It seems like the NCAA Men’s College Basketball season just started, but in the blink of an eye, we are already headed into conference play! Most teams have wrapped up their non-conference schedules and are now beginning their league play games. The non-conference is very important in terms of evaluating just how good these teams and these leagues are going to be in March.

Every year, we see leagues that look amazing in the non-conference that then spend two months beating each other up and convincing the public that they weren’t as good as we all thought they were, before Selection Sunday. This year, the Big 10 put on an absolute clinic in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge and showed me that they are the best league in the land.

The fact that these Big 10 teams are now going to play the next twenty or so games against each other means that these teams are going to have to lose games. But being able to go back and see just how well these programs faired against the other leagues will help us keep an accurate measure of how talented teams are, regardless of how many league losses they may pile up before March.

Small Conference Programs

While leagues like the Big 10, Big 12, and ACC often use the non-conference to play some softer games and pad their win total, the small conference schools know that the non-conference is their only way to make a real name for themselves. Nobody really cares how many games you win in the Patriot League or the Big Sky. But if a small conference team can knock off a top-ranked team early in the year, it gives them the confidence to make a deep run in March.

Small conference Cinderella’s are what makes college hoops so great. In other sports, most notably college basketball’s big brother, college football, the small schools never get a fair shake. That’s not the case in college hoops, as every single league in the country gets at least one team into the Big Dance.

The schools that have slid Cinderella’s slipper on over the years always end up being the best moments of the tournaments. Whether it was Gonzaga back in the late-nineties with Casey Calvary and Matt Santangelo shocking the nation, or Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean charming the pants off of the country, these are the teams and the players that we remember. It doesn’t matter that those teams never won a national title. They were still the talk of the tournament anyway.

This year, we have several small conference schools that have third-weekend potential. Getting these teams on your radar now is a great way to keep an eye on them and look like a genius when you win your bracket pool in March because you were the only guy that realized Liberty or Saint Louis was the real deal this year.

For argument’s sake, we are going to call a small conference any league outside of the top power six conferences. Sorry Big 10, SEC, ACC, Big East, PAC-12, and Big 12, this article is for the little guys! Let’s get started with a perennial small conference juggernaut, and head to the West Coast Conference, and take a look at the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (3-0) WCC

So, some of you may call this pick a cop-out, as the Zags are clearly on everybody’s radar at this point as the top-ranked team in the country. But this article wasn’t titled, teams you have never heard of that could make the Final Four, it was titled small conference schools that could make the Final Four, and the last time I checked, Gonzaga still plays their games in the lowly West Coast Conference.

Mark Few has the best team he has ever had at Gonzaga, and while they have sat out the last two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program, they have still managed to impress. We all knew about Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert, as those guys were on the national radar last season. But the guys that have really impressed me this season for Gonzaga have been Drew Timme and superstar freshman Jalen Suggs.

Timme has been one of the most efficient bigs in the nation, scoring a team-high 23 points a game on 60% shooting from the field. Timme gets his fair share of easy buckets in the paint, but he isn’t afraid to stretch the floor and shoot it from the perimeter either, making him a matchup nightmare in the WCC. Suggs exploded onto the scene as the highest-rated recruit in the history of this Gonzaga program when he blasted the Kansas Jayhawks for 24 points in his NCAA debut. The Zags aren’t used to getting this level of athlete in Spokane, and it makes them my pick to win it all this year.

At this point, you can’t even call Gonzaga a mid-major, as they have established themselves as one of the best programs in the country. But unfortunately, after seeing their game against Baylor canceled and the game against Iowa this weekend, up in the air, we aren’t going to see the Zags play a lot of top competition this season. The WCC is down and looks like a one-bid league this year, but don’t let Gonzaga’s weak SOS distract you from the fact that this is the best team in the country.

Houston Cougars (4-0) AAC

The American Athletic Conference has consistently been the 7th best conference in the country in the last several years. The league tends to be a three or four bid league most years. And while the AAC certainly isn’t the Summit or the Missouri Valley, it’s also not the ACC or the Big 10, so they belong in this article. This year the AAC has seven teams ranked in the top-100 on Kenpom, telling me that this is again going to be a multi-bid league.

The Houston Cougars are the class of the AAC right now, and after five straight 20+ win seasons, Houston is finally getting the national attention that they deserve. Head coach Kelvin Sampson had led the Cougars to a win in the tournament in two consecutive seasons, and as a projected seven seed last year, they were likely to make that three straight years winning in March. This year, Sampson has his eyes set on an even deeper run in the tournament, as they are ranked 6th in the nation in the latest AP Poll.

Sampson already has one Final Four and another Elite Eight on his resume and has taken teams dancing in 14 of his 18 seasons as a head coach. This guy knows what it takes to win games late in the season. The Cougars have impressed already this year, as they have three top-100 wins.

The signature win of the year for the Cougars came in a neutral site game with in-state rival Texas Tech, where Houston beat the Red Raiders by double digits. The ACC is a decent league this year, but don’t be shocked if the Cougars flirt with an undefeated regular season.

