In a year full of uncertainty, hopefully basketball can bring us back to some sort of normalcy. With the season already underway, let’s look ahead to key matchups in every single mid-major conference in the NCAA.
(Sorted in alphabetical order by conference, all games tentative due to COVID-19)
Feb. 27-28: Vermont at UMBC
This is a possible regular season conference championship game here. Vermont was picked to finish first in the conference, but not far behind them was the team that beat Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, better known as UMBC. The fourth-place finishers last year are looking to reclaim their spot at the top of the conference and playing well against Vermont is key. The Catamounts come into this having won four straight regular season championships, and look strong enough to have a shot at a fifth. The America East is going with doubleheader-style scheduling this season, and that’ll benefit the Retrievers for this one, as they host both games.
Jan. 1-2: Lipscomb at Liberty
Lipscomb doesn’t get much of a warmup to start ASUN play. Perhaps the two most important games on the entire conference slate happen right off the bat when the Bisons visit Liberty. A rematch of the ASUN title game last season, these two teams split their pair of regular season matchups, with the home team winning both games. Lipscomb will be looking for revenge after a real beatdown by the Flames in the conference championship game last season. A road win for the Bisons could propel them to an ASUN title.
Feb. 5: Richmond at Dayton
Unseating a seemingly unbeatable foe is the task for Richmond in this game. Dayton went 18-0 in conference play last season, on the way to the A-10 regular season championship. The Flyers go into 2020 and the post-Obi Toppin era with something to prove. Not often does the undefeated, reigning conference champion not get picked first in the preseason polls, but the Flyers didn’t even get picked second. That could be all the motivation this Dayton team needs to help themselves to another league title. Richmond will have something to say about that. Following a second-place finish in the league, the Spiders return preseason first team guard Jacob Gilyard, and will need his scoring to come up big for a shot at overtaking Dayton.
Dec. 31-Jan. 1: Northern Colorado at Montana
With the Big Sky playing doubleheaders every weekend in conference play, it really sucks that these two teams see each other so early in the season. Both squads return the majority of their team from Northern Colorado’s first-place finish and Montana’s second place finish in the conference last year. Northern Colorado will be playing at a disadvantage, having to be on the road for both of these games against the Griz, but that’s just one of the many oddities of 2020 that teams will have to deal with. Both these teams should be in the race for the top of the Big Sky, and this twin bill will get it all started.
Feb. 11-12: Winthrop at Radford
The two best teams in the Big South from last year will play each other in mid-February. The two squads finished tied atop the conference at 15-3 in 2019-20 and Winthrop should be the favorite this time around. They meet at Radford with only two weekends left in the conference schedule. The trip to Radford went well for Winthrop last year, as the Eagles stole a win.
Jan. 1-2: UC Irvine at Cal State Northridge
I just took a look at UC Irvine’s schedule, and wow. After a conference title last year, the Anteaters play the rest of last year’s top five, almost in order, once they hit conference play. This doubleheader will show if CSUN is really ready to show up and compete for the Big West championship, it gets home court advantage for both games. These teams split their matchups last season, but the visitors prevailed in both ballgames. There would be no better way to kick off 2021 for either of these teams than a pair of wins over a conference frontrunner.
Colonial Athletic Association
Jan. 16-17: Hofstra at Delaware
Another conference doing doubleheader style scheduling is the Colonial. The Blue Hens of Delaware are returning almost everyone, their top five scorers from last year and the majority of their bench. Delaware will be put to the test in only the third weekend of conference play when they host Hofstra. The Pride secured their first NCAA tournament bid since 2001, and are looking to finally make the actual trip to the tournament this year. With both games being played in Newark, Delaware needs to use any advantages they can get to try to knock off the Pride. A sweep could put either team on a fast track to a CAA title.
Feb. 19-20: Western Kentucky at North Texas
The CUSA was a super competitive conference last season, UNT, WKU and Louisiana Tech all jockeyed for the top spot, with North Texas eventually prevailing. LTU does play both of these teams, but the true key game in this conference is when Western Kentucky travels to Denton to take on the Mean Green. These teams split their matchups last year, including a key OT win for North Texas late in the season to help them win the conference. Both teams are returning a majority of their players from last year, including each of their top three scorers. The CUSA could run through Denton, and these two games are huge in the fight for back to back conference titles for North Texas.
Jan. 29-30: Robert Morris at Wright State
A big gut-check game for one of the newest members of the Horizon League in the Robert Morris Colonials. Going up against the top team in the conference isn’t easy for anyone, but going there and playing two games on consecutive days is even worse. The Wright State Raiders don’t back down to anyone in the conference, and they definitely won’t back down to the newest team in the conference coming on their home court. Robert Morris comes to the Horizon League off a good final season in the NEC, racking up a 13-5 record in conference, although in a noticeably weaker conference. They’ll have to rely on Horizon League preseason second team guard A.J. Brahma if they want to pass their first true test in the new conference.
