If you thought this year's Final Four looked strange somehow, you were right. It was the first time in three years that a mid-major did not make the final weekend. Will this puzzling new trend continue in 2013?
Assuming it does, it may be because the following four mid-majors didn't quite get as far in the brackets as they'd hoped. Let's take a close performance-based look at how each team stacks up heading into next season. To do so I'll again be using a familiar metric, returning possession-minutes (RPMs), which measures not only how much experience a team returns from one year to the next but also how large a role those returning players had in the offense.
This is the last time you'll see the Tigers on a list like this, of course. After next season Josh Pastner's team will leave Conference USA and join the Big East, and Memphis looks like a good bet to win still another league title in their last go-round in C-USA. Will Barton is leaving after his sophomore year to enter the NBA draft, but everyone else should be back. Not many mid-major head coaches can claim three McDonald's All-Americans, but that's what Pastner figures to have next season with point guard Joe Jackson, wing Adonis Thomas, and new arrival Shaq Goodwin, a 6-8 power forward. Throw in Tarik Black and his 69 percent two-point shooting, and Chris Crawford and his 39 percent three-point shooting, and you have what I'd call a solid nucleus. Make no mistake, losing Barton is huge. He was the only Tiger that Pastner had on the floor more or less all the time, and he was far and away his team's most efficient performer on offense. (At 6-6, Barton was even the Tigers' best defensive rebounder.) I just think that a team as good as Memphis was last year on both sides of the ball that brings back this much experience can't slip too far. Also keep in mind the Tigers did what they did last year mostly without Thomas, who was injured much of the season. Memphis got a big boost at the end of March when Thomas announced that he would return for his sophomore season.
Let's start with something no one ever starts with when talking about the Bluejays: defense. It wasn't quite as bad as you may have heard last year, but it certainly wasn't very good either. The problem was simply that opponents never committed turnovers. In Missouri Valley play, teams facing Creighton gave the ball away on just 13 percent of their possessions. The sheer number of chances that Greg McDermott's team gave to opponents resulted in a defense that was a notch below average. Can that change in 2013? McDermott thinks it can. He's talking up the defensive chops of 6-5 wing Nevin Johnson, a freshman who redshirted last year. If the defense can improve even a little bit, the Bluejays should be awfully tough next year because this offense should again be excellent. Doug McDermott will be back for another season, and I'm still not sure we made a big enough deal over what he was able to do as a sophomore. The coach's son was an amazing two-point-making machine who was also able to step out and hit 49 percent of his occasional 3's. In conference play last season Creighton was one of the best shooting teams I've ever tracked, and a large part of that success can be traced to Doug McDermott. Another key returnee is 6-9 senior-to-be Gregory Echenique, who helped fuel Creighton's offensive might with his outstanding work on the offensive glass. This offense will be fun to watch in 2013.
Shaka Smart loses Bradford Burgess, but everyone else from last year's 29-7 team should return in 2012-13, which is bad news for opposing offenses. By now you're well aware that the Rams have perfected the art of high-pressure defense. VCU forced their CAA opponents into turnovers on a phenomenal 27 percent of their possessions last season. Smart's team won games because their turnover margin was about as large as physically possible in basketball. The Rams gave the ball away on just 17 percent of their trips in conference play, and keep in mind this was a young team last year. Look for more three-pointers from senior-to-be Troy Daniels, and, of course, more havoc created on D by the ever-pressing Rams.
So, yes, Memphis, Creighton, and VCU will be good -- again. You've heard that before . But here's one you may not have heard. Drexel, the team that came oh so close to making the NCAA tournament last year, will be good again next year. Look at the facts. The Dragons were just as good as Virginia Commonwealth in CAA play, and Bruiser Flint loses just one key contributor from that team (Samme Givens). Damion Lee had an outstanding freshman year for the Dragons (he was named CAA Rookie of the Year), and typically players make a big leap in performance between their first and second seasons. Frantz Massenat is an excellent point guard who also happened to shoot 45 percent from beyond the arc. You heard it here first: Drexel and VCU should again battle for supremacy in the CAA.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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