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The new crop of mid-majors

By John Marshall
AP Basketball Writer / January 6, 2012
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Butler has reached the past two national title games and Virginia Commonwealth made it a mid-major party in Houston last season with its run to the Final Four.

The Rams have been on a roll after a slow start this season and the Bulldogs have been reeling, though they always seem to make a run when people least expect it.

If you're a college hoops fan, you probably already know about those two mid-majors -- along with Gonzaga, Xavier, maybe even Davidson or George Mason.

Every year, though, there are a handful of teams from outside the big conferences that seem to come out of nowhere and gain national attention.

Here's a half-dozen that have caught our attention:

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Murray State. Quick, for any non-alums, what's the mascot for Murray State? No, it's not the Murrays, though a big, lumbering guy in a tan short-sleeved shirt and brown tie would be the sweetest mascot of all-time. They're called the Racers and they are ballers. At 15-0, No. 19 Murray State is off to its best start since 1935-36 and is giving Kentucky college hoops fans someone to cheer for outside those bluebloods in Lexington and Louisville. The Racers are one of four Division I teams still undefeated despite recently losing top rebounder Ivan Aska to a broken hand, and have the look of a team that could enter the postseason undefeated in a down year in the Ohio Valley Conference. These Racers, fittingly for their name, are looking an awful lot like thoroughbreds.

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Harvard. The Crimson had a heartbreaking end to last season, sharing the Ivy League title, then losing to Princeton in a one-game playoff for a trip to the NIT instead of the NCAAs. This season, Harvard has the look of a team ready to break one of the nation's longest NCAA-tournament-less streaks, dating to when Truman was president. Led by powerfully built forward Keith Wright, the 22nd-ranked Crimson (12-2) appear to be a team that will get the NCAA tournament selection committee's attention regardless of an Ivy League championship. Harvard won the Battle 4 Atlantis holiday tournament in the Bahamas and, despite a loss to Fordham in its last game, is a big favorite to win the Ivy.

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Creighton. The Bluejays were regulars in the NCAA tournament in the early 2000s, though they have had a rough go of it in recent years, with no dancing shoes since 2007. That appears to be on the verge of changing, thanks to coach Greg McDermott and his high-scoring son, Doug. Creighton (12-2) has knocked off Iowa, Nebraska and San Diego State, and has one of the nation's most dynamic offenses: second in Division I with 19.9 assists per game, sixth at 83.1 points and eighth in shooting at 50 percent. McDermott -- the younger one -- was a high school teammate of North Carolina All-American Harrison Barnes and is second in the nation in scoring at 23.8 points per game while averaging more than eight rebounds.

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Iona. The Gaels have been basketball's road warriors, playing a school-record nine straight games away from home. They won seven of those and with wins over Maryland, St. Joseph's and Richmond, are looking like a team that could get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Iona (11-3) is led by one the best point guards anywhere in Scott Machado, who leads the nation with 10.4 assists per game and is on the verge of a triple-double seemingly every game. The Gaels also have plenty of scoring -- fifth nationally at 85.1 points per game -- with players like Sean Armand, who hit a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference-record 10 3-pointers while scoring 32 points against Siena at Madison Square Garden in Iona's last game.

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Ohio University. The Bobcats made some waves in 2010, winning the MAC tournament as the No. 9 seed, then knocking off No. 3 seed Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament. After missing the NCAAs last season, the Bobcats were picked to win the MAC title and won 12 of their first 13 games -- the program's best start since 1939-40. A recent loss to Robert Morris isn't expected to slow them down, either. Led by speedy point guard D.J Cooper, the Bobcats (12-2) are tough to defend and are one of the best teams at guarding the perimeter, holding opponents to 27 percent from 3-point range.

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Saint Louis. The Billikens haven't been to the NCAA tournament in over a decade and have had some rough stretches under coach Rick Majerus. This season, Majerus' fifth at the school, Saint Louis (12-3) figures to be a strong contender to make a run for its first NCAA tournament bid since 2000. Playing with a slow-it-down tempo and in-your-jersey defense typical of Majerus-led teams, the Billikens have notched some impressive wins, including double-digit victories over teams from the Big 12, Big East, ACC and Pac-12. The Billikens have lost their last two games, but both were close and they figure to make a strong run through the Atlantic-10 Conference.

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