Ten midmajors to watch

December 7, 2021 09:20 PM
The college basketball season has been up and running for nearly a month, and it’s a good time to start plotting for the rest of the season based on the early returns. One thing I like to do is to find potential money-makers in the midmajor ranks. Oddsmakers seem a little less invested in these teams and tend to take longer to catch up to just how good they are or can be. Just look at last spring, when we found two teams from midmajor conferences in the Final Four, though I’m not sure anyone really looks at Gonzaga or Houston as midmajors. Earlier in the tournament, Oral Roberts and Loyola (Chicago) also made noise.
My data for the first four weeks of the season indicates 10 midmajor teams that might be worthy of your betting consideration. All these teams have Effective Strength Ratings over 11 right now, better than their perceived power ratings among the mainstream sources and my own. In other words, these teams are still underrated, in my opinion.
Let’s take a closer look at these midmajor quick starters, including their resumes, key players and upcoming games in which to consider backing them. For the three-power-rating average, I’ve used the ratings of Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin and myself.
BYU (West Coast)
Record: 7-1 SU and 4-3 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 84.1
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 86.2
Analysis: For years, BYU has been near the top of the offensive efficiency ratings. Early this season, the Cougars have struggled somewhat on that side of the court. In fact, after Saturday’s 74-68 win at Missouri State, it could reasonably be argued that they are in a shooting slump, having failed to hit more than 26 percent beyond the arc in any of their last four games. It cost them a game against Utah State. However, this team is better defensively than it has been in quite a while, allowing just 0.916 effective points per possession, good for 25th in the country. Coach Mark Pope’s team will be a tourney threat as long as it continues that effort. But Pope will need to find some support for guard Alex Barcello, who is carrying much of the offensive load. The Cougars have two tough games this week but are 3-0 SU and ATS as single-digit favorites in 2021.
Upcoming games: Wednesday vs. Utah State, Saturday vs. Creighton at Sioux Falls, S.D.
LOYOLA (CHICAGO) (Missouri Valley)
Record: 7-2 SU and 4-5 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 82.3
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 86.2
Analysis: After a Final Four run in 2018 and a huge upset of No. 1 seed Illinois last year, Loyola is no longer sneaking up on anyone. This year the Ramblers turned to a new coach in Drew Valentine after Porter Moser left for Oklahoma. The change has been noteworthy, as the team has really juiced it up offensively. In fact, in its first five home games, Loyola is averaging over 90 points per game. With Cameron Krutwig in the post for the last few years, the pace was a lot slower. This is a very entertaining team to watch as well as back with your money because the Ramblers’ effort is relentless and they still treat themselves as underdogs. Their current effective points per possession on offense is 1.195, or 20th in the country, and the attack is very balanced. With a 4-5 ATS record, they have a lot of room to grow. With their only losses to Michigan State and Auburn, the Ramblers face a big game Friday at Vanderbilt.
Upcoming game: Friday at Vanderbilt
WAGNER (Northeast)
Record: 3-1 SU and ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 73.5
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 84.9
Analysis: You probably haven’t taken much notice of Wagner. The Seahawks have played only four games and were beaten soundly in their biggest contest of the young season at Seton Hall. However, in the other three games they have been pretty impressive, pulling two outright upsets in which they beat the point spread by at least 25 points. In essence, Wagner’s effective strength rating shows a team about 11 points better than the experts behind the betting counter are allowing. Can they keep up the pace as the frequency of games increases? Well, if 6-foot-6 guard Alex Morales continues to perform as he has, it’s possible. The Seahawks’ next game is Wednesday night at Penn State, and as midrange underdogs, is it out of the question for them to pull another big upset?
Upcoming game: Wednesday at Penn State
WYOMING (Mountain West)
Record: 8-0 SU and 5-1-1 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 75.9
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 84.6
Analysis: Another team starting to enter experts’ radar is Wyoming, as the Cowboys are 8-0 with two upsets and three other wins by 38 points or more. Averaging 82.3 ppg, this looks to be one of the best offensive teams in the Mountain West. The Cowboys also rank 31st in the country in effective points per possession at 1.165. However, coach Jeff Linder also has his team playing great on the other end, with only one of the first eight opponents shooting better than 44 percent. If you’re looking for star power, Wyoming has a couple of candidates in 6-foot-9 power forward Graham Ike and 6-foot-7 guard Hunter Maldonado, each scoring at least 18 ppg. Linder’s team has a huge chance to prove itself Wednesday night at Arizona and will follow that with a home game Saturday against Utah Valley before breaking for exams.
Upcoming games: Wednesday at Arizona, Saturday vs. Utah Valley
UAB (Conference USA)
Record: 7-2 SU and 6-1-1 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 81.3
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 84.2
Analysis: With four starters back from last year’s 22-7 team, coach Andy Kennedy’s squad was expected to be good, and it should remain a top contender for the Conference USA title. The Blazers have slipped up a couple of times on the road in losses at South Carolina and to San Francisco in Las Vegas. Otherwise, Kennedy’s team has been nearly flawless, boasting a 6-1-1 ATS mark. The Blazers have also been dominant at home, a key point since they will be welcoming West Virginia to town a week from Saturday. Lead guard Jordan Walker is shooting over 45 percent behind the arc and averaging 16.8 points, 5.1 assists and 2.1 rebounds.
