November 25, 2020 

Mid-Major Preview: What to expect in these 27 conferences in 2020-21

Making sense of this year's chaos, one conference at a time

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Keshuna Luckett cuts down the nets after Jackson State clinched the SWAC regular-season title on March 2, 2020. The Lady Tigers are favored to repeat as champs in 2020-21. (Photo: Jackson State Women’s Basketball via Twitter)

What a year, huh?

Basketball fans watched in shock and sadness as the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, denying players like Sabrina Ionescu, Lauren Cox and Chennedy Carter one final chance at national championship glory — or, in Cox’s case, a repeat chance. But the impact was felt nationwide, including and perhaps especially in the mid-majors, as teams not only saw their postseason dreams slip away, but also the possibility that they might qualify for the NCAA Tournament again soon.

Despite the recent bad news coming with opt-outs, both conference-wide and team-focused, and ongoing safety concerns as teams build (or attempt to build) their schedules, there’s still plenty to celebrate across the mid-majors. Some teams are perennial contenders getting ready to show their stuff, others are making up for having to miss their first-ever NCAA Tournament by performing again this season and all of them are consistently making their conferences competitive and fun to watch.

Here, conference by conference, catch up on what happened last season and what’s to come this season … well, as best as we can predict in these times, anyway.


America East

2019-20 regular-season champion: Stony Brook

Quick recap: At one point last season, the Seawolves had the nation’s longest win streak — that is, until they were derailed by Maine in overtime, then once-winless Hartford in their penultimate game. They regrouped and made the conference tournament final, a rematch with Maine, but the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.

Looking ahead: Maine was tabbed as the preseason favorite, earning six of 10 votes and placing three players on the preseason all-conference team. Stony Brook wasn’t far behind, grabbing the other four first-place votes and placing one on the all-conference team. UMass Lowell came in third, led by preseason pick Kharis Idom, while newcomer NJIT (from the ASUN) finished in 10th. (Vermont, predicted to finish seventh, will not be playing a non-conference schedule due the start of play being delayed until the day before conference play begins.)

American

2019-20 tournament champion: UConn

Quick recap: For the seventh year in a row, UConn won all of its conference games and claimed the tournament title. The battle, as ever, was for second place and a good enough showing to compete for an at-large NCAA bid.

Looking ahead: UConn has departed the American for the Big East, leaving things wide-open for, well, anyone to claim the top spot. UCF, Cincinnati and USF all finished within a game of each other last season, with UCF offering UConn its closest games (including losing by just seven points at home). The Florida schools led the way in the preseason poll.

Read more: The American Athletic Conference is creating new history

Atlantic 10

2019-20 tournament champion: Dayton

Quick recap: In 2018, Dayton squandered its No. 1 A-10 tournament seed in an upset-filled tournament that saw it exit in the semifinal, but it still landed an at-large NCAA bid. This past season, the Flyers didn’t throw away their shot, winning two close games against Saint Louis and VCU en route to their third title — on their home floor, no less.

Looking ahead: VCU and Dayton topped the preseason poll yet again. The player of the year race is wide-open, with the last two recipients leaving the conference — Nicole Cardaño-Hillary transferred from George Mason to Indiana and Bryson Cavanaugh graduated and left Fordham. With 17 players, including players with significant experience, Duquesne has the potential to finish better than predicted in what could be an unusual season. (written by The Next’s Natalie Heavren)

Read more: 2020-21 Atlantic 10 preview: ‘The joy of kids playing basketball’

Atlantic Sun

2019-20 regular-season champion: Florida Gulf Coast

Quick recap: FGCU’s Eagles finished 30-3 overall and 15-1 in ASUN play, with their sole conference loss coming to North Alabama. The conference tournament final against No. 3 seed Liberty was canceled, but at No. 24 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, FGCU may yet have been assured a place in their fourth straight NCAA Tournament.

