Mid-majors 2020-21 predictions: Gonzaga transcends labels, can win title

Corey Kispert, left, Mark Few and Gonzaga have a chance to cut down the nets in Indianapolis in April. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. After looking at the American Athletic Conference, we continue by breaking down the best of the mid-major conferences, including a league (the WCC) that has a college basketball heavyweight in its midst.

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Mid-majors 2020-21 superlatives

Player of the Year

Medcalf: Isaiah Miller, UNC Greensboro
Borzello: Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Marreon Jackson, Toledo
Lunardi: Jalen Crutcher, Dayton

Newcomer of the Year

Medcalf: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Borzello: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Gasaway: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Lunardi: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Mid-majors 2020-21 writer roundtable

The size of the 2021 NCAA tournament bracket is going to be in question until that day in March when (we hope) the brackets are unveiled. If you were a betting man, how many of the nine leagues discussed in this piece would you expect to be represented in the field? Name a really good team from these leagues that the world might not get to see because of a reduced field.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: NCAA senior vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt has told ESPN that the selection committee is prepared to offer unprecedented flexibility to every league as the NCAA tournament approaches. And I believe that.

The ever-changing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems we've already witnessed suggest the sport could face challenges that might prevent some teams from reaching the minimum of 13 games. And it's difficult to envision a world in which every team in each league will somehow complete the same number of games. With the idea of fairness eliminated by the circumstances, I think the NCAA will work to ensure every league is represented. For most conferences, the NCAA tournament offers an important financial opportunity. When Loyola Chicago made its Final Four run in 2018, the Missouri Valley Conference earned $8.5 million. I don't see schools passing on that, especially if the NCAA offers creative avenues for qualification.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think eight of the nine conferences here have a very good chance of seeing themselves represented in the field of 68/whatever. The one exception might be the Ivy League. The conference already said it isn't playing games in 2020, and assuming the schools that did remote learning in the fall don't have students returning to campus until the second semester, a reasonable timeline for the season starting would be somewhere around February. And if those schools extend remote learning into the spring semester? Ivy schools are not the type to bring athletes back if everyone else is home. There's certainly hope within the league that it will figure things out and have a season, but it's fair to say that is up in the air right now.

If the worst-case scenario happens, the world might not get to see a really good Yale team that also would have likely made the NCAA tournament last season. Paul Atkinson is the best player in the conference -- and given that he already announced he plans to graduate and transfer in the spring, the world will see him soon enough. Yale might not get the same opportunity.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The NCAA has placed a premium on representing all of Division I in its bracket ever since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Prior to that time, there was some discussion of denying automatic bids to the weakest conferences. That idea never gained traction, however, and here we are. Presumably any league in which every team plays the required minimum number of games will be in line for an automatic bid in 2021. I'll wax bullish and say all nine leagues shown here will be represented in the bracket. But if I'm wrong and the pandemic intercedes yet again (hardly a far-fetched scenario), I'll regret not seeing Northern Iowa get the chance to bust some brackets. AJ Green and the Panthers are going to score some points this season.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: The only way an automatic qualifying conference is excluded from the field would be by its own choice (e.g., the Ivy League scenario Jeff mentions above). The dollars and the politics simply require representation from the full Division I membership. I suppose, in the worst of cases, mid- and low-major leagues could be granted tournament shares in lieu of participation, but if things are really that bad, then we probably won't have conference championships, either. As for individual teams -- again, non-Gonzaga division -- the ones with the chance to make the most noise in March are Saint Louis and Richmond from the Atlantic 10 and BYU of the West Coast Conference.

The national consensus seems to be that Gonzaga is one of three programs -- Baylor and Villanova are the others -- that is a bankable and safe Final Four pick from our vantage point here in the preseason. Give us one reason the Zags can cut down the nets in Indianapolis in April, and tell us the one thing that worries you the most about their national title candidacy.

Borzello: Put simply, Gonzaga can win it all because it has the players to do so. Corey Kispert is a preseason All-America-caliber player, Joel Ayayi is a bona fide scorer and Drew Timme should take a big step forward. And Jalen Suggs might be the best guard entering college basketball not named Cade Cunningham. Suggs is an elite, one-and-done lottery pick-type of player and can take the Bulldogs to the next level. The concern might be that we're putting a lot of stock into players stepping up based solely on the fact that coach Mark Few always sees players step up. What if some of the younger role players from last season don't take the anticipated step forward?

