Do you hear that? It is a sigh of relief from college basketball fans. The 2020-21 season tipped off on Wednesday after a long-awaited return. The buildup may have been bigger than the one for Selection Sunday since fans were denied that this past season due to COVID-19. A new season means new mid-major upsets, highlights, and stars. The first major upset of the season happened on Friday, with San Francisco taking down the fourth-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. However, that was just one of many fun mid-major moments over the season’s first four days.
Picking up big wins in non-conference play has never been more important. The uncertainty in scheduling due to the ongoing pandemic means games can be canceled on a dime. Saint Louis assured itself of at least one key game by hosting the LSU Tigers in their own MTE, and they capitalized on that opportunity. The Billikens took down the Tigers 85-81 on Saturday. This is a big win that will stay with the team as they look to build a profile worthy of at-large inclusion by March.
Saint Louis got it done on the back of Javonte Perkins. He scored 32 points, 26 of which came in the second half. He was one of four Billikens to score in double-figures. They never trailed in the second half as they slowly built up a double-figure lead. LSU cut it down late, but could not get over the hump. The biggest difference in the game was depth. Saint Louis had 19 points from its bench compared to just one bench point for LSU. Richmond got most of the love in the A-10 in the preseason, but Saint Louis is another dangerous mid-major that shouldn’t be slept on.
The biggest question surrounding San Diego State heading into 2020-21 was what they could do as an encore? The Aztecs went 30-2 a season ago and seemed primed for at least a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The answer so far: SDSU isn’t missing a beat. The Aztecs made that statement after dispatching 23rd-ranked UCLA 73-58 on opening night. This was the first meeting between the schools on San Diego State’s home floor in 29 years.
The Bruins were shorthanded, and that was made worse when Chris Smith fouled out with a little under five minutes to go. San Diego State’s smothering defense wore down UCLA, and they held the Bruins to just 6-21 from the field in the second half.
“We’ve always had a defensive identity, and I think that showed up again tonight,” San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher said after the game.
Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel each had 15 points for the Aztecs. It remains to be seen if San Diego State can go on the historic run that they did last season. However, early results indicate they will still be a team few will want to see on their schedule.
Despite the circumstances surrounding the season, mid-major teams are still going to circle the dates where they play power conference opponents. Georgia Tech was on the radar for Georgia State and Mercer this past week, and both teams got the last laugh.
Georgia State got to savor victory first, defeating the Yellow Jackets 123-120 in a four-overtime thriller on opening night. The Panthers secured their first win over an ACC opponent in program history, and snapped a 14-game losing streak to their crosstown rivals. Four Georgia State players scored at least 20 points. led by Justin Roberts‘ 26 points and Kane Williams‘ 21 points and 12 boards. The game was tied at 77 at the end of regulation, and the Panthers used their defense to force key turnovers late in the final overtime period to put the game away.
Mercer pounced on a potentially exhausted Georgia Tech squad two days later. The Bears won 83-73, and only trailed in the game for a total of 30 seconds. This is the program’s first win over a power conference opponent in five years, and their first over an ACC school since upsetting Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Mercer led by as many as 19 points at one point in the second half. Neftali Alvarez and Felipe Haase each scored 17 points and Ross Cummings added 16 of his own. This is the type of win that can spark Mercer to make a run in the Southern Conference this season.
There is something to be said about living in the shadow of a larger school nearby. Saint Francis in Pennsylvania has been doing that for sometime, with the Pitt Panthers located a few hours west of the Red Flash’s Loretto, PA home. Saint Francis had gone home defeated 29 straight times before Wednesday, as the Red Flash picked up an 80-70 win over the Panthers in try number 30. The Red Flash never trailed after going ahead 4-2 very early in the game. This was also the program’s first win over an ACC opponent since the 1975-76 season.
Saint Francis won this game with balance, as five players scored in double-figures. The effort was led by senior Ramiir Dixon-Conover, who scored 21 points. Pitt may not be the most formidable team out of the ACC, but this is still a marquee win for the Red Flash. This was expected to a rebuilding year after the program had contended for NEC titles the past few years. However, 38 percent SFU’s minutes were used by freshmen. Saint Francis may be reloading instead of rebuilding.
Zach Nutall of Sam Houston State leads off the new season’s performance highlights. He was the lone bright spot for the Bearkats in a 97-67 loss to SMU. Nutall scored a career-high 36 points, shooting 52 percent from the floor and going 6-12 from beyond the arc. He also went 6-8 from the free-throw line. Performances like this are why he is a preseason favorite for the Southland Player of the Year honor.
Terry Taylor of Austin Peay made this section a lot last season, and he’s back at it once more. The senior star scored 25 points and snagged 16 rebounds in a 67-66 win over East Tennessee State in the Gulf Coast Showcase on Thanksgiving Day. 10 of Taylor’s rebounds were on the offensive end, including his final one that allowed him to score the game-winning layup. Expect Taylor to have nights like this often in 2020-21.
Jason Preston did all he could for Ohio to nearly upset eighth-ranked Illinois. He scored a career-high 31 points as the Bobcats came up just short, falling 77-75 to the Illini. Preston went 13-23 from the field and had eight assists while not turning the ball over once.
Obadiah Noel of Massachusetts-Lowell put his talent on display in an 82-72 loss to Illinois State on Saturday. Noel scored a career-high 35 points, and his 12 made field goals is also a new career-high. He is the River Hawks’ best player, and is one of the favorites for the America East Player of the Year award.