Saint Louis Billikens (6-0) A-10

The Atlantic 10 used to be the most powerful mid-major conference in the country. But the league has fallen on hard times as of late, as last year they were only projected to get two teams into the NCAA tournament. This year, the league has a bunch of quality top-100 teams, with eight, but only one of those teams is currently in the top-50 on Kenpom. That team is the Saint Louis Billikens.

Saint Louis came into this season with high hopes after winning 23-games in back-to-back years. The Billikens brought back basically everything from last year’s squad, and they have played some really great basketball this season.

Saint Louis has used a balanced attack of a stout defense and an efficient offense to run up a 6-0 record. The Billikens have top-100 wins over power conference teams like LSU and NC State and play at Minnesota this weekend, looking to wrap up their non-conference schedule undefeated.

The Billikens use a guard-heavy lineup, and they can devastate you from three-point land. Their two top scorers from deep are Gibson Jimerson and Javonte Perkins, who have combined to nail 30-three pointers on an absolute red-hot 50% shooting from three.

The A-10 is a homecourt dominated league, so the Billikens aren’t going to run the table in the league, and to be completely honest, they may not even win the regular-season league title, as they will have to contend with Richmond, VCU, and Dayton, who have all looked solid this season.

But I love teams that have senior leader guards in the NCAA tournament, and with Javonte Perkins and Jordan Goodwin both playing like all-A-10 players right now, this Saint Louis team is going to be a tough out in March, and if they get hot from three, and they absolutely can, they can beat anybody.

San Diego State Aztecs (5-0) MWC

The Mountain West Conference is an up-and-coming league that nearly always gets at least one at-large bid into the tournament every year. Programs like San Diego State, Nevada, and Utah State have made the MWC a conference to be feared in the last couple of seasons. Last year, the Aztecs of San Diego State had a real shot at the Final Four, as they won 30-games and were expected to be a top-2 seed.

The Aztecs were cheated out of their postseason by COVID-19, and after seeing MWC player of the year Malachi Flynn and key role players Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin leave the program, many wondered if the Aztecs would be able to follow up last year’s historic season. But when you look at this roster, it is still the most talented in the conference, and Matt Mitchell is most people’s pick for MWC player of the year this season.

The Aztecs have had a terrific start to the season, as they have played some of the best teams on the West Coast, and they are dominating. SD State blew out UCLA by 15-points in their season opener and went into Tempe and knocked off the Arizona State Sun Devils by double-digits in their last game. The Bruins and Sun Devils are expected to compete at the top of the PAC-12 this year, and both teams are legit Sweet 16 level squads. Those are real wins against good teams.

Wins like these ones tell me that the sudden demise of the Aztecs was overblown and that this team is once again going to win a bunch of basketball games. San Diego State has made two trips to the Sweet 16 in the last decade, so they are accustomed to playing well in March.

There is a significant gap between the Aztecs and the rest of the MWC, and if they can take care of business in their final two non-conference games against BYU and Saint Mary’s, they could again threaten to run the table in the regular season. Last year San Diego State was the last undefeated team in the country, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they are the last team to lose again this year, as they are playing good basketball, and the schedule lays out well for them.

Liberty Flames (7-3) ASUN

You want a deep sleeper that nobody else is going to see coming? Check out the Liberty Flames. Once in a while, we see a team come completely out of nowhere, get hot, and shock the world in March. Think Florida Gulf Coast or George Mason from recent deep runs. But generally, when we see a Cinderella win in the tournament, it comes from a program that is used to winning a lot of games, but playing in a small conference, the public fails to pay attention.

When VCU made their run to the Final Four as an 11-seed back in 2011, it caught everyone off guard. But if you look back to the three seasons prior to that run, you can see that the Rams weren’t an overnight success, as they had averaged over 25-wins a year in each of those seasons. The team that most reminds me of that VCU team this year, is the Liberty Flames.

Liberty won 30-games last year, and after winning the ASUN conference tournament, they punched their dance card to the NCAA tournament. In 2019, the Flames won 29-games, and were a 12-seed in the tournament, and managed to pick up a first-round upset victory over Mississippi State, before being eliminated by Virginia Tech in the round of 32.

Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay has led the Flames to 20+ wins in five out of the last six years and has turned the Flames into a force to be reckoned with in the ASUN. The big knock on Liberty last year was their atrocious strength of schedule. Kenpom had their SOS ranked as the 345th easiest in the nation. They heard that criticism and scheduled much tougher this year, with an SOS of 76.

The Flames have played five games against the top-100 this season, and with wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina, they proved they can play with, and beat, power conference foes. Nobody is going to touch Liberty in the ASUN this season, so you can expect Liberty to rack up another gaudy win total by the end of the season. They are going to have to again win their conference tournament to go dancing, but when they do, nobody is going to want to see the Flames name in their bracket.

Wrap Up

I can’t remember a year that was more wide open than this season. With the abbreviated non-conference schedules, we aren’t getting nearly as much time to watch these teams play, and while there are some very good teams this year in the power conferences, there is ample talent in the mid-major leagues as well. Thanks for reading, and make sure that you check out our NCAA Men’s College Basketball picks page, where we bring you free daily betting picks on college hoops all season long!