KC's Mid-Major Top 10 welcomes back Belmont, plus 10 pivotal mid-major college basketball games

Nick Muszynski and Belmont will get another crack at Murray State this week. Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

This time of year, if you're like me, you've seen roughly every minute played of every game in every mid-major conference in Division I college basketball. (Full disclosure: Missed the first half of the Idaho-Cal Poly game in November for the wife's birthday -- or whatever she said it was?)

But, alas, now is not the time to hibernate! With conference tournament play less than a week away, we brethren of the BarcaLounger need all bloodshot eyeballs on the remaining regular-season games that will determine seeding, conference championships and, in the rarest, most important instances, standing in KC's Top 10. Add the extra terabyte of space on the DVR, and make sure you catch each of these pivotal pre-tournament matchups:

South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, Feb. 24, 8 p.m. ET (Oral Roberts Sports Network)

South Dakota State wrapped up the Summit League regular-season title a long time ago, but at 16-0 in conference play the Jackrabbits are just two wins shy of the first perfect season in league history. Coach Eric Henderson's men are led by sophomore sensation Baylor Scheierman, the only Division I player leading his conference in rebounds and assists per game. Oral Roberts can still finish as the 2-seed for the Summit League tournament, but its margin for error is thin. Plenty of motivation to win this game for a Golden Eagles team that also has a chance to hand the Jacks their first conference loss, as well as send a message before the 8-team battle royale in Sioux Falls. Max Abmas became a mid-major god at this time last year. Pony up whatever scratch it takes and stream this on the ORU Sports Network.

Belmont Bruins at Murray State Racers, Feb. 24, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

When the Racers blasted Belmont by 22 back on Jan. 15 (ending the Bruins' 19-game home win streak), they sent a clear message: The road to an OVC regular-season title runs through Murray, Kentucky. Five-plus weeks later here we are -- in Murray, Kentucky -- with an opportunity for coach Matt McMahon's men to take a giant step closer to a perfect OVC regular season and clinch that 'ship against, of all teams, Belmont. Thing is, coach Casey Alexander's Bruins have suddenly won 10 in a row and have a chance to spoil Murray State's perfect season, and of course, they'll be incredibly motivated to avenge that previous beatdown. KJ Williams, Tevin Brown and Juice Hill. Nick Muszynski, Ben Sheppard and Grayson Murphy. The star power is off the charts. I'd trade my dog for a ticket to this one inside the Mabee Center.

Texas State Bobcats at Troy Trojans, Feb. 25, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Coach Terrence Johnson took over at Texas State in 2020 under extremely difficult circumstances and has been nothing short of brilliant in the three seasons since. The reigning Sun Belt coach of the year wrapped up the Bobcats' second straight regular-season Sun Belt title Wednesday, with a win at South Alabama, their eighth in a row. Troy has a chance to sweep the season series after taking the first meeting between the teams in San Marcos, behind a season-high 22 points from Efe Odigie. The Trojans are a deep, balanced, veteran team who have bought into coach Scott Cross' system. Since the Sun Belt elected not to reschedule certain games lost to COVID-19, Troy can't share the title, but it can put the league on notice before the tournament in Pensacola. The kids will be taught a harsh life lesson Friday night: Dad barricaded himself inside the basement to catch this one. You'll be reading "Grumpy Monkey" by yourselves.

Wagner Seahawks at Bryant Bulldogs, Feb. 26, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN app)

Wagner is one of the best stories in mid-major basketball. The Seahawks lost three consecutive games in mid-November to COVID-19 cancellations, then lost two of three on the court to start December. But since then, coach Bashir Mason's team is 14-1 (not counting two victories by forfeit) including a dramatic OT win versus Bryant in early January on Staten Island. The guard-heavy Hawks get more than 42 PPG from Alex Morales, Will Martinez and Elijah Ford, an elite power trio. The Bulldogs were 4-7 entering Northeast Conference play but have since won 13 of 15 thanks to the elite scoring duo of Peter Kiss (the top scorer in all of Division I at 24.8 PPG) and Charles Pride (17.8 PPG). Assuming both teams handle their business in tuneups Thursday night, Saturday's game in Smithfield will be for a share of the NEC regular-season title. Expect Hagler-Hearns inside the Chace Athletic Center.

