A year ago at this time, St. Peter’s was 5-6 and ranked 228th in the NET. Little did we know that the Peacocks were about to embark on one of the most high-profile games in college basketball history. There were other more accomplished mid-to-large teams that made it to the NCAA tournament last season, but St. Pete’s progressed the furthest.
The Peacocks made their way to the Elite Eight as the No. 15 seed and are the only mid-to-large team to even make it to the Sweet 16 (no, Gonzaga doesn’t count). Even though the Peacocks’ season ended with a 69-49 loss to North Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals, St. Pete’s game showcased our love for the Big Dance.
If you’re looking for a mid-to-big team to play, the safer bets are No. 5 seed St. Mary’s, No. 7 seed Murray State, No. 8 seed San Diego State, or any number of more programs than St. Peter’s Appeal. But in the end, the Peacocks won over Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue to go down in history as the 15th longest-running finish in tournament history.
While we probably won’t see a performance like this again for many years, there are still several good mid-to-large teams in college basketball this season.For this week’s edition of Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking which mid-pro items they think have the best chance of winning many 2023 NCAA Tournament Game.
Saint Mary (16-4)
The Gaels lost Tommy Kuhse, the team’s leading scorer last season, and Matthias Tass, who was seeded No. 5 in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the second round. It’s no surprise that legendary coach Randy Bennett quickly retooled to put together another fine team. But it’s surprising that St. Mary’s might actually improve after such a severe attrition, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this team enter its second weekend in the NCAA Tournament.
As of Tuesday, St. Mary’s was ranked No. 8 in the NET, No. 8 in KenPom.com and on track for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to CBS Sports Scaffolding expert Jerry Palm. Arguably the biggest factor in the Gaels’ resilience was the performance of freshman guard Aidan Mahaney. Ranked a top 150 rookie in the country by 247Sports, Mahaney is playing. He scored 21 and 25 points in wins over Loyola Marymount and San Francisco last week, shooting 18 of 35 from the field. Since breaking into the starting lineup in early December, he’s averaging 16.9 points on 52.5 percent shooting, including 46.4 percent from 3-point range.
The team is 10-1 since Mahaney entered the starting lineup, and its four losses for the season combined to add up to 15 points. When St. Mary’s lost to UCLA in the second round of last season’s Big Dance, the Bruins simply couldn’t afford to miss. But the Gaels’ defense is solid again this season, and with any luck they’ll reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010. —David Cobb
Heading into the 2022-23 season, FAU coach Dusty May has a 66-56 record over four (mostly) memorable seasons. Three of those four seasons ended with winning records, but not by much, and even few in the conversation were contenders for the American conference race. Still, May and FAU’s encounter with lightning in a bottle during their matchup this season is one of the best and least discussed stories in the sport. The Owls got off to a 17-1 start and broke into the AP top 25 for the first time in program history on Monday.
No other team has a perfect record in C-USA play — in fact, no team has lost fewer than two games — making FAU the clear favorite to win the league right now.That would be the Owls’ first C-USA title and second regular-season conference title in program history.
The 17-1 record isn’t a mirage either. Indicators love FAU. It ranks 13th (!) in the NCAA net ranking, 35th in KenPom and 34th in BartTorvik.com. This team has the ability to play and shine in the game. — Kyle Boone
My first answer to that question is the Florida Atlantic, according to Tuesday morning’s CBS Sports Top 25 and 1, and I’ve been in every 7 full days before the Owls entered the AP top 25 poll for the first time on Monday. The daily ranking is in. My second answer is Saint Mary. But Cobb’s choice of the Gaels is understandable, and Boone’s choice of the Owl is understandable. So I’m going to move on to my third choice – Boise State.
Leon Rice’s Broncos were good again, despite losing four of the team’s top six scorers last season — including leading scorer Abukkigabe and third-leading scorer Emmanuel Arcott , the latter moving to Western Kentucky, where he’s unlikely to make it to the 2023 NCAA Tournament considering the Hilltoppers are 3-4 in C-USA and No. 160 in the NET. Akot’s former teammates are doing well, though. After stumbling out of the gate and losing two of its first three games, Boise State has won 13 of its last 15 games and is ranked 20th in NET and No. 1 in KenPom.com 27 bits. The Broncos beat Colorado over Tennessee, Texas A&M 4-0 in the SEC, St. Louis over Providence and Memphis, and Utah, also in the top 50 on KenPom.
Is this the best resume in the world?
of course not.
But it’s a good enough resume that CBS Sports scaffolding expert Jerry Palm currently projects the Broncos as the No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they avoid additional bad losses, add some Quadrant 1 wins and win their second straight Mountain West title, the projected seed will improve significantly — possibly a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. If so, the Broncos would have a realistic path to the Sweet 16, which would be the case considering the program still has its first win in the NCAA Tournament despite playing the Big Dance eight times between 1976 and last season. Astonishing. — Gary Parrish
Flashbacks from earlier in the season. Gonzaga just beat Xavier at PK85 and I was talking to Mark Few about his relief at going 2-1 in that match. With little explanation as to why this is the toughest non-conference schedule he’s ever made, after listing all the big items, he added something along the lines of, “By the way, we’re already playing Kent State in a week, That would be a nightmare.”
Very few people know what he said. The Golden Flashes led Gonzaga for most of that game before trailing 66-73. In fact, Kent State’s only three losses this season have come against teams with a combined 52-5 record: Gonzaga, Charleston and Houston. Kent State trailed by two points on the road at Charleston. In Houston, arguably the best team in college basketball, Robesendrove’s team lost just five games. Then it almost stole the game against Gonzaga.
The Golden Flashes are the best team in the MAC, which is why I chose them to answer this week’s question: point guard performance and defense. Kent State ranks in the top 20 in the country in defensive efficiency. That will come in March. It also has Sincere Carry, who is averaging 17 points and 5 assists a night and is arguably the top 10 starting guard in college basketball. Senderoff has been quietly doing the work since arriving at Kent State in 2011. He has never had such a well-rounded team. Here’s a viable Cinderella candidate that’s not new to this school. Remember 2002? —Matt Noland