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Rothstein: 5 mid-majors to watch in college basketball in 2016-17

Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

Which mid-majors should be on your radar entering next season? Check out our list below for five programs that could bust your bracket in March. In no particular order, five mid-majors to watch

Monmouth: The Hawks became a national program last season when they won 28 games with non-conference victories against UCLA, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and USC.

What can King Rice’s squad do for an encore?

Be one of the elite mid-major teams in all of college basketball and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Monmouth returns everyone of significance from last year’s team that made national headlines with the exception of rugged forward Deon Jones and boasts an Atlantic 10 caliber back court with Justin Robinson, Micah Seaborn, and Je’lon Hornbeak.

The Hawks also bring back quality size up front with Chris Brady (6-10, 250) and Zac Tillman (6-10,  285) along with a mid-major gem in Collin Stewart.

The 6-8 forward is the type of face up threat that adds quality spacing around Robinson, Hornbeak, and Seaborn all while giving Monmouth another way to put pressure on opposing defenses.

The Hawks also boast legitimate depth with players like Josh James, Pierre Sarr, Austin Tilghmann, and Diago Quinn.

Monmouth will play non-conference games in November and December at South Carolina, Syracuse, Memphis, and North Carolina.

Princeton: Tommy Amaker made national headlines by bringing in the best recruiting class in the history of Harvard, but anyone who follows college basketball knows Princeton is the team to beat in the Ivy League.

Mitch Henderson returns every player from last year’s team that won 22 games and nearly won the Ivy League including four players — Henry Caruso, Steven Cook, Devin Canady, and Spencer Weisz — who averaged in double-figures and shot better than 35.6 percent from three-point range.

The forgotten presence in this program?

Hans Brase.

The 6-8 big man missed all of last season with a knee injury, but led the Tigers in rebounding (7.5) and was second in scoring (11.5) during the 2014-15 season.

Anything less than a trip to the NCAA Tournament will be a disappointment for this group.

Saint Mary’s: Gonzaga may have been the WCC team that reached the Sweet 16 last March, but until Championship Week, the Gaels were the conference’s best team.

Saint Mary’s won 29 games a year ago and will return its top eight players from last season, highlighted by four starters — Emmett Naar, Dane Pineau, Calvin Hermanson, and Joe Rahon — who all averaged in double-figures.

Randy Bennett’s squad beat Gonzaga twice last year and will be one of the better offensive teams in all of college basketball.

The Gaels shot 50.4 percent from the field as a team last season in addition to 40.6 percent from three-point range.

If you enjoy efficient offense, you’ll love Saint Mary’s.

The main question for this team in 16-17: can the Gaels do enough damage in the non-conference portion of of their schedule so that history won’t repeat itself?

The Gaels were forced to settle for the NIT last March after falling to Gonzaga in the WCC title because it didn’t have enough of a resume to warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Chattanooga: Can the Mocs surpass last year’s 29-win season that was highlighted by wins over Dayton, Illinois, and Georgia as well as a trip to the NCAA Tournament?

It’s very possible.

Matt McCall returns four seniors — Greg Pryor, Chuck Ester, Justin Tuoyo, and Tre’ McLean — who were all on the floor when Chattanooga lost to Indiana in the Round of 64 while adding a healthy Casey Jones, who only played eight games last year due to an ankle injury.

The 6-5 Jones averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 rebounds two years ago during the 14-15 season and could emerge as the top player in the SoCon if he’s truly back to 100.0 percent.

The Mocs will play non-conference games at Tennessee, North Carolina, and Vanderbilt during November and December.

UAB: Rob Ehsan’s first head coaching job will come with high-level expectations and that’s to be expected considering what the Blazers return from last year’s team.

UAB brings back seven of its top eight scorers from a squad that won 26 games with a 16-2 mark in league play prior to a loss to Western Kentucky in the Conference-USA Tournament.

Ehsan — who was an assistant under former head coach Jerod Haase a year ago — has two high-major front court players in William Lee and Chris Cokley along with a strong core of guys who embrace their roles in Dirk Williams, Nick Norton, Hakim Baxter, and Tosin Mehinti.

The Blazers looked throughout last season like a team that could have won multiple games in the field of 68, but they ultimately picked the wrong time to have a bad game.

UAB will several opportunities to make statements early thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule that features games against Texas and Memphis along with a showdown against Kansas in the CBE Classic in Kansas City.

Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.

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