Looking ahead: The ASUN welcomes Bellarmine from Division II for 2020-21, replacing NJIT, who departed for the America East. Last season, the Knights finished 18-11 and made the semifinals of the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament as the No. 7 seed. But the battle for the top, as ever, should be between perennial contenders FGCU (who was picked to repeat) and Liberty.

Big East

2019-20 tournament champion: DePaul

Quick recap: Despite Marquette’s losses from the previous season, they still offered DePaul two good games in Big East play in 2019-20, splitting the regular-season series before DePaul defeated them for the tournament crown. Behind them, there was a five-way tie for third, and three of those teams — Villanova, Creighton and Marquette — all defeated DePaul once.

Looking ahead: Did you know there’s a new team coming to the conference? A really, really good one? UConn faced two Big East teams in non-conference play last season, defeating Seton Hall and DePaul, but their addition to the conference should still provide them more competition than they got in the AAC. As expected, the Huskies were picked to finish first in the preseason poll, followed by DePaul and Marquette.

Read more: BIG EAST 2020-21 Preview

Big Sky

2019-20 regular-season champion: Montana State

Quick recap: Montana State ran away with the top spot in the Big Sky, but instead of securing their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2017 (and third ever), their tournament championship meeting with second-place Idaho was canceled. Intra-conference transfer Fallyn Freije shone for the Bobcats and was named Big Sky MVP, while Cats head coach Tricia Binford was named Big Sky Coach of the Year.

Looking ahead: Once upon a time, in a not-so-distant past, the Idaho schools were the teams to beat. That looks to be the case again in 2020-21, with Idaho and Idaho State tying for first in the preseason coaches poll and Idaho barely edging out its rival in the media poll. Montana State, who suffered some heavy losses, was picked to finish fourth in both polls.

Big South

2019-20 regular-season champion: Campbell

Quick recap: The Lady Camels of Campbell were the only team in the conference to finish with 20 wins, but in Big South play, they finished just one game clear of Radford, with whom they split their season series. However, they were awarded the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they would have made their first appearance since 2000.

Looking ahead: Could Campbell make a trip to the NCAA Tournament for real this time? The Lady Camels were picked to finish first in the preseason poll with a narrow lead over Radford and High Point, all of whom received first-place votes. For Campbell, who returns three starters, it’s the highest-ever preseason poll selection during its time in the Big South.

Big West

2019-20 regular-season champion: UC Davis

Quick recap: UC Davis was the runaway champion for the fourth season in a row, though it was going for just its third NCAA Tournament bid. Below the Aggies, it was crowded, with the next six schools finishing within two games of one another (but still three games below UC Davis).

Looking ahead: With two new teams in Cal State Bakersfield (WAC) and UC San Diego (Division II), the Big West looks to get a little tougher. Powerhouses such as UC Davis and Hawaii have lost key seniors while other teams have some improving younger talent to help them climb the conference ranks. (written by The Next’s Dave Yapkowitz)

On Nov. 12, Cal State Northridge announced that due to several player opt-outs, it would not play in 2020-21. The Matadors were picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll and 10th in the media poll.

Read more: 2020-21 Big West Conference Season Preview

Colonial

2019-20 regular-season champions: Drexel, James Madison

Quick recap: While the perennial favorites JMU Dukes (and no stranger to NCAA and WNIT play) were aiming for their third straight trip to the Big Dance, Drexel shook things up by taking control of first place for much of the season. Chances were high that the loser of a potential JMU-Drexel conference tournament title game would receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament anyway (Drexel’s first since 2009), but the CAA Tournament was canceled before either team played a game.

Looking ahead: But are we excited for the rematches to come? We sure are. James Madison was picked to finish first in the preseason poll by a fairly wide margin, but Drexel followed right behind. There’s plenty of talent conference-wide, too — eight of the 10 teams have players on the preseason all-conference team, led by preseason Player of the Year Kionna Jeter out of Towson (which was picked to finish third). It’s especially remarkable that the Dukes are still favored, since they lost four starters in the offseason, but they retain 2019-20 Rookie of the Year Kiki Jefferson.

