Merry Upsetsmas: College Basketball Kicks Off the Holiday with Surprises

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Bean counters in the San Diego State athletic department had to ask themselves, at least for a couple of seconds on Thursday night: Does our insurance cover Jalen McDaniels incidentals? 

McDaniels, San Diego State’s freshman forward, threw down a tip-dunk in the Aztecs’ 72-70 upset of Gonzaga that sent a packed Viejas Arena into a frenzy. From my view at press row, it sure felt as though the beautiful venue on Montezuma Mesa was in danger of its roof collapsing from the sheer pressure of shouted exhales and the shaking of fans stamping their feet. 

Viejas Arena hosts NCAA Tournament games this coming March, and those have a high standard to meet thanks to this nonconference tilt, four days before Christmas. 

Indeed, if the 2018 Tournament promises us gifts of thrilling finishes and upsets, Christmas week has offered the first stocking stuffers. 

San Diego State’s defeat of Gonzaga — a much-needed, signature win for the Aztecs ahead of Mountain West Conference play — kicked off a weekend of marquee upsets. 

Another Southern California program in need of a resume victory, UCLA, secured one of the most impressive Saturday in New Orleans. The Bruins had had various opportunities to bolster their NCAA Tournament profile in the nonconference, drawing Creighton at the Hall of Fame Classic, Michigan on the road, and a home date with Cincinnati. 

But with losses in all three, and the Pac-12 underwhelming as a conference through the first month of competition, UCLA found itself in an increasingly tenuous position. 

The Bruins likely still need a top four finish in the conference to have a worthy at-large case come Selection Sunday, but a neutral-court win over Kentucky does wonders for UCLA’s forecast. 

Losing freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill before the season to suspension put UCLA in a difficult spot. Steve Alford lacks much of a bench, which has forced guard Aaron Holiday to play an average of almost 38 minutes per game over the Bruins’ last four. 

Holiday’s been a warrior over that stretch. He may not be garnering much national attention, but Holiday ranks among the most important players. His 20 points and eight assists against Kentucky made that clear. 

Add yet another double-double from senior center Thomas Welsh, and the juxtaposition of UCLA building around veterans this season stood in stark contrast to John Calipari and Kentucky rolling with its customary kiddie corps. The ceiling may ultimately be higher for the Wildcats than it is for the Bruins come March, but the learning curve is considerably steeper. 

Speaking of learning curves, New Mexico State faced its own after reaching the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The WAC Tournament champions embarked on 2017-18 without coach Paul Weir, who left Las Cruces for nonconference rival New Mexico. 

With Chris Jans taking over as the Aggies’ third head coach in as many seasons, New Mexico State came into the campaign an afterthought. College basketball punditry as a collective focused whatever attention it could spare the WAC on Grand Canyon, the trendy newcomer with a former NBA star as a head coach, and an ongoing rave as its backdrop for home games. 

New Mexico State may not be the sexy WAC program, but Saturday night’s performance in Hawaii against previously unbeaten Miami demonstrated why the Aggies have taken up consistent residency in the Field of 68 over the past decade. 

Whether under Reggie Theus, or Marvin Menzies, Weir or now Jans, New Mexico State has parlayed athleticism into defensive tenacity. This Aggies team causes headaches for opposing offenses, as demonstrated in a KenPom defensive efficiency ranking of No. 47 in the nation. 

New Mexico State beat Miami, the nation’s No. 5 adjusted defensive efficiency team, at its own game. The Aggies now have an opportunity to celebrate Christmas with a Diamond Head Classic championship if they can impose their defensive will on high-scoring USC. 

March may be the true holiday season for college basketball, but this week’s upsets served up quite a preview.