by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

As the calendar moves into December, there is no shortage of mid-major teams that have already made significant impressions in the early stages of the 2011-12 college hoops campaign. Following is our second installment of mid-majors to watch...

Creighton...This looks like it could be a bounce-back year for the Missouri Valley, which has struggled to get multiple teams into the Big Dance in recent campaigns. While Wichita State (with five of its top six returning scorers from last year's NIT champions) is getting a lot of attention in the early going, Creighton looks poised for a resurrection, confirmed by Wednesday night's rousing win at San Diego State. The Bluejays have one of the top weapons in the Valley, if not the entire country, in 6-7 soph F Doug McDermott, son of head coach Greg McDermott and emerging as an unstoppable force as a sophomore, scoring better than 23 ppg already as Creighton gets off to its flying start. The presence of rugged 6-9 former Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique provides the sort of power on the blocks that most Valley reps lack. And the perfect complement to McDermott and the frontline's versatility is sr. G Antoine Young, a clever southpaw who led the Valley in assists last season and is not afraid to take the big shots when needed, as demonstrated this week at San Diego State. The return of 6-7 soph Ethan Wragge, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, gives coach McDermott a dagger-thrower from the perimeter to further spread opposing defenses. Young's ability to penetrate, Wragge's ability to stroke the 3, Echenique's spot on the blocks, and McDermott's all-around excellence make the Jays a very tough group to defend. Definite threat to do some damage in March.

George Mason...Those expecting the Patriots to fall off of the map in the wake of the departure of successful and long-serving HC Jim Larranaga to Miami-Florida might be sadly mistaken. GMU pulled a rabbit out of its hat when hiing ex-Georgia tech HC Paul Hewitt, who had taken the Yellow Jackets to the Final Four and had earlier gained notice in the northeast when coaching with success at Siena. Most of last year's NCAA sub-regional qualifier has returned in Fairfax, although Hewitt is without long-range gunner G Andre Cornelius due to suspension until the middle of December. Other key cogs have returned, however, including multi-dimensional 6-6 sr. F Ryan Pearson, scoring better than 20 ppg in the early going while hitting better than 56% from the floor. While Cornelius sits, a trio of sophs, Gs Sherrod Wright (12.2 ppg) and Vertrail Vaughns (11.7 ppg to date), and F Byron Allen (12 points and 7 boards in Wednesday's win over combative Bucknell) have had chances to emerge, while rugged 6-9 sr. Mike Morrison is an effective anchor in the paint and a potential force on the blocks in a league such as the Colonial. The addition of Cornelius will provide an extra dimension when he regains eligibility, likely making the Patriots the team to beat in the CAA.

Georgia State...Way under the radar, Georgia State has picked up considerable momentum since losing its first three games, winning four in a row under new HC Ron Hunter, who arrived in Atlanta from a successful stint at IUPUI. A commitment to defense has keyed the Panthers' recent upswing; GSU recently held three straight foes to a mere 49 ppg, reflecting the work ethic Hunter has instilled. Predecessor Rod Barnes had the Panthers playing hard, too, but his teams lacked diversity on the attack end. Hunter is working with much of the same crew, but has been getting better production from 6-5 sr. swingman Jihad Ali, finally tapping some of his potential and hitting all six of his shots (including four three-pointers) in the recent win over Liberty, and soph G Devonta White, who scored in double figures in 6 of his first 7 games.

Iona...The Gaels made plenty of noise last season when looking like a possible NCAA rep from the Metro-Atlantic for most of the year before ending up in the CIT, where they advanced to the finale before being upset by visiting Santa Clara in the title game. Now Iona looks like it might be ready to take the next step, thanks to the very welcome addition of G Lamont "MoMo" Jones, an Arizona transfer who nearly shot the Wildcats into the Final Four last season and was given a waiver by the NCAA to transfer nearer his home (to help care for his ailing grandmother) and become immediately eligible at Iona. Where HC Tim Cluess greeted him with open arms to a team with returning assist-machine G Scott Machado (who's also scoring at better than 18 ppg in the early going) to form the Metro-Atlantic's, if not the East's, best backcourt combo. Punishing 6-7 PF Mike Glover (21.2 ppg) is also a real force on the blocks in a smaller league such as the MAAC. Iona has already walloped Maryland and beat a good St. Joe's team in overtime, and took Big Ten Purdue to the wire in Puerto Rico, losing by only 1 point. This is a team we expect to see "dancing" next March.