Conference USA

2019-20 regular-season champion: Rice

Quick recap: Though it wasn’t as flashy as their 2018-19 run (during which they set a bevy of school and conference records), the Rice Owls of 2019-20 still finished comfortably in first place behind the play of Erica Ogwumike (who has graduated) and now-senior Nancy Mulkey.

Looking ahead: The Owls are vulnerable this season without Ogwumike, and that was certainly reflected in the preseason poll, which saw Middle Tennessee earn eight of 14 first-place votes. Rice and Old Dominion followed right behind with three first-place votes apiece, though MTSU and ODU each landed two players on the preseason all-conference team. MTSU’s Anastasia Hayes, last season’s Newcomer of the Year, was named preseason co-player of the year along with Mulkey, Rice’s only representative on the all-conference team.

Horizon League

2019-20 tournament champion: IUPUI

Quick recap: In a conference recently dominated by Green Bay and Wright State, the IUPUI Lady Jags rose to a comfortable lead at the top of the standings, which forced the former top teams to settle the No. 2 and No. 3 tournament seeds with a tiebreaker of their record against the Lady Jags. The 2020 NCAA Tournament would have been IUPUI’s first ever.

Looking ahead: The Lady Jags are heavily favored to win again, though, and get a second chance at that first NCAA appearance. They swept the preseason poll’s first-place votes, and for the third straight season, their own Macee Williams was selected as preseason player of the year (an honor she ended up winning in both 2019 and 2020). Perennial contenders Green Bay and Wright State followed behind in the poll, while newcomers Robert Morris (Northeast) and Purdue Fort Wayne (Summit) finished fifth and 11th, respectively.

Ivy League

2019-20 regular-season champion: Princeton

Quick recap: With All-American and eventual No. 5 WNBA draft pick Bella Alarie leading the way, the 26-1 Tigers bulldozed through conference play, including two decisive wins against rival Penn. Were there an NCAA Tournament, Princeton would have received the conference’s automatic bid because of the Ivy League tournament’s early cancellation.

Looking ahead: The Ivy League announced Nov. 12 that it was canceling winter sports, but you can still read The Next’s Jenn Hatfield on the impact COVID-19 already had on rosters and what questions would have been answered on the court this season. Because Ivy League players in particular only have athletic eligibility for four years of undergraduate enrollment, rather than four years of play, expect a lot of graduate transfers from this year’s seniors.

MAAC

2019-20 regular-season champions: Rider, Marist

Quick recap: In one corner, Rider and NCAA-high scorer Stella Johnson. In the other, a Marist team looking to repeat some former NCAA Tournament glory. With identical 18-2 records, the powerhouses seemed destined to meet in the MAAC tournament championship game, but it was canceled before the semifinals took place.

Looking ahead: The MAAC could look a lot different this season, with key losses affecting both of last season’s top teams. Instead, Manhattan was selected to finish first in the preseason poll, with Fairfield and longtime powerhouse Quinnipiac tied for second just a point behind. Each received a share of the 11 first-place votes. The three programs also dominated the preseason teams, with Manhattan and Fairfield each landing a pair on the first team, Quinnipiac seeing two on the second team and Manhattan notching one more on the third team.

Mid-American

2019-20 regular-season champion: Central Michigan

Quick recap: Despite its season-long dominance, finishing first overall with a 15-1 record and clearing the MAC West by three games, Central Michigan wouldn’t have received the MAC’s automatic NCAA bid (its third bid in as many seasons). Both it and No. 2 Ball State lost in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament to Toledo and Eastern Michigan, respectively, who would have met Ohio and Kent State in the semifinals.