Gasaway: The Bulldogs can win the national title because Few has created the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine on offense. Every season without fail, Gonzaga is one of the best 2-point shooting teams in the nation. Timme, Kispert and Ayayi will see to it that this streak is extended in 2021. What worries me most about the Zags' title chances, however, is that the defense took a step back last season. The Bulldogs blocked fewer shots and forced fewer misses in the paint once Brandon Clarke was no longer around.

Lunardi: Gonzaga has built the perfect template for national championship contention. The Bulldogs schedule their way to an excellent seed on an annual basis, then hope to peak in March with the most favorable matchups possible. The formula worked in 2017, as the Zags were the best team in the country before losing a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the NCAA final. With No. 1 seeds in two of the past three tournaments -- and another on the way -- it's only a matter of time before Gonzaga returns to and wins the last game of the season. Injuries, bad luck and hot opponents are always a risk, but the Bulldogs are doing everything right to maximize their chances.

Medcalf: Gonzaga can reach the Final Four because it has one of the five best coaches in the country and another impressive fleet of elite players. That was apparent again last season, when it felt as though Few might get his first national title, and then the pandemic arrived. The concern for 2020-21? How quickly Suggs will figure it all out after a pandemic-affected offseason. I think we've underestimated the impact this wild chapter could have on incoming freshmen throughout the country. In most years, there is a significant learning curve, even for the five-stars. That could be compounded by the unknowns and canceled games. Suggs is a phenomenal player who might not get a fair chance to mature and grow with his new team due to circumstances that are out of his control, and that could affect the team's chances to make a run.

Jeff Borzello recently sent a text to his ESPN editor that said: "One thing I would say is that Austin Peay might be the best mid-major this season not named Gonzaga." We don't have the OVC (29th in KenPom last season) listed here because our cutoff was the top half of KenPom's 2019-20 conference rankings. But Borzello, please defend your assertion. Borzello's colleagues, please tell us why you agree or disagree with Borzello's bullishness on the Governors, and tell us who you think is the foremost challenger to Gonzaga's mid-major throne.

Borzello: Taken out of context! I wasn't including the Atlantic 10 in my thoughts, so that takes out Richmond and Saint Louis. Both should be better than Austin Peay, but I do think APSU has a real chance to be the best team from a one-bid league this season. The Governors finished one game out of first in the Ohio Valley last season after starting 10-0 in conference play, and picked up victories over both Belmont and Murray State. They have two of the best players in the conference in Terry Taylor and Jordyn Adams and are bringing in some impact newcomers. Belmont and Murray will still be good, but if there's a team to break the Belmont-Murray State hegemony atop the league for the first time since 2009, it could be Austin Peay.

Gasaway: Sounds like total college basketball deprivation has taken its toll on Jeff. Hey, I get it. I myself once spent the better part of a roundtable blathering on about Marreon Jackson and AJ Green. But back to Jeff's bold statement: Gonzaga's a national power in a mid-major conference. The best mid-major not named Gonzaga is, by my lights, the best mid-major period, and this season that title will go to Richmond. Even with Nick Sherod lost for the season due to a knee injury, the Spiders have enough returning experience to make a run at the Atlantic 10 title. Who knows, some or all of UR's "seniors" might return next season, too, thanks to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility. If coach Chris Mooney ever embraces 40th (or even 30th!) percentile normalcy on offensive rebounding, look out.

Medcalf: Well, I guess Borzello thinks Isaiah Miller and UNC Greensboro aren't playing this season. But I like Austin Peay's Taylor and Adams, who made 43% of his 3-pointers in league play. Definitely a good team. But the team gave up a 36.3% clip from the arc in league play, even though two-thirds of the league shot below 35% on average. Will shooting improve across the league and make life more difficult for the Govs? We'll see. I think a healthy Charles Bassey, however, could do wonderful things with an intriguing Western Kentucky team. The sad part about all of this? Waning confidence that these promising programs will get a shot at the powerhouse schools in nonconference play due to COVID-19.

Lunardi: APSU will always have the best college cheer of all time: "Fly (Williams) is open, let's go Peay!" But the Governors are not the best mid-major of 2020-21. Even excluding Gonzaga, the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West -- none of whom are mid-majors by most definitions --- I would rate the following teams ahead of Austin Peay: Loyola Chicago, Northern Iowa, Western Kentucky, UNC Greensboro and South Dakota State. Of course, it didn't end well the most recent time an ESPN analyst discounted Austin Peay, so I am fully prepared to stand on my head in March.

