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Mid-major games to watch for Saturday, Dec. 9

In-state tilt in Massachusetts, a new kind of holy war game, can Penn down Kentucky? Saturday’s slate is loaded

UMass Lowell is off to a 6-2 start and takes on UMass on Saturday.
UMass Lowell Athletics

After the long trudge in the shadow of the wealthy brother known as football, college basketball finally takes center stage on Saturdays with the best slate of the year to this point.

For many college basketball fans, the slate is highlighted by a plethora of marquee high-major matchups and a few massive rivalries. But the slate is deep for teams in the other 26 leagues. Plenty of mid-major teams have chances to prove themselves.

Last year, the first Saturday after college football season brought us such gifts as Zeke Mayo’s game-winner against a good Eastern Washington team, Vermont surviving on the road at Colgate and a wild overtime game between Middle Tennessee and Belmont. What does this year have in store?

Let’s take a look.

All times are listed as eastern.

UMass Lowell at UMass, noon, ESPN+/NESN+: UMass Lowell is an emerging program, and its first-ever win over the Amherst outpost last year was a mark of the Riverhawks’ progress. Led by Ayinde Hikim, who scored 23 points in last year’s meeting, Lowell seeks to take control of the rivalry with the so-called flagship program of the state. For UMass, Frank Martin’s squad looks to avoid back-to-back losses entering a tough stretch with two high-major opponents next on the docket.

Kentucky vs. Penn, noon, ESPN2: Penn has lost four games, and two of them came on buzzer beaters in overtime. The Quakers return to Wells Fargo Center for the second time in two Saturdays to face off against a Kentucky team that was upset by UNC Wilmington last week. It’s the Wildcats’ first game in the city of their opponent. With a roster loaded with freshmen, that could pose some challenges. Penn freshman Tyler Perkins takes the stage on national television for the first time in his career. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game so far.

Grand Canyon at Liberty, 2 p.m., ESPNU: Fresh off a court-storming win over San Diego State, Grand Canyon takes the show on the road to Lynchburg, Va., to face Liberty. The two schools are a combined 14-3 this season, and both have the talent to be in at-large consideration come March, and a win Saturday would certainly boost their resumes.

Colgate at Vermont, 2 p.m., ESPN+: Two of the premiere mid-major programs of the northeast, Colgate and Vermont have turned their matchup into a yearly series. The Catamounts have won each of the first two meetings and are favored to do so again. The Raiders haven’t quite hit their offensive stride yet, but there’s no better place to start than Burlington, Vt.

Cleveland State at Kent State, 2 p.m., ESPN+: Kent State looks to follow up a big road win against South Dakota State by taking care of business against local rival Cleveland State. However, stopping Tristan Enaruna is much easier said than done. The former Iowa State and Kansas forward leads the Vikings in points (16.6), rebounds (6.6), assists (2.9), steals (1.4) and blocks (1.3).

Louisiana at Louisiana Tech, 3 p.m., ESPN+: Louisiana Tech’s 7-2 start has flown under the radar this season. The Bulldogs sit at 86th in KenPom after a road win against Stephen F. Austin and boast the nation's fifth-best effective field goal percentage defense. The Ragin’ Cajuns were the only program in the state to make the NCAA Tournament last year and sit at 5-3 entering Saturday’s matchup.

UNC Asheville at Western Carolina, 4 p.m., ESPN+: Western Carolina’s Vonterius Woolbright might be the best player in college basketball that most fans have never heard of. He’s averaging 22.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for the Catamounts while leading the team to a 6-2 start. WCU needs a bounce-back performance after a blowout loss to High Point, but Drew Pember and UNC Asheville will make them work for it.

Santa Clara vs. New Mexico, 5 p.m., BallerTV ($): Former MAAC stars Jalen Benjamin and Nelly Junior Joseph do battle at the Jack Jones Classic in Las Vegas. New Mexico is building an at-large resume behind the emergence of sophomore guard Donovan Dent in an already stacked backcourt. The Lobos have won 21 of 22 non-conference tilts over the last two seasons. Santa Clara already has two wins against Pac-12 opponents and has the firepower to compete with just about anybody in mid-major basketball. Even with the $20 price attached to streaming the game, the matchup is a can’t miss affair.

Saint Mary’s at Colorado State, 6:30 p.m., CBSSN: Despite the 4-5 record, you’d be a fool to write off Randy Bennett and Saint Mary’s at this point in the season. Colorado State boasts the nation’s longest winning streak, but nothing is guaranteed against the Gaels. The matchup between Aidan Mahaney and Isaiah Stevens is as good as it gets across the college basketball landscape. While Saint Mary’s resume has taken a hit with its early season losses, a victory in Fort Collins would do wonders for the Gaels’ at-large hopes.

Drake vs. Nevada, 7:30 p.m., BallerTV ($): Part of the same $20 Vegas bundle as the Santa Clara-New Mexico game, Drake-Nevada is another highly-touted mid-major matchup. The Wolf Pack are among the many teams in the Mountain West building an at-large resume. The Bulldogs sit at 8-1 with two wins already in the stacked Missouri Valley. This is another potential swing game for the committee as it may end up being Drake’s only opportunity all season for a quadrant one victory.

UC Irvine at San Diego State, 10:30 p.m., FS1: Brian Dutcher’s Aztecs need a bounce-back performance after falling on the road to Grand Canyon, but UC Irvine is a tall task in itself. The Anteaters are 6-3 with wins over USC and Toledo on the resume. They also pushed Duquesne to the brink in Pittsburgh. San Diego State’s rather thin bench may be tested as UC Irvine has one of the deepest units in the country.

Other mid-major games to keep an eye on:

Troy at Dayton, 12:30 p.m., USA Network

Northern Iowa at Toledo, 2 p.m., ESPN+

Hofstra at Saint Louis, 3 p.m., ESPN+

UAB at Arkansas State, 3:30 p.m. ESPN+

Stephen F. Austin at Wyoming, 4 p.m., Mountain West Network

Fairfield at Sacred Heart, 6 p.m., NEC Front Row

Eastern Washington at Air Force, 6 p.m., Mountain West Network

James Madison at Old Dominion, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Belmont at Middle Tennessee, 8:30 p.m., CBSSN

Loyola Marymount vs. UNLV, 10 p.m., BallerTV ($)

BONUS: Appetizer

Friday night’s slate is fairly weak, but that doesn’t mean there are no good games to watch before that busy Saturday.

UIC-Jacksonville State is a fun game, and Saint Peter’s looks to pick up another road win at Duquesne. Both of those games tip off at 7 p.m.

And If you’re a sicko who wants to scout some future mid-major (or maybe even high-major) Division I stars, there’s a pair of elite junior college matchups on Friday night.

Salt Lake, the top-ranked team in the Massey Ratings, takes on Trinidad State (10-3) at 7:30 p.m.

Also, Lebron Thomas and Vincennes (10-0) meets Indian Hills and star Trevion LaBeaux at 8 p.m. Both teams are ranked in the top 15 of the NJCAA rankings.