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The Watch: Mid-majors rise up, and a national title rematch looms

Yeah, the Gavitt Games yield intriguing pairings, including a national title game rematch. Yet the real intrigue rests in a slew of meetings between quality mid-major programs.

NCAA Basketball: Buffalo at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, I put out an alert: No. 13 West Virginia needed to watch its flank with Buffalo, the preseason favorite in the Mid-American Conference, arriving in Morgantown.

On Friday night, the Bulls, made me look prophetic, toppling the Mountaineers in overtime after CJ Massinburg poured in 43 points — dealing the program its first season-opening loss since 1988.

The mid-major revolt popped up elsewhere, including the SEC. In College Station, UC-Irvine, a top-100 KenPom squad and a contender in the Big West, picked off a withered Texas A&M, snatching the upset on Eyassu Worku’s floater with 6.4 seconds left. Meanwhile, in the other Columbia, Stony Brook stunned South Carolina, an offensively-anemic roster that struggled once star Chris Silva went to the bench for the final 10 minutes saddled with foul trouble.

Oh, and earlier in the week, Texas Southern waltzed into Baylor and clipped the Bears.

While some analysts put out banal slogans in the wake of these results, they’re at the core of the sport’s appeal. Aside from Stony Brook, the mid-major upstarts who won last week are likely to be in the mix for bids come March, and Buffalo could see its seed line get a booster shot.

No, college basketball isn’t a perfect model of egalitarian perfection — high-majors are increasing walling off mid-majors in scheduling — but it is one where the middle class is given a seat at the table. Each spring, a third of the NCAA tournament field is occupied by programs you never hear off until they’re labeled a Cinderella and Nate Oats is in the mix for Big Ten gigs.

This week, I’d encourage you to go off the grid. Pick a couple of mid-major clashes from the list below and see the programs that make up the soul of the sport. Aside from the Gavitt Tipoff Games and a national title game rematch, the schedule is light on high-major fare. What better time to try a new dish that just might surprise you?


THE CAN'T-MISS

We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Michigan vs Villanova Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

No. 18 Michigan at No. 8 Villanova | 5:30 p.m. CT Wednesday, FS1

Let’s look at a list of the departed: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Dominic DiVincenzo, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson.

Roster churn is normal, but the Wolverines and Wildcats each ranked near the bottom of bench minutes nationally last season. This is a rematch with a substantial change in cast, with those returning — Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews — getting more screen time. Meantime, the new additions — Villanova guard Joe Cremo, by way of Albany, and Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikas — are still settling in.

In Philadelphia, coach Jay Wright, reputation burnished by two national titles, is now recruiting at the level we’re accustomed to seeing from blue bloods.

He’s replacing Brunson with Jahvon Quinerly, a McDonald’s All-American who can make plays with either hand, understands the nuances of ball screens and a great floater. (Sounds familiar, right?) Cole Swider is 6-foot-7 and the best shooter in the class of 2018, while Brandon Slater and Saddiq Bey — long, rangy athletes capable of slashing and smoothly switching on the defensive end — round out the top-10 class.

Michigan’s John Beilein wasn’t far behind with the No. 12 group, per 247, headlined by Brazdeikas, who is stretch forward at home on the perimeter and looking to attack off the dribble. Brandon Johns is a modern combo forward who can toggle between the three and four spots, playing on the block but also with range out to the 3-point arc. David DeJulius is a scoring point who leans on 3-point shooting and a dogged defender. Finally, Colin Castleton figures to be a natural replacement for Wagner.

By now, you know Beilein and Wright are two of the best offensive coaches in the game, with Beilein running read-and-react scheme and Wright operating his version of the four-out. You’re going to see high-level spacing, ball-movement and players seamlessly swapping positions. But how will it look with so much youth on the floor and this early in the season?

To a degree, Wright’s roster is likely a smidge more seasoned. Adding Cremo, the best graduate-transfer on the market, to go with a pair of stalwarts in Paschall and Booth gives Nova the kind of experience that could tip the balance, while Quinerly and Snider — top-50 talents — are plug-and-play options.

The talent is younger, but the benches are deeper for this clash — and the schematic masterminds moving around those pieces make this one worth watching.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

Don’t look now, but the SEC is among the deepest conferences in the country. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis at No. 22 LSU | 6 p.m. CT Thursday, ESPNU

The SEC could surely go for a nice win right now.

Last week, Duke pole-axed Kentucky, and then muddled through against Southern Illinois. Florida State smacked around Florida. Texas — and Courtney Ramey — nipped Arkansas at the horn. And Missouri fumbled and stumbled around in Ames against Iowa State.

That’s not including the pair of mid-major upsets endured by the Aggies and Gamecocks.

Aside from Auburn shellacking Washington, the conference’s first impression in marquee games didn’t align with preseason plaudits.

That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities to atone this week. Texas A&M faces No. 3 Gonzaga and Minnesota. South Carolina draws Providence. Ole Miss heads to Hinkle Fieldhouse to square off against Butler. And Arkansas will be graced with Romeo Langford’s tour as Indiana arrives in Fayetteville.