Looking ahead: CMU head coach Heather Oesterle has a lot to like heading into her second season at the helm, including having such returning star power in espnW Mid-Major Preseason Player of the Year Micaela Kelly. The Chippewas, picked to finish first in the preseason poll, should stay competitive in 2020-21, as should Ohio (second), while Buffalo (fourth) looks to make a resurgence after a relative down year.

MEAC

2019-20 regular-season champion: Bethune-Cookman

Quick recap: Bethune-Cookman was another of the schools to finish in first place by a wide margin but not have a shot at the tournament title game — the Wildcats fell in the quarterfinal to University of Maryland Eastern Shore, missing their shot at a second straight NCAA bid. (Fun fact: Morgan State and Delaware State’s March 12 quarterfinal game was the final NCAA sporting event played in 2019-20, as the NCAA Tournament cancellation announcement came in its waning minutes.)

Looking ahead: Though Bethune-Cookman earned 18 of 22 first-place votes in the MEAC Southern Division preseason poll, it announced at the end of October that it won’t be competing in 2020-21 — at all. North Carolina A&T had the other four first-place votes in the Southern Division, while Norfolk State leads a Northern Division preseason poll that saw five of the six teams grab at least one first-place vote. One of them, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, is also opting out of the season. Florida A&M announced on Nov. 23 it would do the same.

Missouri Valley

2019-20 regular-season champion: Missouri State

Quick recap: New coach? No problem. Though Missouri State fell twice to unranked opponents in conference play, rookie head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton (who won the 2020 Maggie Dixon Award) and the Lady Bears solidified their place in the top-25 early and defeated rival Drake both times they met to grab the top seed in the Valley tournament, which was canceled on the day it was due to begin.

Looking ahead: The Lady Bears are the favorites to repeat as regular-season champions, but Bradley, Northern Iowa and even Drake (despite losing two key seniors) are knocking at the door. Even though there’s a clear difference between Missouri State and Evansville, who was picked to finish last, there’s enough to like on both ends of the spectrum, and more than enough talent across the conference — Evansville boasts 2020 MVC Freshman of the Year Abby Feit.

Read more: Missouri Valley Conference Preview: Lady Bears lead the way, but parity increasing

Mountain West

2019-20 tournament champion: Boise State

Quick recap: Despite missing out on a third straight regular-season crown (Fresno State nabbed that honor), the Broncos of Boise State rode their way to a fourth straight tournament title with an overtime championship win over the aforementioned Bulldogs. Fresno State, though, saw some historic placements in the postseason awards, including being the second team in conference history to boast both the Player of the Year and the Freshman of the Year.

Looking ahead: Many of the conference’s big power hitters — especially Fresno State and San José State — are all poised to have big seasons once again. Boise State and its eight true freshmen aren’t necessarily trailing them, but they certainly have something to prove this season. Fresno State, who returns 2019-20 Player of the Year Maddi Utti, will look to build on last year’s success as it chases its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.

Northeast

2019-20 regular-season champion: Robert Morris

Quick recap: The addition of Merrimack from Division II made things interesting (it finished in third place, but didn’t qualify for the conference tournament as it’s still in a probationary period), but perennial powerhouse Robert Morris ran away with the regular-season title, going 17-1. Though it had some trouble with Wagner in the NEC Tournament quarterfinal, needing overtime to win, its path to a fourth title in five years seemed clear.

Looking ahead: And that’s perhaps why Robert Morris has moved on to the Horizon League. UConn’s all-out domination of the AAC grabbed the headlines, but teams like the Colonials that have been outpacing the rest of their conferences for some time are finding space elsewhere, too. That leaves plenty of room at the top for Mount St. Mary’s, who notched its first preseason No. 1 pick in 20 years by unanimous selection. Usual contenders Sacred Heart and Saint Francis U followed in second and third, respectively; Merrimack was picked to finish seventh.

