The middle of January is a critical time for mid-major teams. Most teams have a decent number of conference games under their belts. Debates begin on which teams are contenders and which are pretenders. Whispers of running through league play unscathed also begin amongst fans. The reality is, that as the season creeps closer to February, the standings start to seesaw as teams meet each other for the first (and in the case of this season, potentially last) time. This past week in mid-major basketball was a great example of these kinds of results.
2020-21 Week Eight Mid-Major Takeaways
Life in the Mountain West Conference can be tough. It is, after all, one of the premier mid-major leagues out there. It’s made even tougher this year by COVID-adjusted scheduling, where teams are facing each other in back-to-back games. One such series may have signaled a passing of the torch, as the Utah State Aggies swept the San Diego State Aztecs in their series this past week to take control in the standings. Utah State won 57-45 on Thursday and 64-59 on Saturday to earn their victories. The losses were San Diego State’s first consecutive losses in almost two years and their two lowest offensive outputs of this season. It’s also the first time the Aztecs scored less than 60 points in consecutive games in four seasons.
Utah State moved to 8-0 in Mountain West play with the pair of wins, their best start ever as a league member. It was also the Aggies’ tenth-straight win, and after their second game, their fifth win over the Aztecs in their last seven tries. Utah State’s success has been fueled by defense and rebounding. The Aggies have held their last seven opponents under 60 points. They have also outrebounded every team they’ve played this season. Utah State is looking more and more like a team most will not want to see as their first-round opponent in March.
Speaking of teams who can be dangerous in March, there’s also the Furman Paladins out of the Southern Conference. Furman asserted their place at the top of the league standings after knocking off East Tennessee State on Saturday 78-66. The win was the Paladins’ fifth-straight and 19th straight at their home gym of Timmons Arena. Furman is the only remaining undefeated team in a rugged SoCon and continues the trend of solid mid-major teams out of this league over the past few seasons.
The Paladins were in a battle with the Buccaneers for most of the game, finding themselves down 58-57 at the halfway point of the second half. However, they finished on a 21-8 run to put the game away. Mike Bothwell was huge for Furman, scoring a career-high 32 points. He took the game over during that final team run, scoring 13 of his 32 during that span. The Paladins now hold a slim lead over ETSU and Wofford in the standings, and they will match back up with East Tennessee State again this upcoming Saturday on the road. Given the relative strength of the league, Furman can still put themselves in position for an at-large bid.
Bowling Green Drops the Ball
The Mid-American Conference is another league that plays tough on most nights. Bowling Green, one of the league favorites, certainly found that out the hard way last Tuesday. The Falcons got blown out on their home gym by the Ball State Cardinals 88-64, suffering their first conference loss of the season. That margin of defeat was the worst at home for Bowling Green in three seasons. Meanwhile, three of the four league games Ball State have won this season have come on the road.
Ball State had six players score in double-figures, led by Ishmael El-Amin, who poured in 20 points. The Cardinals jumped on the Falcons early and then worked on extending that advantage in the second half. Bowling Green never got closer than 12 points during the game’s final 20 minutes. One of the keys to victory for Ball State was on the glass. The Cardinals outrebounded the Falcons 41-26, going against their trend of ranking towards the bottom of the league in that statistic. Ball State still sits a step behind the leaders at the top of this league. However, they showed what they are capable of, and could certainly push their way into the conversation for a league title by season’s end.
Tip of the Hat(ter)
The Liberty Flames haven’t missed a beat since joining the Atlantic Sun Conference a few years ago. Liberty has won the league in both years, and is looking like their on their way to their third-straight this season. However, the Stetson Hatters had something to say about that last Friday, extinguishing the Flames 65-59. Stetson’s win is more impressive when you consider that they had just eight scholarship players available and were down three post players. The win gives Stetson at least one victory over Liberty in each of the past two seasons.
The Hatters erased a 40-33 deficit with just under 15 minutes to play in the game with a 14-2 run. They never relinquished the lead after that, icing the game down the stretch with clutch free-throws. Christiaan Jones and Chase Johnston led the charge for Stetson with 21 points and 18 points, respectively. The Hatters dropped the second game of the series on Saturday, but are starting to look more and more like the team that was picked third in the league’s preseason poll. Expect them to be a threat in the conference tournament in early March.
Mid-Major Top Performers
Brenden Tucker of Charleston scored a career-high 35 points in a win over Drexel last Sunday. Tucker was efficient from the field, making 13 of his 16 field-goal attempts. He also knocked down five of seven from deep. His 35-point output was the best by any CAA player thus far on the season.
Cam Davis of Navy poured in a career-high 34 points in an overtime victory over American on Saturday. Davis scored 21 of those points in the second half and extra frame. Furthermore, he went 10-for-14 from the free-throw line, which made the difference in the Midshipmen’s one-point victory. This output helped pace Navy to its best nine-game start since the 1983-84 season.
Davion Warren of Hampton dropped a career-high 34 points in a one-point win over USC Upstate on Thursday. None of his 34 were more important than his final two, which came at the free-throw line to ice the game for the Pirates. This was his 11th game of 2o or more points and third with 30 or more on the season.
Fardaws Aimaq of Utah Valley scored a career-high 29 points in an overtime win over Seattle on Friday. He also pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. Aimaq went 8-for-12 from the floor and 13-for-15 from the free-throw line on the night. The Mercer transfer is averaging an impressive 17.5 points and 15.1 rebounds per game for the Wolverines thus far this season.