Yet all of those programs are projected to finish near the bottom of the SEC table. Maybe South Carolina or Texas A&M right the ship, but neither of those wins is likely to move the needle.

Then there’s LSU hosting Memphis, which mimicked Missouri’s move by hiring a coach — Penny Hardaway — with deep local ties and the ability to quickly infuse the roster with surrounding talent.

Outside of warm profiles, a big paycheck, boosted Foamposite sales and early recruiting wins, Hardaway’s program is still a year away from having the talent to align with fans’ hopes in the Bluff City. But the buzz he’s created injects some interest in a trip to Baton Rouge, where Will Wade’s bunch is coming off a quality win over UNC-Greensboro on Friday.

If you read Sam Snelling’s preview, you know LSU and Tremont Waters have a veteran backcourt that can be optimally paired with a trio of freshman frontcourt pieces in Naz Reid, Darius Days and Emmitt Williams. So far, the Tigers’ look to be as advertised offensively, with Reid pouring 29 points his second on the floor.

The season is still in its infancy, but LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee each appear to be in fighting shape. (We’ll see how soon Kentucky’s malaise wears off.) But Wade’s crew again seems to be struggling with defending consistently, sitting at 115th in adjusted efficiency. While Memphis may not entirely be in a state people soon expect, a stingy and swift beating of Hardaway’s alma mater might send a signal that expectations for the top of the SEC standings aren’t misplaced.


THE DEEP CUT

At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-North Carolina vs Lipscomb Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Belmont at Lipscomb | 6:30 p.m. CT Thursday, ESPN+

Two of the nation’s most consistent mid-majors are separated by a mere 1.9 miles in Nashville.

The Music City is an underrated hoops hotbed, with Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and these programs all in the same vicinity, but you’re unlikely to hear much about it.

At Belmont, Rick Byrd’s been a stalwart, with his program just missing out on a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament last season. As always, the Bears are going to launch scores of 3-pointers and over the past decade have never rated lower than 41st nationally in the percentage of their offense derived from 3-balls. Guards Dylan Windler (42 3FG%) and Nick Hopkins (39 3 FG%) are back in the fold, too. However, the Bears don’t tout a ton of depth.

Lipscomb, however, won’t be short-handed and is coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament bid. Garrison Matthews (21.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is back and brings with him a refined ability to score at the rim, and joined by Rob Marberry (15.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) up front. Meanwhile, guard Kenny Cooper powers the backcourt for a lineup that returns its top six scorers.

Belmont’s offense puts a premium on ball movement and shooting, but it’s short on experience. While 3-point shooting is the game’s great equalizer, Byrd’s roster lacks the interior depth to slow Matthews and Marberry, and even if they do, Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander knows he can get reliable production from other spots in his rotation — enough to tip the scales the Bisons’ way.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 match-ups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other games that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Nov. 12 to Nov. 18

Date Time Matchup TV Thrill Score
Date Time Matchup TV Thrill Score
Nov. 12 6 p.m. Stanford at No. 7 North Carolina ESPN2 30.1
Nov. 12 7 p.m. No. 25 Buffalo at Southern Illinois ESPN+ 58.3
Nov. 12 8 p.m. Utah at Minnesota BTN 51
Nov. 13 5:30 p.m. Wisconsin at Xavier FS1 67.4
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Memphis at No. 22 LSU SECN 39.6
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Stephen F. Austin at Miami ESPNU 26.4
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Georgia at Temple ESPN3 46.3
Nov. 14 5:30 p.m. No. 18 Michigan at No. 8 Villanova FS1 60.7
Nov. 14 6:30 p.m. Seton Hall at Nebraska BTN 60.6
Nov. 14 7:30 p.m. No. 24 Marquette at Indiana FS1 69.2
Nov. 15 1 p.m. Alabama vs. Northeastern ESPNU 57.4
Nov. 15 6 p.m. Ohio State at Creighton FS1 64.5
Nov. 15 6 p.m. No. 15 Syracause at Uconn ESPN 40.2
Nov. 15 6:30 p.m. Belmont at Lipscomb ESPN+ 49.5
Nov. 15 8 p.m. No. 13 Oregon vs. Iowa ESPN2 71.2
Nov. 15 10:30 p.m. Texas A&M at No. 3 Gonzaga ESPN2 40.5
Nov. 16 6 p.m. St. John's at Rutgers BTN 52.1
Nov. 16 6 p.m. Vermont at Louisville ACCN 37.7
Nov. 16 7 p.m. Ole Miss at Butler FS2 41.9
Nov. 17 1:30 p.m. South Carolina vs. Providence ESPN3 62
Nov. 17 5 p.m. New Mexico State at New Mexico ATT 49.6
Nov. 17 7 p.m. Saint Louis at Seton Hall FS2 48.8
Nov. 18 2:30 p.m. Indiana at Arkansas ESPN 68.4
Nov. 18 9:30 p.m. Texas A&M at Minnesota ESPN2 62.8
KenPom

The Replay