We finally made it to 2021! The new year brings new hope for a variety of reasons. However, it’s also a signal that conference play is here for mid-major teams. The abbreviated non-conference period will make winning league titles even more important than before. The selection committee historically doesn’t like non-power teams to begin with, and now this season provided mid-major teams with less opportunities than ever for key wins. The two-month grind to glory has begun.
2020-21 Week Six Mid-Major Takeaways
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The Big West has been UC Irvine’s the last few seasons, no matter who has challenged them. Many believed that this might be the season the Anteaters reign would be interrupted. The most likely challenger: the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. However, UCI reminded everyone why they’re the cream of the crop in the league by sweeping the Gauchos in their conference-opening games.
The Anteaters came out strong in the first game of the series on December 27th by knocking off UCSB by 19 points. The ‘Eaters methodically built their lead throughout the game, keeping the Gauchos at bay. Brad Greene led UCI in that one with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Game two saw UC Irvine come from behind, as they were down nine with just under eight minutes left in the game. However, a 24-11 run to end the game gave them a 73-69 win and a series sweep. Collin Welp was the star this time, putting up 16 points.
In both games, the Anteaters won the rebounding advantage and held UCSB to under 40 percent shooting. The Gauchos are still a solid team, but aspirations of winning a Big West title took a big hit with this sweep, as this put them without a tiebreaker against the new league favorite.
Expectations were low for the Cleveland State Vikings coming into the season. They were picked seventh in the Horizon League’s preseason poll. However, after a rough go of it in non-conference play, the Vikings seem to have hit their stride. Cleveland State earned their third-straight sweep in league play after defeating IUPUI 59-49 on Saturday. CSU is now 6-0 in the Horizon League, their best start since the 2007-08 season, when they started 7-0. Their six-game winning streak is also the longest since the 2013-14 season.
Two of Cleveland State’s sweeps have come against teams picked lower than them in the preseason in Purdue-Fort Wayne and IUPUI. However, the third came against Youngstown State, who was the chosen second in that poll. What’s more impressive is that two of those sweeps have come away from home. D’Moi Hodge has been leading the way with just under 15 points per game, including a 46-point outburst a few weeks ago.
We’ll really get to find out what the Vikings are all about soon, as their next four games come against league and mid-major stalwarts Northern Kentucky and Wright State. However, thus far, Cleveland State appears as though they are going to be a major player in the Horizon League.
If you haven’t gotten a chance to watch any games in the Atlantic 10 so far, you’re missing out. The league is deeper than it’s been in awhile, and there’s hope that it will lead to a decent number of NCAA Tournament berths on Selection Sunday. In order for that to happen, teams are going to need to pick up big wins. Saint Bonaventure did just that by taking down league favorite Richmond on the road Saturday 69-66. It’s the Bonnies’ fifth-straight win over the Spiders and their sixth in the last seven meetings.
The game was fantastic, with both teams trading blows throughout. It’s only fitting then that a game-winning shot would be in order. That’s just what Kyle Lofton did for Bonaventure, nailing a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left for the victory. He finished with 16 points, while Jaren Holmes led all Bonnies with 17 points. This was just what the doctor ordered for SBU after a hard-fought loss to Rhode Island in their A10 opener earlier in the week. This was one of the many heavyweight fights that will go down during league play this season as teams scratch and claw their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers had one of the better non-conference outcomes of any mid-major teams this season. The preseason favorites in Conference USA picked up some quality wins and were hearing whispers of at-large dreams if they should need it. However, that took a hit in the back half of their conference-opening series against Charlotte. The 49ers earned a 75-71 overtime victory on Saturday in a hard-fought effort.
Charlotte used a 9-2 run late to force the extra period, and then went 9-10 at the free-throw line in overtime to seal up the win. The 49ers arguably could’ve had a sweep against the Hilltoppers, as they let a win slip away in the first game between these two on New Year’s Day. Jahmir Young had himself a day, dropping 24 points along with seven rebounds and seven assists. It also marks Young’s fourth-straight game scoring at least 20 points.
Conference USA is sneaky tough, as there are plenty of quality teams there, even if they don’t get national recognition. Charlotte is one of those squads, and they’ll be tested once more against Marshall in their next series. The 49ers are looking for a top-five league finish for the second-straight season.
Mid-Major Top Performers
Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts went off for a career-high 39 points in a league-opening win against Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday. He shot 16-23 on the day and also added 10 rebounds for a double-double. Obanor scored 24 of his points in the first half, and his point total gave him his fourth career game of at least 30 points scored in a game.
Justin Jaworski of Lafayette dropped a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss to rival Lehigh in the team’s season and league-opener on Saturday. Jaworski’s point total is the most by a Leopard in ten years. Teammate EJ Stephens added 30 points, giving the Patriot League its first duo to score at least 30 points in a game in the last five seasons.
Travis Evee of Rice scored a career-high 36 points in the Owls’ victory over conference rival UTSA. His 13 made field-goals and eight made threes were also career-highs. The eight made deep balls also tied a program record that was set in 1997. Evee’s 36 points were also the most in a game by an Owl since 2008.
Keaston Willis of Incarnate Word scored a career-high 34 points in a win over Division III McMurry on New Year’s Eve. He was a perfect 12-12 from the free-throw line while doing most of the rest of his damage from inside the three-point line. Willis had nine rebounds as well.