As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. After looking at the Big East, the American and the Pac-12, we continue by looking at the best of the mid-major conferences, a term that once again looks like a moving target within the college hoops sphere.
Mid-majors 2019-20 champion predictions
Mid-majors 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Since the first thing many readers are going to do is quibble with our definition of mid-major, please identify (1) the league above that you think is closest to qualifying for the 'high-major' group, (2) the league that you'd put closest to the mid-major relegation line, and (3) the league below our mid-major cut line (i.e., one we're not profiling here) that deserves the most respect.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Away with quibbling! The West Coast Conference is currently the strongest of these leagues statistically (and the Southern Conference might be the weakest), yet, speaking now of the entire WCC and not just Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, the conference is nowhere near "major" status.
I have three expectations for a major conference: 1. Record an adjusted efficiency margin ("AdjEM") of at least +10.00 at KenPom; 2. Earn the equivalent of two No. 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament bracket (which could instead be a single top seed or any number of other permutations); and 3. Average one NCAA tournament victory for every two member teams in your league (so, for instance, the WCC would be on the hook for five tournament wins). The Pac-12 has fallen short of some of these criteria the past few years, to be sure, but that's one way to define "major."
As for a league most deserving of respect outside this group of conferences, watch out for the top of Conference USA. Who knows, UTSA and Western Kentucky could be looking bubbly come March.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think the WCC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 have the strongest arguments to be included in the high-major category, but I don't think any of the three is all that close. Gasaway gave the best answer possible for how to differentiate major conferences from the rest, so I won't dive into data. But from a qualitative standpoint, I think a major conference is simply a league that has a chance at three-plus bids every season, with a Sweet 16 favorite among the group. We think of Saint Mary's as an NCAA tournament constant, but the Gaels have made it twice since 2013. The Mountain West has hit three bids once since 2013, after a stretch where it was legitimately a top-seven conference every season. The Atlantic 10 has been arguably the most consistent in getting three-plus teams, but it's often without a second-weekend contender.
The Pac-12's reputation keeps it as a lock among the major conferences even though it's had some down years recently, so the American is probably the closest to falling -- even though this isn't the season that will happen. The league has a national contender in Memphis, March regulars in Cincinnati and Houston, and the middle of the league is the best it's ever been this season.
As a Delaware alum who has always had an affinity for the Colonial Athletic Association, I'd want to pick that league -- but this season, it's Conference USA. Western Kentucky is absolutely loaded with talent and there are multiple teams behind WKU that return most of their production. One team that deserves respect is New Mexico State out of the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies won 30 games, almost beat Final Four-bound Auburn in the NCAA tournament and return four starters.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think John's assessment is accurate. And I support Jeff's idea that the high-major tag demands a sense of consistency. The West Coast Conference is probably closest to qualifying for that label, given Gonzaga's status, consistency and resources. Plus, the league had five top-100 teams on KenPom last season.
The American counts on Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State to preserve its reputation each season. A few bad years from that foursome would alter perceptions of that league. I'll echo what Jeff and John said about Conference USA and Western Kentucky's promise as a league that deserves more respect. But the reality is that the Power 5, American and Big East schools have access to millions of dollars they can use on practice facilities, academic staffers, top coaches and assistants, travel accommodations and other resources the rest of the country, by and large, lacks. These advantages position those programs to compete for the top talent in the country each year. That's high-major to me.
Per U.S. Department of Education data, here's the difference among what schools in various classes within Division I made off men's basketball last year: Minnesota ($17.4 million), South Carolina ($11.1 million), Nevada ($4.7 million) and San Francisco ($3.8 million). Despite that disparity, over the past three seasons, Nevada (86 wins) has been the best team on that list. That's the beauty of college basketball. You can compete with the Power 5 resources, but those schools will always have an advantage that warrants the high-major title simply because they have so much cash to invest in their respective programs.
It looks like one of those rare seasons when there's actual debate about who the best team in the WCC is. We can see above whom you're picking to win the league, but what do you see as the national ceiling for Gonzaga and Saint Mary's?
Medcalf: Saint Mary's has the WCC player of the year in Jordan Ford and is coming in confident off last season's victory over Gonzaga in the conference tournament. I think Randy Bennett can lead this team to a win in the NCAA tournament. But Gonzaga has a strong incoming group with Admon Gilder leading a crew that should help Killian Tillie end his career on a high note. Injuries remain a concern. But Tillie is a 6-foot-10 star who has made 47% of his 3-pointers, 59% of his shots inside the arc and 76% of his free throw attempts. He's a complete player who could lead Mark Few's squad to the Elite Eight if he's available.
Borzello: I still think Gonzaga is a legitimate top-10 team nationally. Yes, there are more questions than usual because Few's team lost two first-rounders and two backcourt veterans -- but he rebuilt with a terrific recruiting class and two impact graduate transfers. The key will be the health of Tillie; he's one of the best players in the league when fully fit. We sometimes forget that Saint Mary's needed a conference tournament title run to go dancing last season, but Ford and Malik Fitts are both back, and former Seattle transfer Aaron Menzies gives the Gaels a different dimension inside. I think Gonzaga's ceiling is just short of the Final Four, and Saint Mary's can be a second-weekend team, too.
Gasaway: I picked the Zags, but, to be clear, opponents won't find a lot to like in playing against Saint Mary's this season. Randy Bennett is certainly feeling confident, as seen in a nonconference schedule that includes Wisconsin, Utah State, Dayton, Arizona State and Nevada, along with a true road game at California (granted, it's a short trip). These are the best of times for the top of the WCC, with two teams, plural, capable of reaching the Elite Eight.
We come off a decade in which the Horizon League (twice), the Colonial and the Missouri Valley (twice) all sent teams to the Final Four. Beside the two WCC teams mentioned previously, name a team from outside the top leagues that you would not be surprised to see in Atlanta in April.
Borzello: I think VCU, Davidson and Harvard can all get attention for this one, but I'll go with Utah State. The Aggies have one of the best inside-outside duos in the country in guard Sam Merrill and center Neemias Queta; it's a testament to how good that tandem is that both Merrill and Queta garnered votes from us for mid-major player of the year. Queta suffered a knee injury over the summer, but he should be back soon. The Aggies were blown out by Washington in the NCAA tournament last season, but will be more battle-tested this time around. For one, the Mountain West is a little deeper into the middle of the pack, even if it doesn't have a Nevada for Utah State to fight for a title. And second, Craig Smith scheduled a tough nonconference slate, including games against LSU, Saint Mary's, BYU, South Florida and Florida in the first two months of the season.
Gasaway: If I can still admit to being mildly surprised (because I would be), then I'll go with Harvard. The only thing holding this offense back last season was turnovers, and the Crimson still came within 20 minutes of the NCAA tournament. Everyone's back this season, and Bryce Aiken and his veteran cohorts are a safe bet to improve in terms of taking care of the ball. Once that happens, everything's in place for this team to score a lot of points. Watch Harvard this season, and you will be entertained.
Medcalf: I think Harvard is the obvious choice, but what about New Mexico State? The Aggies suffered a one-point loss (and missed crucial shots in the final seconds) to a Final Four team that had a healthy Chuma Okeke. They nearly ruined Auburn's run. Terrell Brown, AJ Harris and Ivan Aurrecoechea finished a combined 8-for-11 inside the arc in that loss. They're all back for a squad that has an early-season opportunity against Arizona (Nov. 17) that could open some eyes, or offer a reminder of what this team nearly accomplished last season. The program has won at least 28 games for three consecutive seasons. This could be NMSU's time to break through with a Loyola-Chicago-like trip to Atlanta.