Jan. 22-23: Saint Peter’s at Siena
The Saint Peter’s Peacocks were second in the conference last season, right behind the other team in this game, the Siena Saints. Both teams are returning many pieces from their top two teams last season, so they should both be at the top of the MAAC once again. The Peacocks need to be road warriors if they want to take the catbird’s seat in the Metro Atlantic.
Feb. 27: Bowling Green at Akron
The MAC was wide open last season with five teams finishing within three games of each other. The Zips were able to find their way atop the conference and get the top seed in Cleveland but the never played a game there. The closest competition to Akron was Bowling Green, and that’ll stay the same this year. Both teams return the majority of their top players from last year’s teams, including the MAC Player of the Year in Loren Christian- Jackson for Akron, and all MAC first teamer Justin Turner for Bowling Green. This is the second meeting between these two teams, with the first one coming mid January in Bowling Green. With only two conference games left for each team after this one, the outcome of this game will be imperative for who comes out on top of the MAC as regular season champions.
March 4: North Carolina A&T at North Carolina Central
It feels like the MEAC set this one up to be a regular season championship game. The last day of conference play, the top two teams in the conference; it really couldn’t work out any better for drama in the MEAC. The MEAC has a different scheduling format from the rest of the country, and the fans really reap the benefits of it, with these two teams playing four times over the season. They split their matchups last year, with the home team taking each game. The Aggies are looking for their first conference championship and NCAA tournament berth since 2013, and any win over their rivals from Durham would help.
Feb. 27: Northern Iowa at Loyola Chicago
Another big last day of the season matchup here coming out of the Missouri Valley. After finishing first and second in the conference last season, these two teams will be out for blood against each other once again, and it all culminates in Chicago in late February. After winning the regular season conference championship, but getting upset in the first round of the MVC tournament, Northern Iowa will be looking for revenge. These two teams split their games last season, with the home team winning both. The Ramblers were undefeated at home during conference play last season, and will need to use that home court advantage in this potential deciding game in the conference. If both teams perform how as expected in the regular season, they’re setting up to be on a collision course.
Dec. 31-Jan. 2: San Diego State at UNLV
Originally the key game was the Rebels’ trip to San Diego, but with the MWC changing the schedule, here we are. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like it would really be a huge game in the MWC, but it’ll hold more ground in the race for the conference than any other. UNLV finished fourth in the conference last season, but they return almost everybody. Only one of their top seven scorers from last season graduated, and the Runnin’ Rebels were the only team to beat San Diego State in the regular season last year. The Aztecs will be looking for revenge in the Mountain West this year, specifically avenging this loss they took to UNLV in the regular season. The Aztecs are at more of a disadvantage now, with the rescheduling putting both of these games in Las Vegas. San Diego State will be trying to make up for a Mountain West championship game loss suffered to Utah State last year, and opening up the regular season with big wins would help their cause.
Dec. 15-16: Fairleigh Dickinson at St. Francis (PA)
The Northeast Conference is a hard conference to look back on from last year and pick out an important game with postseason implications. The regular season conference champion, Merrimack, still isn’t eligible for postseason play until 2024, last year’s second place team isn’t in the conference anymore. We go down to third in last year’s standings to finally find a team that’ll fight for the top spot again this year, and that’s St. Francis. A 13-5 conference record last season, the Red Flash will be ready to go this year, and will look to take a commanding lead early in the season when they host Fairleigh Dickinson. The Knights come in off a middle of the pack finish in the NEC at 9-9, but will be returning the majority of their team, and were picked first in the NEC preseason poll. The road to a NEC championship could run through either of these teams, and these matchups in Loretto will play a big role in who takes control.
Dec. 8: Austin Peay at Murray State
This is the opening game of conference play in the Ohio Valley, and it’s a big one. Murray State finished last season in second place in the regular season standings, and a Belmont backdoor cut away from the tournament championship in the OVC as well. They’ll look to overtake the Bruins, and that all starts in the opening game of the conference season against a top tier Austin Peay team. The Governors finished 14-4 in the conference last season, coming in third behind Murray State and Belmont. They return a top player in mid-major basketball in Terry Taylor, he’ll need to be big for the Governors all season, and it’ll start right off the top. This won’t be the last time these two teams square off, as they play just 13 days after this game at Austin Peay. Those two games, and this one especially will play a big role in the outlook of the Ohio Valley early in the season, a sweep for either team could clear the path to a regular season championship and a top seed in Evansville come March.
