Some teams did well during Feast Week. Others got a trip to a nice, warm part of the world. Even others had to endure very strange day-of-game accommodations. Hey, some may have been especially lucky and gotten all three.
Here are seven mid-major teams that should leave the holiday week with lifted spirits about what their performances mean going forward.
Duh. The Zags made the national statement few that follow them closely were surprised about. Now the only question is whether they could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, which Chris explored in detail last week.
The Rockets won a Gulf Coast Showcase stocked with quality mid-majors, beating FGCU, Louisiana and UC Irvine en route to the title. Jaelen Sanford has been one of the MAC’s best players thus far, and was able to do enough (18 points, 6 rebounds) against a stingy Anteaters’ defense in the championship game.
With Eastern Michigan sagging, Toledo looks like the most formidable competition for Ball State in the West Division to this point. The Rockets only truly difficult test before league play starts is a trip to Marshall on Dec. 8.
Victories over UAB and Memphis sound like a ticket to the at-large conversation if this were 2009. Charleston didn’t get that type of cachet knocking off the pair at the AdvoCare Invitational, but it was still two solid wins that led to a fifth place finish. Grant Riller averaged 32.5 points per game in the two wins, and is right there with Justin Wright-Foreman and Devontae Cacok in a fascinating (and still early!) CAA POY race.
The exempt event was Charleston’s main litmus test before league play, but the Cougars do travel to VCU on Dec. 15 in a matchup of defenses that are playing well at the moment.
It was a 1-2 trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis for the Flyers, who were a few years late to getting a chance to make a truly big splash at the event. However, Dayton should walk away encouraged. The Flyers got an impressive win over Butler in the opener, with Josh Cunningham (18 points, 8 rebounds) arguably the best player on the floor. If healthy, he’ll be that type of X-factor for a wild card team in the murky A-10.
Dayton exited the Bahamas with competitive losses to Virginia and Oklahoma. But the Butler win was a high point — perhaps for the A-10 thus far this season — and sophomore guard Jalen Crutcher (15 PPG, 5.3 APG over the three games) had a productive tournament as he continues to emerge as a reliable option for Anthony Grant.
The Bulldogs entered the Wooden Legacy having played just two games: a win over a non-Division I school and a somewhat competitive loss at TCU. They’d add three more in Fullerton, which included wins over Northwestern and Hawai’i, and a two-point loss to Miami. That added some significant heft to the early season resume, especially the top-50 KenPom win they bagged over the Wildcats.
Thus far, Justin Hutson’s version of the Bulldogs are shooting more threes than they ever did under Rodney Terry. That’s fit well with New Mexico State transfer Braxton Huggins, who’s shooting 50.0 percent from deep and has made up an exciting back court with senior Deshon Taylor.
The Redbirds salvaged an uninspiring start to the season by winning their final two games of the Cayman Islands Classic against Akron and Boise State. Those wins won’t generate the at-large buzz many thought this Illinois State was capable of, but they were solid (and stabilizing) nonetheless.
The Redbirds have a golden opportunity to put the pedal down on that momentum with home games against BYU and San Diego State over the next week.
This season is a last stand for a group of seniors (Tookie Brown, Ike Smith, Montae Glenn) that have won a lot of games, but not brought home any hardware. That last stand is off to a good start, as the Eagles won the Bahamas Showcase, knocking off a good Montana team in the championship.
Brown, the tournament MVP, carried Georgia Southern in the title game with 22 points and some important free throws as the Eagles fought through a second-half drought. He’s seemingly eschewed the three-point shot thus far this season in favor of attacking the basket, as he attempted just six long distances shots against 27 free throw attempts in the Bahamas. Regardess of how he gets his points, the Eagles will need him to continue to shine if they’re to challenge rival Georgia State for the top of the Sun Belt.