ESPN+ Week 16 guide: Mid-majors in the spotlight

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Between the No. 1 team in the country, a massive juggernaut in Kansas and a stingy West Virginia group, ESPN+ was filled with some enormous showdowns last week. ESPN’s streaming service will scale down the Power 5 action over the next seven days, but this is a perfect chance to get a good read on some high-quality mid-majors before Champ Week begins.

On the slate is an intriguing battle in the Southern Conference, three Atlantic 10 matchups and a clash of styles in the Atlantic Sun.

1. Furman Paladins at East Tennessee State Buccaneers (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)

It doesn’t get any better than this in mid-major hoops as two of the top three teams in the Southern Conference clash in what could go a long way toward deciding the regular-season crown.

Furman is led by senior guard Jordan Lyons (17 PPG), but Noah Gurley, Clay Mounce and Jalen Slawson have all made massive jumps this season to provide the balance and depth necessary to challenge ETSU and UNC Greensboro.

Meanwhile, East Tennessee State seeks payback for its January loss to Furman. The Bucs must get Tray Boyd III going if they want to pull out a victory, especially with third-leading scorer Jeromy Rodriguez battling an injury. Beyond Boyd’s 30-point outing in February, he has struggled in ETSU’s biggest games this season, including a 2-for-10 performance the last time the Bucs dueled the Paladins.

2. George Mason Patriots at Richmond Spiders (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)

Though George Mason has just a 3-9 record in Atlantic 10 play, it took advantage of a banged-up Marcus Evans to stun VCU on the road last week. With guard Jordan Miller playing better offensively to compliment Javon Greene, and AJ Wilson putting forth monster stat lines lately, the Patriots should not be taken lightly.

Richmond certainly increased its chances of earning an at-large bid with its win over VCU last week, but if the Spiders want to remain in the conversation for an NCAA tournament berth, they can ill afford to lose to a program that’s in 11th place.

Expect Blake Francis, Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden — who had two excellent games last week — to dominate, even if this clash is closer than many would expect.

3. Northern Iowa Panthers at Indiana State Sycamores (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)

Even after a loss to Loyola Chicago over the weekend, Northern Iowa remains the best team in the MVC and an elite mid-major with the potential to wreak havoc in March. Indiana State is no slouch, though, as the Sycamores have beaten North Dakota State, Wright State, Bradley and Loyola Chicago this season.

The Sycamores don’t have much scoring beyond Tyreke Key and Jordan Barnes, but the former is averaging 16.6 points and the latter is capable of popping off for 25 at any time.

If Northern Iowa can outclass its opponent on the glass similar to the first game they played earlier this season, and shoot better than 20% from 3, coach Ben Jacobson’s unit can avoid what would be its second straight road loss.

4. Princeton Tigers at Harvard Crimson (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)

Coming into the season, the biggest concern for Harvard was its injury issues. Between Seth Towns‘ absence before his departure from the program and Bryce Aiken playing in only seven games, the Crimson have vastly underachieved with three losses already in Ivy League play. Tommy Amaker’s bunch has plenty of skill, but the Crimson don’t have a true go-to scorer and a player they can rely on in clutch situations without Aiken.

Meanwhile, Princeton had a 3-8 record in mid-December and looked to be a bottom-of-the-barrel team in the conference. Instead, the Tigers have ripped off wins in eight of 10 games since then and have had six different players lead them in scoring during that span.

This game will test Harvard’s resolve, while Princeton needs to continue to keep pace with Yale for first place.

5. North Florida Ospreys at Liberty Flames (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)

In late January, North Florida stunned Liberty behind Ivan Gandia-Rosa‘s 19 points. Since then, the Ospreys have won six of seven and created an unexpected neck-and-neck competition with Liberty atop the Atlantic Sun standings.

This game isn’t just for the Flames to get revenge, it’s also a battle for first and could ultimately decide the league title.

Similar to the first meeting, this duel probably will be decided by tempo. North Florida relies heavily on its 37th-ranked scoring offense, and Liberty likes to muck it up and keep the game in the 50s.

6. Saint Louis Billikens at UMass Minutemen (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)

Saint Louis has disappointed many as a middle-of-the-pack unit in the Atlantic 10, but the main reason to tune in for this one is Massachusetts’ Tre Mitchell.

The 6-foot-9 center has really started to hit his stride late in conference play as he dropped 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting in a tight loss to Rhode Island, and put up 25, along with eight boards, in a nine-point win over Duquesne.

Will the physical Hasahn French have any answers for Mitchell? Or will Saint Louis have to opt to shut down T.J. Weeks, Carl Pierre and Sean East II and let the future NBA prospect get his?

7. Illinois State Redbirds at Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET)

Northern Iowa might be the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference, but if there’s one program that is capable of playing spoiler in the league tournament, it’s Loyola Chicago.

The Ramblers didn’t reach the Big Dance in 2019, but they have two holdovers from the 2018 Final Four squad in do-it-all big Cameron Krutwig and guard Lucas Williamson. Add in double-figure scorer Tate Hall and freshman Marquise Kennedy, and the Ramblers feature plenty of talent in addition to the coaching of Porter Moser.

While Illinois State is just 3-11 in conference play, this is one of the final chances to check in on the Ramblers before the MVC tourney.

8. Wofford Terriers at UNC Greensboro Spartans (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)

Two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year Fletcher Magee is not walking through the door for Wofford, but this should still be a highly competitive, must-see battle.

UNC Greensboro’s Isaiah Miller and Wofford’s one-two punch of Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy will square off as the Spartans look to take a step toward the top of the standings, while the Terriers play spoiler.

The key for the Spartans will be James Dickey. The 6-foot-10 talent had an uncharacteristic five straight games of scoring in single figures before breaking out vs. Samford with a double-double. If Dickey can provide Miller with some much needed help — like his 15-point, 20-rebound outing last week vs. Mercer — then the Spartans should be able to sneak out a victory.

9. Belmont Bruins at Eastern Kentucky Colonels (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)

As Belmont looks to chase Murray State and Austin Peay for the Ohio Valley Conference title, Eastern Kentucky stands as a sleeper to crash the party.

The Colonels have turned their fortunes around since starting the season 4-11 and now face the toughest stretch with matchups against the Bruins and Racers in back-to-back games.

Eastern Kentucky’s leading scorer Jomaru Brown probably will have to produce a massive outing if the Colonels are to topple Adam Kunkel and the Bruins’ 10th-ranked offense. Expect a lot of buckets in this one with the team that takes care of the ball better coming out on top.

10. George Washington Colonials at Duquesne Dukes (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET)

Duquesne is expected to be the heavy favorite at home even after George Washington’s Armel Potter returned from injury Saturday. But will the Dukes gloss over the Colonials with the most arduous portion of their schedule to come?

Coach Keith Dambrot’s team will face Dayton and St. Bonaventure in back-to-back road games before returning home to face a stingy George Mason team. The Dukes will then close out the regular season by hosting Richmond following a trip to the Siegel Center to face VCU.

Marcus Weathers and Sincere Carry have helped the Dukes to a surprising 18-6 record, but starting with this showdown vs. GW, it’s time for them to prove their true colors before the conference tournament tips off.

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