Mid-major basketball preview: Drew Timme and Gonzaga, Houston both looking like legit title contenders

The 2022-23 college basketball season is two days away. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season. Check out our conference previews on the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Big East and SEC.

For the sake of this preview, we’re counting “mid-majors” as any program outside of the six major conferences — but there’s nothing “mid” about them.

At least two of them are legitimate national title contenders, and they should be treated as such.

Gonzaga and star Drew Timme have what it takes to claim another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and finally take home the title they’ve been hunting. Kelvin Sampson has a healthy squad back in Houston too, which has them right behind the Bulldogs in the top five. San Diego State could easily make a deep run come March, too.

Here’s what you need to know about the mid-majors this season:

Ranked Teams

For the full Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, click here.

No. 2. Gonzaga

No. 3. Houston

No. 19. San Diego State

No. 24. Dayton

Others receiving votes: Saint Louis (36), Wyoming (25), Toledo (1), UAB (1), Memphis (1)

Notable national championship odds, via BetMGM (as of 11/3)

North Carolina and Gonzaga are preseason co-favorites at +900.

Gonzaga +900

Houston +1000

San Diego State +6600

Dayton +8000

Drew Timme, Gonzaga open as preseason favorites

Drew Timme is back, and he’s ready to win national player of the year.

Timme will return for a fourth season with the Bulldogs this fall after making back-to-back runs to the Final Four. The two-time All-American will be the centerpiece for Gonzaga, especially without Chet Holmgren around, and he should thrive. While he averaged 18.4 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, both down from his sophomore run, expect those to climb significantly this year.

“I knew he was trouble when we played against him as a freshman,” Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said at WCC media day. “He has a chance to be the best center in college basketball three years in a row — you don’t see that very often.”

It’s not just Timme, though. He’ll be joined by Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith, Rasir Bolton and former five-star recruits Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. Smith will be a great addition for coach Mark Few after he averaged 19.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.

Gonzaga has a tough schedule, too, though that’s nothing new. Before the Zags hit conference play, the Bulldogs have to play Michigan State, No. 12 Texas, No. 4 Kentucky. No. 5 Baylor and No. 20 Alabama.

That’s an incredibly difficult slate, one that nobody else in the country has. But, considering the conference schedule Gonzaga has, it’s the best way for it to prove it belongs in March. And if they can get through the end of December with minimal damage, there’s no reason why Mark Few can’t be a top seed in the tournament once again — or even finally bring home a national title.

After all, there's a reason the Zags opened as the betting favorites in Las Vegas.

A healthy Houston could be dangerous

Kelvin Sampson has turned Houston into a bit of a basketball powerhouse, one that should have no issue thriving once it’s moved into the Big 12.

For now, though, the Cougars will dominate amongst the mid-major category.

Houston brings back Marcus Sasser, who is undoubtedly one of the best guards in the country. Sasser averaged a career-high 17.7 points and shot nearly 44% from the 3-point line last season, though he missed the second half of the year with a toe injury.

The Cougars will also have Jamal Shead available, and Tramon Mark is back after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. They will have five-star recruit Jarace Walker, too, who Yahoo Sports’ Krysten Peek has going midway through the first round in the NBA draft next summer.

Despite losing perhaps his two best players, Sampson still got Houston back to the Elite Eight.

If he can keep his group healthy, Sampson could pull off a national title run. Even if he doesn’t, the Cougars could still be playing in late March.

“I want you to think of a basketball team like a big ol’ pot of gumbo,” Sampson said, via the Daily Cougar. “Somebody’s got to be the okra. Somebody’s got to be the tomatoes. Somebody’s got to be that crab leg, that piece of sausage, that shrimp, that chicken. You can’t have a pot full of just chicken.”

Houston guard Jamal Shead celebrates after scoring with head coach Kelvin Sampson
Houston guard Jamal Shead and coach Kelvin Sampson have what it takes to make a third Final Four in five years. (AP/David J. Phillip) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Don’t count out San Diego State, Dayton

San Diego State is generally in contention come the end of the season, and this year should be no different.

The Aztecs, who have dominated the Mountain West in recent years, bring back four starters this year — including fifth-year senior Matt Bradley, the former Cal transfer who put up 16.9 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. They’ve also landed Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell, a guard who dropped 17.3 points and five assists.

Though the Aztecs haven’t made it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament since 2015, this team is more than capable of making it to at least the second weekend of the dance.

Dayton is a team to look out for too, thanks largely to DaRon Holmes II.

The 6-foot-10 forward averaged an incredible 20 points and six rebounds during the Flyers’ final five games of last season, both significantly up from his season averages. If he can maintain that level of play, the Flyers — who return all of their starters from last year — should make noise.

Notable early games

Michigan State at No. 2 Gonzaga * | Friday, Nov. 11

No. 2 Gonzaga at No. 12 Texas | Wednesday, Nov. 16

No. 3 Houston at No. 21 Oregon | Sunday, Nov. 20

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Kentucky | Sunday, Nov. 20

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Baylor * | Friday, Dec. 2

*Neutral Court