Mid-Majority protocol dictates that we take a look back at some of the teams that outpaced modest expectations to put together solid seasons, despite not taking it to the big stage of the Big Dance. It's a leading indicator of sorts, a distant warning to current champions that there will be teams to challenge for their titles a year from now, when Season 7 is drawing to a close.
This is our third annual eight-pack
. Of last year's group
, only three (James Madison, The Citadel and Chicago State) stagnated or went backwards in 2009-10. Five made improvements, including Troy of the Sun Belt, which will fight for a league title tonight. Who among these eight will take the next step forward in 2010-11?Princeton (19-8, 10-8 Ivy League)
- It's just the way the Ivy League works; runner-ups are quickly forgotten in the rush to March. So the Tigers, substantially improved on the defensive end in Sydney Johnson's third year, will have to wait until next season to return to glory. Under Johnson's steady control, this group put up a seven-win improvement against the program's 2008-09 performance, allowed just 49 points per game in conference and posted a sterling 10-5 mark on the road for the year. But the real reason for Princeton's early front-runner status in the 2011 Ivy? While three-time champion Cornell was enjoying a busy senior day, the Tigers will return their five top scorers in the fall.Seattle (17-14, independent)
- The 1958 Final Four is just a banner now, and SeattleU is on the way to making new memories. In its first year as a full-fledged Division I member, the Redhawks posted a winning record (not easy when 17 games are on the road) that included two Red Line Upsets away from home (Utah and Oregon State), and presented a high-scoring attack that yielded 80.3 ppg. Seattle's 6-9 powerman Charles Garcia, responsible for much of that (18.7 ppg), has already declared for the NBA Draft. Even if he does get drafted (don't laugh), there were three double-figure scoring guards on this team. The Redhawks forced 18 turnovers per game, third-best in the nation. This team is not going to disappear. Iona (21-10, 12-6 Metro Atlantic)
- Though the company line is that eccentric local hero Jeff Ruland ran the program into the ground with a 2-28 campaign in 2006-07, the truth is that it came after a senior-heavy NCAA team and injuries pared the roster to six players. Still, though, there was a lot of rebuilding to be done, and Kevin Willard broke through with a 20-win season after a pair of 12-win ones. The No. 3-seeded Gaels were run out of the MAAC tourney in an upset by Niagara, but this is a team to seriously look to succeed Siena at the top in 2011. They'll lose significant size with 7-0 Jonathan Huffman moving on, but this wasn't a strong rebounding team anyway. This is a tough defensive squad that owns its paint, and it will be hard to stop next year.Missouri State (20-12, 8-10 Missouri Valley)
- The Bears were so good in December that they were receiving votes in the national popularity contest. Mo State opened up with a 12-1 start before having its defensive problems exposed in the tough Valley... but there was a nifty BracketBuster win over Nevada to remember this team by. Wichita will likely be the odds-on favorite to assume the MVC throne next season, but don't overlook Cuonzo's Ursus, which led the league in almost every offensive category. Virtually the entire roster returns for 2010-11, and the team has a clear blueprint of what it's got to do to take the next step -- just get some stops.Kennesaw State (13-20, 7-13 Atlantic Sun)
- Sure, we're biased.
But the hardest thing to do in Division I college basketball is to survive the transition period, and Tony Ingle's Fightin' Owls not only doubled their win total in their first full Division I season, they knocked regular season champion Lipscomb out of the A-Sun tourney in a No. 8 over No. 1 upset. (Something tells me that the team ball for this season is going to have a more positive message than last year's.) And with a guy like 6-7 Markeith Cummings (17.4 ppg, 45.5 percent FG, 6.1 rpg as a freshman) coming back, the Kennesaw Sunrise is just beginning.Bethune-Cookman (16-15, 9-9 MEAC)
- The Wildcats are still technically in the hunt for the MEAC championship, though they have a real uphill climb out of a No. 7 seed. But that's not the point. BCC had one of the absolute worst programs in Division I college basketball for so long -- no winning seasons over a 33-year stretch! -- and the Wildcats are assured of their third .500-or-above season since 1975. A win in the first round over No. 10 Florida A&M would clinch a second consecutive winning campaign. Cliff Reed, who's been trying to turn the program around for a decade, found the answer in his own home... Cliff Reed, Jr., a 6-3 sophomore guard, has been the leading scorer on both of these most recent pair of squads. He has two years of eligibility left, and a future NCAA berth would make for one of the great family stories in Our Game. South Dakota State (14-16, 10-8 Badlands)
- Okay, maybe they aren't, but the first few years of the program's Division I life were. In the first four years, S.D. State went 24-77 and lost 11 players for various reasons -- including two who were put on trial for rape. Instead of becoming just another transition disaster horror story, 14th-year head coach Scott Nagy steered the ship in the right direction, and the Jacks received their first reward for perseverance this year: a positive mark in the Badlands Conference and the league's premier ball control (just 11.5 turnovers per game). Clint Sargent, a 6-4 guard who led the team with 12.8 ppg, will return in 2010-11 for a senior season; expect a distinct lack of cuteness next year.South Dakota (20-9, 11-1 Great West)
- Seriously, is there a hotter rectangle in Hoops Nation than the Mount Rushmore State? Playing their initial D-I schedule, the Coyotes showed that they've already outgrown the Great West (they're moving into the Badlands next summer), monsterizing the Supersized Seven with some relentless up-tempo basketball and some Air Pierre. Along the way, they played Ivy champ Cornell to within six points on the road
, and came within a bucket
of dunking OVC runner-up Morehead State back in December. Dave Boots' squad enters the GWC tourney on an 11-game win streak, and will probably end up with the CIT autobid. Six-eight Tyler Cain, he of 15.1 ppg and 66 percent shooting, is a departing senior, but they'll get a year to tune up for the big move into the BLC.