Anonymous coaches size up the mid-majors

Jeff Borzello spoke to mid-major coaches about their expectations for this group in 2020-21.

"San Diego State will again be the team to beat in the Mountain West. I don't think they will be top-five good nationally, but they will be a top-25 team. Obviously losing a player like [Malachi] Flynn hurts, but Matt Mitchell will be one of the top three players in the league and a household name nationally come March. It's them and Boise State 1-2, followed by UNLV a close third."

"BYU, Saint Mary's and San Francisco should all be [ranked] between 40-80 [nationally]. BYU is optimistic about their team. They love the Utah Valley transfer, [Richard] Harward. [Alex] Barcello should take a step forward. I always bet on [Saint Mary's coach] Randy Bennett. USF should be solid. Hard to find three guards better at this level than [Jamaree] Bouyea, [Khalil] Shabazz and [Damari] Milstead. Pepperdine has two elite players in [Colbey] Ross and [Kameron] Edwards. [Josip] Vrankic is a monster for Santa Clara, [Loyola Marymount's] Eli Scott is one of the most talented players in the league. Pacific is tough and gritty, but they lost an all-league player and competitor in Jahlil Tripp. I loved Tripp. He was tough."

"I think UNCG has a little more to them [than Furman]. They're tough. They make teams one-dimensional. They're handsy, they're physical, they're athletic. They physically and athletically overwhelm most of the teams in the league. That zone press is death by 1,000 cuts. You get over the line with 22 seconds left [on the shot clock], can't run your s---. You need guys to go break them down. I think losing Jordan Lyons will hurt Furman. He was kind of their only shot-maker. Furman hasn't been the same in the [SoCon] tournament. They put you in tough situations because of the Princeton [offense], they're opportunistic in transition, but they're so 3-point-heavy. Can they do it three nights in a row?"

"The SoCon has good basketball programs that invest in men's hoops. Facilitywise, salaries for coaches, charter flights. It's a hoops league. It's also programs with tradition. Almost half the league has won at least a game in the NCAA tournament. We've got coaches who understand the job they're at and play a style and recruit accordingly."

"Losing Nick Sherod hurts Richmond. He's a really savvy player who is a knockdown shooter and in the Princeton offense, he really helps them. [Nathan] Cayo is a nonshooter, so to have another knockdown shooter is helpful. But they've got some young guys coming off the bench that are really talented players. Their overall talent, it won't hurt them, but in terms of shooting, I think it hurts. But I think they can be really good. ... It all starts with Jacob Gilyard. He's an incredibly high-IQ, dynamic guard that can do everything. And then it's Grant Golden, he could be the best big guy in the league."

"Saint Louis is incredibly tough. Hasahn French is a very dynamic frontcourt player who can do a lot. They return everybody. I don't know if they expected the kid [Javonte] Perkins to be as good as he was, but he was a stud. He should get better and with French and [Jordan] Goodwin, kind of their older leaders who have been through a lot. French and Goodwin were there two years ago, when they made their run [to the NCAA tournament]. They should be very good."

"In terms of talent, Rhode Island can 100 percent compete. There's no doubt their talent level is as high as anybody in the league. It's just going to depend on how those guys mesh. Not having summer school, not having a full offseason, are they going to be able to mesh all those personalities on the court?"

"AJ Green has great size for his position in this league [Missouri Valley]. He can see over point guards on his shot and his passes. He's got a high release on his jumper. He's got an all-league post player as well as snipers around him. He's tough. Shoots off the bounce just as well as off the catch. They run good stuff, and he's got a lot of freedom. He can make a [Doug] McDermott-level impact in this league. He's a walking bucket or assist. He's responsible for so many points, it's crazy."

"The MAC might have the best collection of point guards in the country. I'm taking [Loren] Cristian Jackson, Marreon Jackson and Jason Preston over any point guards in college basketball. The league right now, from top to bottom, is at an all-time high. Akron, Ohio and Bowling Green, take your pick [to win the league]. Toledo will be OK, so they could sneak up there because of how weak their division is. Akron, Bowling Green, Ohio, Kent State and Buffalo are all in the same division."

Mid-majors 2020-21 champion predictions