Marshall...C-USA rep Marshall might consider it an affront to be labeled in the mid-major category. But no complaints from the Herd for the masses to take notice after last week's upset win at Cincinnati. Marshall has been gaining notice in recent years, winning 24 two years ago for HC Donnie Jones (who then moved to UCF) and 22 last season for shrewd Tom Herrion. The returning C-USA Freshman of the Year, G DeAndre Kane (15.8 ppg), teams with sr. G Damier Pitts (14 ppg) to form a crackling backcourt combination. How far the Herd advances, and how much trouble it eventually causes for Memphis in this year's C-USA race, likely comes down to the progress made by juco frontliners 6-8 Dennis Tinnon and 6-9 Robert Goff, who provide some athleticism and muscle on the blocks and have been producing a bit better than expected (each scoring 10 ppg) in the early going, while adding some necessary scoring balance in and around the paint. Regional sources say that Herrion's real wild card in the mix is 6-5 swingman Justin Coleman, who has gotten off to a rather slow start but with considerable upside after originally signing with Louisville out of high school before going the prep school route and ending up in Huntington.

Northeastern...Another low-flying Colonial rep, the Huskies are off to a surprisingly fast start that includes a dominating 78-64 win over Big East rep St. John's. Shrewd HC Bill Coen welcomed back four starters from a team that floundered a year ago (finishing 11-20), but has regained its identity in the early going with a tough, grinding defense that hasn't taken off possessions as last year's team did too often. Junior guards Jonathan Lee (15.6 ppg) and Joel Smith (14.2 ppg) are a dynamite backcourt tandem and trigger Coen's tight, disciplined offense. Coen wanted Smith to be more aggressive this season and get to the foul line more frequently; thus far, Smith has followed the advice, and is not only getting to the line, he's making all of his charity tosses (20 for 20 to date). Although the key to a real breakthrough probably rests with erratic 6-7 frontliner Kauri Black, an enigmatic, high-jumping junior whose performances have varied wildly throughout his career. In the early going, however, Black is demonstrating more consistency, scoring almost 10 ppg and shooting 50% from the floor. Although Coen still closes his eyes when Black goes to the foul line, where he's hitting only 38%.

Ohio U...Of the many Mid-American sides that have caught our attention early, Ohio warrants some extra mention, especially after its impressive 70-68 win at Marshall on Wednesday night, right on the heels of a near-miss at Louisville last week. Coach John Groce is quickly gaining notice, having taken the Bobcats to the Big Dance two years ago and beating Georgetown once at the party. This year's Bobcats do most of their work from the perimeter, where electric jr. G D.J. Cooper (14.6 ppg) is now getting considerable help from the enigmatic 6-3 swingman Walter Offutt, whose circuitous college career has taken him from Ohio State (where he was recruited by Groce when a Buckeye assistant) and Wright State before landing in Athens. As long as 6-9 C Reggie Keely can hold his own on the blocks, the Bobcats will be a definite factor in the MAC and will probably merit attention wherever they land in the postseason next March.

Old Dominion...Underestimate savvy Monarch HC Blaine Taylor at your own risk. Even considering the loss of several key cogs (including bludgeoning frontliner Frank Hassell) from last year's NCAA team that was a buzzer-beater away from advancing past eventual Big Dance finalist Butler in the first round. Remember, ODU was regarded as the Colonial's most dangerous rep a year ago (not eventual Final Four Virginia Commonwealth), and the leader of that Monarch team, in-your-face 6-5 lefty G Kent Bazemore, returns for his senior year. Bazemore's length and tenacity make him one of the premier defenders in CAA, if not the entire country. Rugged 6-9 senior Chris Cooper is showing signs of emerging as the successor to enforcer Hassell on the blocks, but how much progress ODU makes over the course of the season will depend upon a couple of new scoring options to merge. At the moment, frosh G Dimitri Batter (10 ppg in the early going) looks as if he could be that component. ODU bears watching as the calendar moves past New Year's, as most CAA observers expect the Monarchs to be a formidable side in the second half of the season, with the defense solid enough to give them a look in the interim while the offense continues to sort out its options. And, as always, HC Taylor (whose last three ODU teams have all won 25 or more) merits respect.

