as talented and as deep as any in the country. When all is said and done, Memphis should be in the Final Four.
However, I'm not basing the crux of my argument on Memphis. The Tigers are an anomaly. They're a perennial power in a perennially underachieving league. But this year the league is on the rise.
There are two teams in C-USA that could beat Memphis this season - UAB and Southern Miss. I'm not saying either will, but both will be much improved. The Blazers welcome three top-quality transfers into eligibility, led by 6-5 former Indiana swingman Robert Vaden. Two years ago as a Hoosier, Vaden averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Add SEC refugees Walter Sharpe (9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg at Mississippi State in 2005-06) and (8.5 ppg at Georgia the same season) and it's easy to understand the buzz in Birmingham.
The Golden Eagles are ready to soar because they keep other teams grounded. Larry Eustachy (yes, this is where he surfaced) has his team playing tough defense (24th nationally in field-goal percentage defense) and crashing the boards (sixth nationally in rebounding margin). Any coach will tell you he'd take his chances with a team that defends well and rebounds well. Southern Miss returns its top four scorers, too, including second-team all-conference selection Jeremy Wise.
No C-USA teams other than Memphis played in the postseason last year. UAB and Southern Miss will crash the postseason this year, and so will Houston, which returns all-conference guard Robert McKiver.
You also never have an easy out with UCF under C-USA Coach of the Year Kirk Speraw. After Memphis, the Golden Knights posted more wins (22) than any other team in the league.