Preseason Mid-Major College Basketball Rankings: Can FAU, SDSU Be Cinderellas Again?
For the second time in NCAA tournament history, two mid-major programs squared off the 2023 Final Four. The first occurred in 2011, when Butler defeated VCU to return to the National Championship Game before falling to Connecticut. What should bettors expect from Florida Atlantic and San Diego State’s outlook for the upcoming campaign? Where do they sit in men’s college basketball odds? Without further ado, let’s dive into my preseason mid-major rankings. Spoiler alert: Gonzaga is not eligible to be included in my top five.
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1. Saint Mary’s Gaels
On the surface, the Gaels are in the top 10 of TheLines’ college basketball power rankings. It correlates with the market stationing them near even money to win the WCC regular-season title. Both of those expectations may come as a surprise, but remember that Randy Bennett’s bunch easily could have advanced further in the Big Dance — and potentially cashed Final Four futures — if they were put in a region without the eventual champs.
Even after losing Logan Johnson, a primary ball-handler and defensive pest, and perimeter specialist Kyle Bowen, sophomore guard Aidan Mahaney should take the next step as one of the sport’s premier players at his position. Not only is he a flamethrower from deep, but he also manufactured a 0.87 PPP in pick-and-roll sets as a freshman. Near-top-100 recruit Jordan Ross helps solidify the backcourt depth, too.
With Mitchell Saxon’s 4.5% block rate propelling the Gaels’ upper-echelon defense, they possess a Final Four ceiling.
2. Memphis tigers
Yes, FAU is now in the same conference as Memphis. Why is Penny Hardaway’s crew listed ahead of them, according to my projections? After all, the Owls knocked off the Tigers in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
One-game variance is often overlooked, especially in March. If Kendric Davis hadn’t suffered an ankle injury in the waning minutes of that game, the Tigers likely would have continued dancing. Despite losing Davis, along with 27-year-old DeAndre Williams, because of eligibility issues, Hardaway rebuilt his roster through the portal. The additions of Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama), David Jones (St. John’s), and Caleb Mills (Florida State) allow for his ball pressure to remain intact. Their press usage ranked in the 91st percentile across Division I (per Synergy).
3. new Mexico Lobos
If you’ve followed my conference tournament wagers, the Lobos made the cut the last two years. Unfortunately, neither bet translated into a profit. Nevertheless, Richard Pitino’s squad returns 53.3% of the returning possession minutes (RPMS) from 2022-23, including Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House — one of the premier guard tandems in the country. Their efficiency (or lack thereof) at the other end is the concern.
Nevertheless, Iona transfer Nelly Junior Joseph, who notched a top-150 block percentage, should shore up the rim protection if he remains healthy. Jermel Baker, who shifted over via in-conference rival Fresno State, also provides New Mexico with the ballhawk presence on the wing it’s been missing. After starting 14-0 last season before falling off a cliff, don’t be surprised if the Lobos finally deliver upon their lofty ceiling — and surpass the Aztecs in the Mountain West Conference.
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4. San Diego State Aztecs
For reference, I backed San Diego State to make the Final Four ahead of their Sweet 16 matchup against Alabama. But after reaching the title game, the Aztecs are a tad overvalued in preseason college basketball odds, according to my numbers. Brian Dutcher’s defensive game plan revolves around running opponents off the three-point line, forcing them inside against athletic bigs. Losing Nathan Mensah and Keshad Johnson, who departed for Arizona, somewhat depreciates their prowess in that regard. I’m not sure USC transfer Reese Dixon-Waters will account for all Matt Bradley provided on the opposite side of the court, either.
5. Florida Atlantic owls
Even though Dusty May’s unit boasts a top-five RPMS, don’t fall victim to recency bias. Over the last decade-plus, Wichita State is the lone true mid-major we’ve seen sustain the level of March Madness excellence FAU believers are buying into. It’s plausible that Alijah Martin, Johnell Davis, & Co. have already reached their ceiling.
The Owls ranked No. 57 in KenPom’s luck rating, primarily because they finished 11-2 in games decided by two possessions or fewer. Negative regression could indeed be served in that department this season.
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