Loyola Chicago Ramblers at Northern Iowa Panthers, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

All you need to know about coach Drew Valentine is after missing nearly a month of games due to COVID-19, his Ramblers agreed to a non-conference matchup at a neutral site, in January, against fellow mid-major power San Francisco. Any team, anytime, anywhere. Loyola of course won that game en route to a 14-2 start, but the past month has been filled with MVC landmines (including a season sweep by Drake). The opposite is true for the electric AJ Green and Northern Iowa, whose season has been salvaged over the past month. The Panthers have won eight of nine, the lone defeat a 27-point thrashing at the hands of Loyola. Need more motivation than a regular-season title? The Ramblers are bolting the MVC for the A-10 following the season. Might just be a topic of conversation in the UNI locker room in this mid-major caviar appetizer to Arch Madness.

San Diego State Aztecs at Wyoming Cowboys, Feb. 27, 9 p.m. ET (Stadium)

Boise State's win over San Diego State Tuesday night took some steam out of Monday's meeting, but make no mistake, this showdown will still have a gigantic say in who rules the wild, wild Mountain West. Wyoming has been Wyatt Earp. Consistent, tenacious, fearless. San Diego State is Sheriff Pat Garrett. Steady, unrelenting, resolute. The Cowboys score it. The Aztecs defend. The Pokes are led by two marshals, Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado. SDSU by Matt Bradley and a cast of dependable deputies. Wyoming can still catch Boise State atop the conference, but this one is a must. As tumbleweeds blow down the dusty streets of Laramie, two quick draws are prepared to take their 10 paces. Hide the women and children.

Toledo Rockets at Buffalo Bulls, March 1, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN+)

Though the proper officials have not yet been notified, ol' KC has already begun parade planning for your Super Bowl LVII champion Buffalo Bills. It's also not unreasonable to think western New York could have a group of MAC champions on its hands given the season that coach Jim Whitesell's team is having. The Bulls rebounded from a 0-2 start in league play behind the dynamic Jeenathan Williams to win 11 of their last 13. Toledo has been a picture of consistency all season, riding the remarkable Ryan Rollins to a 14-3 conference mark, tied with Ohio for first place and one up in the loss column on Kent State and Buffalo. The Rockets won the first meeting with UB in The Glass City, but the return to Alumni Arena could be for all the MAC marbles. Wings, bleu cheese dressing, an ample supply of cream ale and a subscription to ESPN+ cover the necessities March 1st.

Princeton Tigers at Pennsylvania Quakers, March 5, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN+)

Yale currently sits in first place, a half-game up on Princeton with two to play. Princeton has three games remaining -- a crucial home and home with arch-rival Harvard, Friday and Saturday, and this March 5th showdown at The Palestra. Should coach Mitch Henderson's team run the table -- and Yale win its final two games (at Cornell and vs. Brown) -- both Princeton and Yale would finish tied atop the Ivy League at 12-2. However, Princeton would win the tiebreak, thanks to a season sweep of third-place Penn. (Yale split the season series with Penn.) Should Penn win this game, all Ivy League ties would be broken via the simple-to-understand Bernoulli's principle: P1 + ρgy1 + ½ρv12 = P2 + ρgy2 + ½ρv22.

Davidson Wildcats at Dayton Flyers, March 5, 12:30 p.m. ET (USA)

Davidson has put together another sparkling season, peaking at No. 2 in Grandpa's favorite mid-major poll, KC's Top 10. The Wildcats beat Alabama on a neutral floor, and notched road wins in league play against Richmond, VCU & St. Bonaventure. But ... coach Bob McKillop's team has yet to play Dayton, whose résumé is nearly as strong. The Flyers beat Miami, Kansas and Belmont over a four-day stretch in late November to win the ESPN Events Invitational. Coach Anthony Grant's group has also won eight of nine entering the final two weeks of A-10 play. There's still a ton to be decided in arguably the top mid-major conference in the sport, but with a regular-season trophy potentially hanging in the balance, missing this game will be an embarrassment to your family for generations to come.

New Orleans Privateers at Nicholls Colonels, March 5, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN+)

Following a double-overtime loss to McNeese State on Jan. 6, New Orleans was 4-8 with one of those wins coming against Division III Belhaven University. But since then the Privateers have been a raging inferno winning 12 of 13, seizing a one-game lead atop the Southland in the process. Nicholls' non-conference schedule was akin to brushing the teeth of a starving panther. The Colonels lost games to Baylor, TCU, Wisconsin and Purdue, and even dropped two of three to start league play. But coach Austin Claunch's team hasn't lost since January 22nd, setting up what could be a bare-knuckle, winner-take-all Southland finale. Keep in mind, New Orleans owns the current tie-breaker thanks to a season sweep of likely third-place finisher Southeastern Louisiana. The catfish and boudin in Thibodaux will be extra spicy March 5th.

