Mid-major men's basketball preview: Gonzaga strong again (of course) as FAU, SDSU attempt to run it back

FAU coach Dusty May brings back all five starters from last year's Final Four team this fall.
FAU coach Dusty May brings back all five starters from last year's Final Four team this fall. (Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Jamie Schwaberow via Getty Images)

The 2023-24 men's college basketball season begins Nov. 6. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season. Check out our previews on the Big 12, the ACC, the Big Ten, the SEC, the Big East and the Pac-12.

It’s not necessarily fair to bunch this last group of teams together, as there’s plenty of mid-major schools who can go on a run come March — including Penny Hardaway’s team in Memphis or even Drake in the MVC.

But for now, let’s take a look at Gonzaga, Florida Atlantic and San Diego State, which is coming off a trip to the national title game earlier this year. Those three programs, especially Gonzaga, are by far in the best position to match up with the best major programs across the country this season.

Ranked Mid-Major Teams

No. 10 Florida Atlantic (AAC)

No. 11 Gonzaga (WCC)

No. 17 San Diego State (Mountain West)

No. 23 Saint Mary’s (WCC)

Others Receiving Votes: Memphis 7 (AAC), Boise St. 4 (Mountain West), Charleston 2 (CAA), New Mexico 1 (Mountain West), Drake 1 (MVC)

Notable national championship odds

Odds via BetMGM
• Gonzaga +3000
• FAU +5000
• Memphis +6000
• SDSU +8000

Gonzaga back after (finally) losing Drew Timme

This will be the first season without Drew Timme in Spokane in what feels like forever. Yet Mark Few has reloaded as best as he possibly could.

The Zags are bringing back senior forward Anton Watson, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds last season while helping them reach the Elite Eight in what was his first season as a true starter. Guard Nolan Hickman is back after a very solid sophomore campaign, too.

Most notable, though, was how hard Few hit the transfer portal. He brought in guard Steele Venters from Eastern Washington, center Graham Ike from Wyoming and Ryan Nembhard from Creighton. Nembhard has led the Bluejays through two fairly dominant seasons in the Big East and averaged 12.1 points and 4.8 assists last season while getting them to the Elite Eight. He should pair great with Hickman in the backcourt.

“It’s unbelievable how high Ryan Nembhard’s feel for the game is,” Few said at media day, via SB Nation. “The way he plays with pace, the impact he’s already had on Nolan Hickman… it’s been a huge positive addition for us.

“He’s phenomenal, he’s easy. He’s a great player, first of all, and a great point guard. I think he’s the best point guard in all of college basketball.”

Venters was the Big Sky Player of the Year after he put up 15.3 points last season at Eastern Washington. He’ll attempt to fill the shoes of Julian Strawther, who left in the NBA Draft earlier this year. And while he’s coming off a leg injury that knocked him out of last season, Ike was a dominant force inside in the Mountain West during the 2021-22 campaign.

But as they always do, the Bulldogs have a wild non-conference schedule before getting into WCC play. They’ll take on No. 3 Purdue first in the Maui Invitational, and could see No. 9 Tennessee, Syracuse, No. 1 Kansas, No. 5 Marquette or UCLA in Hawaii. They’ll see No. 21 USC and No. 6 UConn in their non-conference slate, too.

Gonzaga will need a big run right away in order to make their mark for the selection committee, so we’ll see how well this new group works together pretty quickly.

Ryan Nembhard transferred to Gonzaga this past offseason after two dominant runs at Creighton.
Ryan Nembhard transferred to Gonzaga this past offseason after two dominant runs at Creighton. (AP/Young Kwak) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

FAU immediate favorites in AAC with two Player of the Year candidates

Like SDSU, Florida Atlantic is fresh off a wild run to the Final Four last season.

Instead of just being a one-off Cinderella team in March, however, the Owls are bringing back nearly their entire team and are poised to run it back.

FAU is returning all five starters from last year’s team that went 35-4, and missed out on the national championship game by falling on the wrong side of a buzzer beater in the Final Four.

Johnell Davis led the Owls with 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds last season, and guard Alijah Martin was right behind him with 13.4 points. The two were named co-Preseason Player of the Year winners in the American Athletic Conference, where the Owls will play for the first time this fall after making the jump from C-USA. Immediately, FAU was the preseason favorite to win the conference, earning 11 first-place votes and finishing ahead of Memphis.

While the American isn’t that big of a jump from C-USA anymore, FAU has a very strong non-conference schedule — something it did not have last season whatsoever. The Owls will take on No. 25 Illinois, No. 12 Arizona, and they could face Texas A&M and Iowa State at the ESPN Events Invitational tournament. They didn't play a ranked team at all last season.

The Owls have already proven they can win in March. They reached the Final Four as a No. 9 seed, after all, and could easily do it again with nearly their entire team back. But with a stronger conference and tougher opponents right off the bat, a four-loss season may not be in the cards. If things go wrong early, FAU could tumble fast from the No. 10 ranking it’s starting the season with.

SDSU favorites again after national championship game run

San Diego State went on a remarkable run to the national championship game in April, but the Aztecs were blown out in the title game by UConn.

While the Aztecs lost Matt Bradley, they’re still favorites to win the Mountain West and should be a tournament team come March. Darion Trammell is back after averaging 9.8 points per game last season, which was second only to Bradley. Lamont Butler, who hit the buzzer beater against FAU in the Final Four, is back for his senior season, too. Butler was right behind Trammell with 8.8 points per game, and the two should thrive in the backcourt together. They did, however, lose forward Keshad Johnson to Arizona during the offseason.

It’s going to take a lot to replicate what was the program’s best season ever once again. But with early matchups against BYU, No. 23 Saint Mary’s, Cal, Stanford and No. 11 Gonzaga, we should know pretty quickly which SDSU team we’re going to see this time around.

Notable Early Games

All times ET | * Neutral site

Nov. 10
No. 17 San Diego State at BYU | TBD | ESPN+

Nov. 17
No. 23 Saint Mary’s at No. 17 San Diego State* | 9:30 p.m. | ESPN+

Nov. 20
No. 3 Purdue at No. 11 Gonzaga* | 5 p.m. | ESPN2

Nov. 23
No. 10 FAU at Butler* | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN2