Mid-Major 2020-21 Takeaways: Week Nine

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One of the best things about college basketball is the surprise teams that emerge. That’s where a lot of the excitement that March Madness brings comes from. Fans want to know who will be the surprise team that upsets a top seed in the first round, or makes a run to the second weekend. However, surprises can happen before all the fun in March as well. Mid-major leagues routinely see a team or two that outpaces their expectations and plays meaningful basketball down the stretch. That’s exactly what we saw across the board this past week.

2020-21 Week Nine Mid-Major Takeaways

Colorado State Makes its Case

The Mountain West has become a very fun league to watch this season. Last season was all about seeing how far San Diego State could go. This season is all about seeing how many teams the league can get into the NCAA Tournament. Colorado State became the latest team to throw its hat in the ring after a big win over an ascending Utah State team on Thursday. The 84-76 outcome over the Aggies gave Utah State their first league loss of the season and snapped their 11-game winning streak. Meanwhile. Colorado State’s 8-2 start in league play is their best ever.

The game was a back-and-forth affair, but the Rams used a 10-0 run after the under-eight media timeout to go ahead for good. Colorado State also shot 11-12 from the free-throw line over the final two minutes to salt the game away. Isaiah Stevens had a monster game for CSU, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out eight assists, and amassing four steals. Colorado State is quietly building a case for bubble inclusion, and has a huge series with another strong mid-major in Boise State upcoming this week that can cement their status further.

Climbing the Mountain(eer)

Perhaps, when looking at the Sun Belt standings, one may think the league has been flipped upside down. However, that’s not the case at all. Instead, Appalachian State announced itself to the rest of the league with a huge sweep of perennial league power Georgia State this past week. The Mountaineers earned 80-71 and 74-61 wins, respectively, to move to 6-2 in league play. That propelled them into first place in the Sun Belt’s East Division, and their best league start since 2006-07, when App State was in the Southern Conference. They are also 12-5 overall, their best 17-game start since that same 2006-07 season.

Appalachian State used a late run in both games to pull away and seal their victories. They also forced a combined 29 turnovers over both games and outshot the Panthers both nights. Justin Forrest led the Mountaineers with 23 points in the first game, while James Lewis Jr. led with 22 points in game two. This performance certainly makes App State look like the team to beat in the East Division, and potentially the team to beat in the entire league.

Bearkat Boom

Sam Houston State and Abilene Christian have both gotten off to hot starts in the Southland Conference. However, when they met up Wednesday night, one of these solid mid-major squads would have to see themselves cool off a bit. When the dust settled, Sam Houston State emerged with a key 64-57 victory. It was the Bearkats’ ninth straight win, and it pushed them into sole possession of first place in the conference. SHSU led for all but 15 seconds in the game, though it was a battle throughout.

The Bearkats outrebounded the Wildcats 47-33 for the game while also shooting an impressive 35 percent from deep. Demarkus Lampley went off for a career-high 30 points, while Zach Nutall added 14 points and 12 rebounds. The Southland race is shaping up to be a good one, with four teams with either one loss or no losses. The outcomes of games like this will be all the difference in the long run.

Swashbuckled

One season after taking the Southern Conference by storm and being one of the best mid-major teams in the country, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the East Tennessee State program. Their head coach went off to Wake Forest, and a number of players went elsewhere or opted out of the season. However, through all of that, things appear to be just fine in Johnson City, as the Bucs defeated league favorite Furman 71-62 on Saturday, exacting revenge for their only league loss that came just a week prior. This was ETSU’s sixth-straight win at home, and their eighth win over their last 10 games overall.

East Tennessee State’s defense shined, holding Furman to their lowest point total of the season, and 23 points under their average. They also outrebounded the Paladins 38-30, handing them their first back-to-back losses in league play in two years. Damari Monsanto led the way with 22 points for the Buccaneers. The win keeps ETSU in the thick of the title race in the SoCon, sitting in second place and just a half game behind Wofford, another surprise in the league this season.

Mid-Major Top Performers

Kessler Edwards of Pepperdine scored a career-high 37 points in a victory over Pacific on Thursday. That performance also pushed Edwards over the 1,000 point plateau for his career. He shot 11-18 from the field, including a career-best six made threes. He also had 11 rebounds, and his effort helped the Waves earn their first victory over the Tigers in almost four years.

Marcus Burk of IUPUI scored 34 points in a loss to Wright State on Saturday. This was Burk’s highest output of the season, and his fifth career game of at least 30 points scored. He shot 13-20 on the day and scored 14 of the Jaguars’ first 18 points in the game. Burk is now averaging 24 points over his past four games.

Marcus Fitzgerald of Tennessee State scored a career-high 32 points in a loss to SIU-Edwardsville on Thursday. He is the first Tiger to score at least 30 points in game in over two years. The freshman was starting his first game at the point guard slot, and added six rebounds and three steals to go along with his point total.

Tavin Lovan of UAB scored a career-high 32 points in a win over Rice on Saturday. Lovan also led the game with 11 rebounds. He shot 13-22 for the game, with the 13 made field-goals also a career-high. Lovan’s 32 points scored were the most by a Blazer in a game since November of 2013.

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