Other mid-major mastery:

• Northwestern State's Kendal Coleman has 13 double-doubles in his last 18 games and seven in 11 conference games.

• Drexel senior James Butler is eight rebounds away from becoming the 11th player in Colonial Athletic Association history to collect 1,000 career rebounds.

• Kansas City graduate student star Evan Gilyard II equaled his career-high with 33 points Saturday in an 85-71 win over North Dakota State. All five of Gilyard's 30-point games this season have come in Roos' wins.

• Kent State junior Sincere Carry erupted for 42 points Tuesday in a win over Ball State. Golden Flashes teammate Malique Jacobs also notched a triple-double in the victory (first in program history). Carry and Jacobs are the 3rd set of Division I teammates over the last 25 seasons to go for 40+ points and a triple-double in the same game.

• Toledo led Western Michigan Tuesday 41-36 at the half, then proceeded to open the second half on a 28-0 run. According to EvanMiya.com, it's the second-longest run in Division I all season, behind only Purdue's 29-0 run versus Omaha back on Nov. 26.

• Monmouth's victory over Siena Tuesday was the 179th career win for coach King Rice, most in program history at the Division I level (second most in school history).

• Lindenwood University, based in St. Charles, Missouri, has accepted an invitation to join the Ohio Valley Conference and will become official members July 1, 2022. The Lions currently compete at the Division II level.

KC's Mid-Major Top 10 for this week:

1. Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)

Last week: 1

Cue the trumpeters. Release the doves. Prepare the finest meats and cheeses. The kingdom of Midmajoria, once again, bows before mighty Murray State. Coach Matt McMahon's men pulled off another perfect week thanks to a 91-56 manhandling of Austin Peay on Thursday then a narrow 62-60 escape Saturday at UT Martin. KJ Williams' 3-point play with 0:10 seconds to go snatched the lead from the Skyhawks and secured MSU's 16th straight win. Five teams in OVC history, including the Cameron Payne-led Racers in 2014-2015, have finished the regular season unbeaten in conference play. These Racers are two wins away from making it six.

Next up: vs. Belmont (Thursday)

2. North Texas Mean Green (Conference USA)

Last week: 2

The stingiest defense in college basketball eked past Florida Atlantic 54-51 on Thursday. It was the 15th time this season the Mean Green have held an opponent under 60 points. But coach Grant McCasland's men sent shockwaves through the poll of record on Saturday with their breathtaking comeback at UAB. Tylor Perry connected on a pair of 3-pointers over the final 0:23 -- the first to cut the lead to 56-55, and the second with 0:03 to go to give UNT a dramatic 58-57 Quadrant 1 victory. North Texas has now won 12 in a row -- and 18 of 19 -- and along with AP No. 1 Gonzaga is one of just two teams in Division I that has yet to lose on the road this season. Thousandths of a percentage point in the KC mid-major algorithm of excellence are all that's keeping the Mean Green from the top of the leaderboard in the Augusta National of mid-major polls.

Next up: vs. Southern Miss (Thursday)

3. Saint Mary's Gaels (WCC)

Last week: 5

Two more gigantic tests aced by a Gaels team whose list of incredible achievements rivals those of Marty and Wendy Byrde. On Thursday, coach Randy Bennett's bunch finished off a season sweep of an excellent San Francisco team, behind a then-season-high 22 points from Tommy Kuhse. Forty-eight hours later, Kuhse raised the bar again, exploding for 25 in a win over BYU. Both SMC victories came by identical 69-64 scores. As of Thursday, Saint Mary's is the only mid-major inside the top 25 of both the NET rankings and KenPom ratings.

Next up: at San Diego (Thursday)

4. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)

Last week: 8

Two more mammoth victories for the Broncos this week, who went the distance and won it on the scorecards against a pair of heavyweights. On Saturday, coach Leon Rice's squad finished off a season sweep of Utah State behind a game-high 20 points from Marcus Shaver Jr. Then on Tuesday, Abu Kigab's two free throws with one second remaining inched BSU past San Diego State 58-57 to help complete a season sweep of the Aztecs. National observers will point out Boise State has never been ranked higher than No. 25 in that other poll. But locals know the real headline is this unprecedented second trip back inside the top five of KC's personal Treasure Valley.