Ohio Valley

2019-20 tournament champion: Southeast Missouri

Quick recap: SEMO had to take down two of the decade’s top OVC dynasties en route to the 2020 tournament title — in the semifinals, it defeated four-time defending champion Belmont, while in the title game, the No. 3 seed Redhawks soundly defeated No. 1 seed UT Martin (winner of the 2011-2014 titles). This would have been SEMO’s first NCAA Tournament since 2007.

Looking ahead: While there’s still a glimmer of hope for SEMO this season — two of the conference’s coaches and sports information directors picked it to finish first — the overwhelming favorite is, once again, UT Martin, led by preseason player of the year Chelsey Perry. Belmont and SEMO follow the Skyhawks and round out the poll’s top three. But there’s plenty of talent to go around, as players from eight of the 12 teams earned spots on the 11-member preseason all-conference team.

Patriot League

2019-20 regular-season champion: Bucknell

Quick recap: With recent postseason rival American down with the No. 7 seed and already eliminated from the playoffs, top-seeded Bucknell — four games clear of the No. 2 through No. 4 seeds, all of whom had the same record — was in line to grab its second straight tournament title and third in four years. Despite the bad luck of the tournament’s cancellation, the Bison still finished 24-6, their fifth straight 20-win season.

Looking ahead: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Bucknell, despite the graduation of Player of the Year Ellie Mack, will be the heavy favorite. The Bison return four starters and remain the deepest team in the league while contenders Lehigh, Colgate and Holy Cross will be impacted by the departure of their respective senior classes. Although the league grows younger this season, Boston University returns a strong core from an 18-12 campaign and will challenge for the title. The Terriers split with Bucknell last season and have a potent backcourt duo in senior point guard Katie Nelson and last season’s Rookie of the Year, Maggie Pina. (written by The Next’s Todd Goclowski)

Read more: 2020-21 Patriot League Preview

Southern

2019-20 tournament champion: Samford

Quick recap: All three of the top SoCon teams heading into the tournament — Samford, Chattanooga and UNC Greensboro — had identical 10-4 regular-season records. Only UNC Greensboro finished over 20 wins. But Samford, the top seed, held it off anyway in the tournament title game, winning its first title since going back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. Chattanooga, the winner of the 2013 to 2017 titles, lost in the quarterfinal, while 2018 and 2019 champion Mercer fell in the semifinal.

Looking ahead: Things could be close again. Mercer topped the preseason coaches poll, but was one of four teams to receive first-place votes, a group that also included Chattanooga, Furman and UNC Greensboro. While the defending champions snuck in at No. 2 in the media poll (and No. 3 in the coaches poll), the main event looks to be between Chattanooga and Mercer, who each placed two players on the preseason all-conference team. Mercer’s Shannon Titus, the preseason player of the year, is one of the team’s four returning starters.

Southland

2019-20 regular-season champion: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Quick recap: The path to A&M-Corpus Christi’s first-ever Southland title likely would have gone through either 2019 champion Abilene Christian or Stephen F. Austin, which had been knocking at the door of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006 for the last several years. Despite not getting to play a single Southland tournament game, A&M-Corpus Christi, to its credit, still managed to finish one win off its record 24-win season in 2010-11.

Looking ahead: Four schools got first-place votes in the preseason poll, but the title is Stephen F. Austin’s to lose once again. The Ladyjacks saw three players make the preseason all-conference teams, led by juniors Stephanie Visscher and Aiyana Johnson on the first team. In order, Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian and A&M-Corpus Christi followed closely behind in the poll, with Sam Houston State also landing a pair on the preseason all-conference first team. And despite losing some big names, Abilene Christian’s third-place selection bodes well to maintain the success to which it’s become accustomed.

SWAC

2019-20 regular-season champion: Jackson State

Quick recap: Jackson State was gunning for its first SWAC tournament title (and NCAA Tournament appearance) since 2008, and had a pretty good shot if history’s variability was to be trusted — a different team had won each of the last four tournament titles. But Texas Southern, the only SWAC team to finish with 20 wins, was right there too, trying for its first title since 2017.

