Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Thanks to conference realignment, the Memphis Tigers will be playing in the American Athletic Conference this season. As a result, their reign as one of the most successful mid-major programs in the nation will come to a close.
Memphis is not the only well-known mid-major that moved up to a more competitive league this off-season. Creighton, Butler, Temple, Xavier and UCF all joined power conferences as well.
Also, the Mountain West sent five teams to the Big Dance last season. UNLV's Anthony Bennett was selected number one in the NBA Draft. On Thursday night, the Rebels picked up their second commitment from a high level recruit as Goodluck Okonoboh chose UNLV over Duke, Florida, Indiana and Ohio State. With New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State, Air Force and Boise State all on the rise, top recruits will continue to take a look at what was formerly considered a lower-level conference. The MWC may not get an automatic bid to a BCS bowl in football, but it has become one of the major conferences on the hardwood.
The Atlantic 10 was nearing the upper echelon as well before it was ransacked by the former and new Big East Conferences. Still, there is plenty to like outside the power conferences heading into this season.
The following five programs will be playing in mid-major conferences next season and will most likely end up with invitations to the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
VCU - Year after year, Shaka Smart's name is mentioned whenever a head coaching vacancy at a big program becomes available. Smart has stayed loyal to VCU as his Rams continue to be an NCAA Tournament threat and contender to win the Atlantic 10 Conference. Smart's trademark full-court press makes it impossible to defeat the Rams without any quality ball handlers. VCU completely embarrassed some of its competition last season, including Akron, which it defeated 88-42 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Rams suffered a season-ending 25-point loss to the national runner-up Michigan Wolverines in the third round. Juvonte Reddic (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Treveon Graham (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are both back to lead the Rams as they attempt to reach another Final Four under Smart.
WICHITA STATE - Speaking of the Final Four, Gregg Marshall's Shockers were the surprise team of last year's tournament field. Although the Missouri Valley Conference produces upsets on a weekly basis, Wichita State should have a much easier time winning its conference title this year with Doug McDermott and Creighton no longer an obstacle. Charles Koch Arena was one of the toughest venues to visit last season as WSU compiled a 15-2 home record. Although the Shockers will have to replace some of their key players from the Final Four team, they have back senior forward Cleanthony Early (13.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) to lead the charge.
GONZAGA - Mark Few's squad earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history only to be upset by the Shockers in the third round last year. Gonzaga has carved out a place for itself in the Top 25 for some time now and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Bulldogs only have one legitimate contender in the West Coast Conference once again as St. Mary's has fallen off and BYU has improved. Gonzaga lost its starting frontcourt of Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk to the NBA, which will most likely prevent it from soaring to the unprecedented heights it reached last season. Few's team will still be a tough out due to Kevin Pangos (11.9 ppg), who has one of the most lethal outside shots in the nation. The Zags also have back son of NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, David Stockton, along with an excellent wing in Gary Bell, Jr.
HARVARD - Tommy Amaker was fired by the University of Michigan after many felt his Wolverine teams tended to underachieve and fall apart when it mattered most. The former Duke point guard and disciple of coach Mike Krzyzewski will not hear the same criticism at Harvard after leading the Crimson to an upset of the No. 3 seeded New Mexico Lobos in last year's NCAA Tournament. Harvard was not expected to even win the Ivy League championship after losing a pair of 2011-12 All-Ivy selections due to an academic scandal. The Crimson return four starters from the perseverant group, including Wesley Saunders (16.2 ppg, 1.8 spg) and Laurent Rivard (10.3 ppg). Amaker has done a great job of mentoring point guard Siyani Chambers (12.4 ppg, 5.7 apg), who became the first freshman to be named to the All-Ivy League first team in the league's history. Harvard should be even better this season with Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, the All-Ivy players lost to the academic scandal, both returning.
BUFFALO - Another former point guard of Krzyzewski's will make his head coaching debut in upstate New York this season as Bobby Hurley takes over the helm of the Bulls' program. Hurley built an impressive resume as a player at Duke, winning two NCAA championships and the 1992 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award. Hurley is not expected to be an instant success with the Bulls, who finished 14-20 overall with a 7-9 standing in the Mid-American Conference. The Bulls were an underachieving bunch in 2012-13 and never really found a replacement for starting point guard Jarod Oldham (10.1 ppg, 4.4 apg) after he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in practice after just 11 games. There is a very good chance that Buffalo will prevail from the MAC, which is wide open due to key graduations at both Ohio and Toledo. Hurley has an excellent player to build around in Javon McCrea, who finished second in the MAC in scoring (18.0), tied for third in rebounding (7.9), third in field goal percentage (.557), and second in blocked shots (89) last year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Iona, Saint Louis, Florida Gulf Coast, Massachusetts, Western Michigan, La Salle and South Alabama.