Upcoming games: Dec. 14 vs. Grambling, Dec. 18 vs. West Virginia
COLORADO STATE (Mountain West)
Record: 9-0 SU and 5-3 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 82.4
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 83.7
Analysis: Coach Niko Medved brought back all five starters from his 20-win team of a year ago, but even he has to admit his team has exceeded expectations. The Rams are one of a handful of teams in the Mountain West that could make huge noise as the league looks to earn multiple NCAA bids. This is another team that has gotten off to a high-scoring start, posting 85.3 ppg and ranking eighth in the country in effective points per possession at 1.226. Those are usually numbers consistent with Final Four qualifiers. That might be a bit overzealous, as the Rams haven’t faced anyone of elite caliber, but double-digit wins over Saint Mary’s and Creighton certainly are nothing to scoff at. Games over the next two weeks against Mississippi State and Alabama should provide a better indication of how good CSU really is.
Upcoming games: Saturday vs. Mississippi State at Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 18 vs. Tulsa at Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 21 vs. Alabama at Birmingham, Ala.
Record: 9-0 SU and 3-5-1 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 81.7
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 83.5
Analysis: San Francisco’s victory over UAB in Las Vegas is by no means the Dons’ only big win in the early going. Their 9-0 start includes victories over Nevada and Davidson as well. However, we have yet to see this team fully tested, as the Dons have been favored in all nine games. That is a trend that figures to continue into 2022, when they open the new year and conference play at Saint Mary’s. But the next few games won’t be easy, as contests at Grand Canyon and Arizona State await. Guard Jamaree Bouyea has proven to be this team’s bell cow in the early going, scoring 19.2 ppg.
Upcoming games: Wednesday vs. Fresno State, Dec. 18 at Grand Canyon, Dec. 19 at Arizona State
UC IRVINE (Big West)
Record: 5-1 SU and 3-1 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 77
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 83.1
Analysis: After six games, my effective stats show UC Irvine as about six points better than the experts give credit for. Upset wins over Santa Clara and Boise State have a lot to do with that. The Anteaters’ only loss came in the opener at New Mexico State. This team doesn’t figure to command a lot of attention from public bettors as it doesn’t score a lot of points. In fact, in the Anteaters’ four lined contests, they’ve put up only 65 ppg. However, they are allowing just 53.2 ppg, and continuing at that pace will amount to a lot of wins in the Big West. That defensive total was No. 1 in the country as of Monday, and UC Irvine also ranks No. 3 in defensive field-goal percentage. The Anteaters are getting after it for coach Russell Turner. Can they keep USC down next week? The Trojans are also a top-rated defensive team. That game will be a real test for this group, but the line will surely be higher than my effective numbers show it should be.
Upcoming games: Saturday at Fresno State, Dec. 15 at USC, Dec. 19 vs. Duquesne at Akron, Ohio, Dec. 21 at Buffalo
UTAH STATE (Mountain West)
Record: 6-2 SU and 5-2 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 79.2
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 82.3
Analysis: Including upsets of Oklahoma, New Mexico State and Richmond, Utah State ripped off six straight wins before losing to Saint Mary’s. The Aggies are in a mix of overperforming Mountain West teams and could be the most surprising of the bunch since they brought back only two starters for first-year coach Ryan Odom and figured to go through growing pains. However, they’ve been better than expected and have played their best ball by going 4-0 SU and ATS in neutral-site games, a great sign for a team looking to make postseason noise. The Aggies will face a big test at BYU next week. They’ll also take on Iowa in a neutral environment before Christmas. With 6-foot-7 forward Justin Bean scoring 22.1 ppg and grabbing 12.5 rpg, they have a stud capable of keeping them in contests. Don’t discount Utah State’s chances to pull upsets against BYU or Iowa.
Upcoming games: Wednesday at BYU, Saturday vs. New Orleans, Dec. 15 at Weber State, Dec. 18 vs. Iowa at Sioux Falls, S.D.
Record: 7-1 SU and 5-2 ATS
3-Power-Rating Average: 77.4
Effective Strength Equivalent Rating: 82.1
Analysis: While Chattanooga hasn’t played a very challenging schedule, the Mocs are taking care of business, outscoring teams by nearly 20 ppg. They are holding opponents to just 57 ppg, an improvement of over 12 ppg from last year. That’s a good sign for coach Lamont Paris’ team, which came into the season as the favorite in the Southern Conference and seems to be living up to the billing. In fact, the Mocs’ effective strength rating is nearly seven points better than any team in the league. Chattanooga boasts a guard-dominated attack with Malachi Smith (17.3 ppg) and David Jean-Baptiste (16.6 ppg) setting the pace. With their lone loss coming at the hands of Charleston, the Mocs will face some tests at Belmont and Murray State leading up to Christmas.
Upcoming games: Saturday at UNC Asheville, Dec. 15 at Belmont, Dec. 18 at Murray State
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