Feb. 6-7: Boston at Colgate
With the Patriot League not playing nonconference games, it’ll be tough to see how these teams really are early in the season. The Terriers take a trip to Hamilton to face off against Colgate in the latter half of conference play. This won’t be the first time these two teams see each other, as they match up in Boston in just the second week of each team’s season. The Raiders return three of five starters from last season, and should be in the driver’s seat to repeat. Boston will be looking to take the crown from Colgate after finishing right behind them in a tie for second place with American, whom they will not see in the regular season. The Terriers return four starters from a season ago, and the majority of their scoring. Boston dropped both regular season games against the Raiders last year, but got them when it counted, and beat Colgate in the Patriot League championship game.
Jan. 23: Furman at East Tennessee State
Finally straying away from that Feb. 27 date, here’s a top-tier midseason matchup in the Southern Conference. These teams, like many others mentioned, finished atop the conference last season, with the Buccaneers from East Tennessee coming out as champions. They split the games last season, with the home team winning each time. The Paladins are looking to reclaim the top spot in the SoCon, and with returning four starters, and the majority of their points from last season, that’s a real possibility. The Bucs are coming off the first ever 30-win season in school history, and with no NCAA Tournament, they want another chance to show the country what they can do.
March 3: Abilene Christian at Stephen F. Austin
The Southland wasn’t really a competition last year. Stephen F. Austin won the conference, and won it easily finishing off with a 19-1 record in conference play. Coming into this season, the Lumberjacks will be ready to repeat, they return the majority of their scoring, and will be led by preseason first team all Southland player in Gavin Kensmil. Their closest competition this season will be the Abilene Christian Wildcats. The Wildcats went 15-5 in conference last season, good enough to tie for second place in the conference. The Wildcats will be looking for revenge after dropping both games to the ‘Jacks last season, and a win on their home floor would be huge for their Southland championship chances.
Jan. 2: Prairie View A&M at Southern
This game looks really important at first, pitting last year’s top dog against the second-place team in the SWAC. But once you get past that, it’s important in more ways than just that. Prairie View A&M is coming in after a great season and a SWAC title, but this game will be a gut check to see if the Panthers can continue their dominance. They’re losing over half of their scoring from last year, they’ll need to see who can come in and play those scoring roles, and who better to do it against than another top team in Southern. On the contrary, Southern is returning most of their scoring from a season in which they finished only one game behind the Panthers and ended the season by winning eight straight ball games.
Feb. 19-20: South Dakota State at North Dakota State
Two states run the Summit League, and they’ll likely do it again this season. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits have won a share of the regular-season conference championship three years in a row and they look to continue on that path this year. They’ll be led by the preseason Summit League player of the year Douglas Wilson. They finished tied in first in the league last year with the North Dakota State Bisons, who’ll be fighting for the top spot with the Jackrabbits once again this season. North Dakota State is coming off one of their best seasons in school history, finishing tied for the top of the conference, and winning the Summit League tournament championship. Home court advantage for the Bisons will be key, as they beat the Jackrabbits in Fargo last season in overtime.
Jan. 15-16: Appalachian State at South Alabama
The Sun Belt looks like Little Rock’s conference to lose, and as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t put the Trojans in the key game with the schedule they’re playing. The Sun Belt is only having the teams play in their division, and the eastern division is the stronger of the two in the Sun Belt. An up-and-coming Appalachian State team will travel to Mobile to play South Alabama, the No. 2 team in the conference last season. The Mountaineers were on the upside in Dustin Kerns’ first year at the helm in Boone, and they look to continue that trend into 2021. The trip into Mobile will be tough, and South Alabama is going to be ready. The Jaguars finished second in the conference last season, and now with the conference split into two, and Little Rock on the other side of the conference, they have even more to play for and an east division title at stake.
Feb. 27: BYU at Gonzaga
Feb. 27 is looking like it will be a huge day of basketball, the last day of conference play for some, and preseason one vs two matchups in multiple leagues as well, including this one right here. BYU was picked to finish second in the WCC this season, following a huge finish to last. The Cougars look to come back and try to top the conference for the first time since joining in 2012, and the first time a team not named Gonzaga since St. Mary’s the same seaosn. The Bulldogs will have a say in that though, projected to be a top seed in the NCAA tournament come March, the regular season finale could just be a game to get ready for the postseason, and already have their ninth straight WCC regular season championship.
Jan. 22-23: UT Rio Grande Valley at New Mexico State
We don’t really know where this game is going to be played. The state of New Mexico isn’t allowing teams to play in the state, so the Aggies are currently homeless and in Arizona for now. The homelessness won’t deter New Mexico State from going out to defend their WAC championship and undefeated record in the conference from last season. The Aggies have three players on the preseason all WAC team, headlined by preseason player of the year Jabari Rice. Challenging them in the conference is last year’s third place finisher in UT Rio Grande Valley. The Vaqueros were 9-7 in the conference last season, and were picked to finish third once again in the conference this season. They dropped both games to the Aggies last season, but played them close in Edinburg.