Looking ahead: What do they say about history repeating itself? Jackson State finished first in the preseason poll, but was closely followed by Texas Southern, suggesting yet another big year between the two programs. Each team had two players on the all-conference preseason teams, led by Jackson State’s Ameshya Williams, who was named both preseason player of the year and defensive player of the year.

Summit League

2019-20 tournament champion: South Dakota

Quick recap: Unlike the 2018-19 season, which saw South Dakota and rival South Dakota State split overtime regular-season meetings before the latter won the tournament, the Coyotes of South Dakota had the upper hand throughout 2019-20 — until the tournament championship, during which the Jackrabbits threatened to pull off the upset, but ultimately lost.

Looking ahead: The South Dakota schools topped the preseason poll once again, picking up right where they left off. Coyotes senior Hannah Sjerven was named preseason player of the year, and her teammate as well as two Jackrabbits made the preseason all-conference team. While their continued dominance seems likely, their schedules will look a little different: Kansas City (No. 6 in the preseason poll) joined the conference from the WAC, while Purdue Fort Wayne departed for the Horizon League.

Read more: South Dakota schools again top Summit League preseason poll

Sun Belt

2019-20 regular-season champion: Troy

Quick recap: The battle between Troy (which received votes in several of the last nationwide coaches polls of 2019-20) and second-place Coastal Carolina raged all season, with the teams on a crash course to bookend their Sun Belt seasons against one another in the tournament title game. Their second meeting in particular was an offensive onslaught, with Coastal Carolina taking it 124-103 in regulation.

Looking ahead: Troy is the clear favorite heading into 2020-21, earning nine of 12 first-place votes in the preseason poll. But look for South Alabama (third in the poll and within three points of No. 2 UT Arlington and No. 4 Louisiana) to have an impact, too — the Jaguars are home to preseason player of the year Antoinette Lewis. This season, the conference will split into East and West divisions to minimize travel. Troy, South Alabama and Coastal Carolina headline the East, while UT Arlington (with new head coach Shereka Wright) and Louisiana headline the West.

West Coast

2019-20 tournament champion: Portland

Quick recap: Portland’s rise was unprecedented to everyone but themselves, as the Pilots rose from being picked to finish last in the preseason poll to winning the conference tournament as a No. 4 seed. Young talent led the way then, and will continue to do so this season.

Looking ahead: Gonzaga looms, as always. Picked to finish first again in 2020-21, the Bulldogs last season made their way to a top-10 national poll spot for the first time in program history and threatened to finish undefeated in conference play, the first time anyone would have done so since the conference expanded to 10 teams. Their downfall, as it was in 2018-19, was due in part to key late-season injuries — an area where teams like BYU hope to have good fortune, as they return young star Shaylee Gonzales from an ACL tear.

Read more: West Coast Conference preview: Gonzaga, as usual

WAC

2019-20 regular-season champion: Kansas City

Quick recap: After notching their first-ever conference regular-season championship, the Roos had a seemingly straightforward path to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance until COVID-19 stepped in. Kansas City saw its third straight year of an improved record under head coach Jacie Hoyt (and its first 20-win season since 2011-12) and finished the season on a six-game winning streak.

Looking ahead: Both Kansas City and CSU Bakersfield departed the WAC in the offseason for the Summit League and Big West, respectively. Kansas City’s return to the Summit, in particular, leaves the door wide-open for preseason favorite Cal Baptist to run away with the title — although it won’t be eligible for postseason play until the 2022-23 season due to its transitionary period from Division II. But don’t think those absences will make it easier for any team to stand out, even fellow first-place vote-getters Utah Valley, New Mexico State or Grand Canyon. Both Tarleton State and Dixie State (seventh and eighth in the preseason poll, respectively) are joining the conference from Division II, offering a new-look schedule where, already, not much is for certain.

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