Saint Joseph's...Apologies to any Atlantic-10 followers who might take umbrage at their league falling under the mid-major label. And there are several intriguing teams emerging in this year's A-10 race, not the least of which is Rick Majerus' Saint Louis, a winner at the Anaheim Convention Center 76 Classic last week (though upset right after by Loyola Marymount). Still, we wanted to make space for Phil Martelli's battling Hawks, who have served notice that they are a much-improved team from the one that stumbled and bumbled a year ago to an 11-22 record that had Martelli under the gun. But the follically-challenged Martelli was forced into playing numerous frosh a year ago, and by the end of the season the Hawks had evolved into a pretty dangerous team, making an unexpected run in the Atlantic 10 Tourney. This year, the team is a year older and a year wiser, and sophs such as G Langston Galloway (15.6 ppg), thrown into the soup as a frosh, is now a confident contributor, and teams with explosive junior G Carl Jones (19.9 ppg). Martelli's best teams have always been guard-oriented (recall the Jameer Nelson-Delonte West squads in the middle of the last decade), and the Galloway-Jones combo seems to be following suit. A couple of other sophs, 6-9 stringbean Curtis Aiken and 6-8 Ronald Roberts, Jr., are also scoring in double digits in the early going. Watch these guys.

Santa Clara...The temptation was to dismiss the Broncos, last year's surprise CIT champs, when word came that 6-9 Canadian sr. PF Marc Trasolini would miss the season due to a preseason knee injury. An early loss at UCSB confirmed some of those beliefs. But fifth-year HC Kerry Keating (with a newly-signed contract extension in hand) quickly recalibrated the Broncos, whose aggression and spunk were in evidence at last week's 76 Classic in Anaheim. Scoring the last ten points to defeat Big East Villanova after an opening-round win over Mountain West preseason favorite New Mexico confirms Keating's belief that the Broncos' quickness, both on the perimeter and on the blocks, will be a virtue. Though not especially big, the Broncos have plenty of quick jumpers, especially athletic 6-8 F Niyi Harrison, who plays a few inches bigger. And since Keating's guards such as Kevin Foster, Evan Roquemore, and Raymond Cowels all like to rebound, the Broncos rank among the nation's rebound leaders with their array of quick leapers. Of course, how far the Broncos advance this season depends again upon the long-range shooting exploits of Gs Foster (who led the nation in converted triples last year) and the mohawked Roquemore. When on song, this could be the most explosive backcourt on the West coast, and a threat to pull a few more upsets and make some more noise next March.

Tulane...Okay, we know that Conference USA reps chafe at being clumped in the mid-major group; much like the Atlantic Ten and Mountain West, they consider themselves "major" hoop leagues. But Tulane needs to be thankful for whatever praise it gets these days, and it's warranting more than usual after a quick 8-0 break from the gate. Granted, the schedule has been pretty soft in the first month, and will continue to be so throughout most of December, with challenging dates only against a rebuilding Georgia Tech side and at Syracuse. But 6-5 swingman Kendall Timmons appears to have elevated his game, being a bit more selective with his shots and hitting 55% from the floor in the early going. The addition of 6-7 soph transfer Josh Davis (via NC State) has removed a bit of the scoring burden from Timmons; Davis is tallying better than 14 ppg in the early going and is demanding considerable attention from opponents on the blocks. Tulane is also spreading out opposing defenses thanks to G Jordan Callaway's ability to bomb away from the perimeter, where he is hitting 46% of his triples. Although no one is dreaming about a Big Dance bid in New Orleans quite yet, regional sources expect the Wave to continue to gain some altitude with underrated 2nd-year HC Ed Conroy, who impressed in his previous stint at The Citadel. A postseason bid of some kind looks likely for the Wave, which is also seeing benefit from a new and much-needed practice facility, which has recently opened.

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