Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.