Next up: at UNLV (Saturday)

5. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Missouri Valley)

Last week: 3

Coach Drew Valentine's club remains comfortable in the Corinthian leather seats of the Gulfstream G650ER of mid-major polls, but The Committee could use a little reassuring. The Ramblers dropped a pivotal game Saturday at home to Drake 83-76, their third loss in seven games and second this season to the Bulldogs. Loyola did rebound with a nine-point win over Illinois State Monday, then completely and totally destroyed Evansville on Wednesday, 82-31. The stage is set for Saturday's Missouri Valley Conference Showcase Showdown against Northern Iowa.

Next up: at Northern Iowa (Saturday)

6. Colorado State Rams (Mountain West)

Last week: 7

The Michael Corleone of KC's La Cosa Nostra is "pulled back in!" to the Top 10 after taking care of that thing at New Mexico, then taking care of that other thing against Wyoming, with an off night in Vegas sandwiched in between. David Roddy's 31 points helped shake down the Lobos last Thursday, before the Rams bungled a Saturday run at UNLV. But four days later Roddy strong-armed the Pokes to the tune of 26 points and 11 rebounds as coach Niko Medved's men clipped Wyoming 61-55. CSU has won six of seven, and way more importantly possess four Quad 1 wins and six Quad 2 wins. Regardless of what happens in the Mountain West tournament, the Rams are made men.

Next up: at Utah State (Saturday)

7. Wyoming Cowboys (Mountain West)

Last week: 4

You're bound to have an off night in conference play and that's especially true on the road, it's just coach Jeff Linder didn't expect it to happen to his two biggest stars on the same night. Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado -- both unquestionably All-Mountain West first-teamers -- combined for just 12 points on 5-of-21 shooting in a 61-55 loss at Colorado State Wednesday night. By comparison, the Pokes duo had 51 in Wyoming's January win over the Rams. The good news in Laramie? Three of the final four regular season games will be played inside The Dome of Doom, where the Cowboys haven't lost all year.

Next up: vs. Nevada (Saturday)

8. San Francisco Dons (WCC)

Last week: 6

The Dons remain in the luxury high-rise of mid-major polls, but boy, they missed out on a golden opportunity to secure a penthouse view of the land of milk and honey. On Thursday in Moraga, California, top scorer Jamaree Bouyea (17.2 PPG) was held to a season-low two points in a 69-64 defeat versus Saint Mary's -- a game that could have been USF's signature win of the season. Coach Todd Golden's gang did, however, pick itself up off the canvas with a 104-71 flattening of Pacific in Stockton, California. Thursday night's home game against AP No. 1 Gonzaga could be the biggest event inside War Memorial since a 1998 filming of "Teletubbies."

Next up: vs. Gonzaga (Thursday)

9. Belmont Bruins (Ohio Valley)

Last week: Unranked

More clean living for the Bruins, who extended their win streak to 10 following decisions over Eastern Illinois (81-57) and SIU-Edwardsville (73-62). Coach Casey Alexander's team now ranks among the top five nationally in wins (24) as well as true road wins (10), and no team in all of Division I dishes out more assists (545 in 29 games). Thursday's run in Murray, Kentucky, is the second of what could be an OVC trilogy. Ryman Auditorium. The Bluebird Café. The Grand Ole Opry House. All side stages as compared to the bright lights of KC's Top 10. Belmont, let's see your chops.

Next up: at Murray State (Thursday)

10. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)

Last week: 10

Not since native son Mean Gene Okerlund was born in Brookings have the good folks in eastern South Dakota enjoyed such a mirthful week. The Jackrabbits validated their first-ever appearance inside KC's Top 10 with consecutive tattooings of Western Illinois (91-66) and St. Thomas-Minnesota (79-60). Coach Eric Henderson's team is now 16-0 in conference play, besting the previous Summit League record for consecutive conference wins to start a season held by the 1992-93 Cleveland State Vikings. The best mascot in the game is welcome on the faux fur rugs of Club KC any day.

Next up: at Oral Roberts (Thursday)

Others receiving votes: Davidson, UAB, San Diego State, Dayton

Dropped out: UAB (No. 9)

ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article.

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