With an incredible regular season that saw the Blue Raiders finish with a 27–4 record and ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament seemed a likelihood. However, the mantra for MT players and fans going into the conference tournament was “Leave no doubt.” It was a phrase that certainly played out on the court.
MT opened the tournament against Texas-San Antonio, and though the score was back-and-forth early, the Blue Raiders slammed the door on the Roadrunners in the second half. Middle claimed the victory 86–70 with Reggie Upshaw leading the way with 21 points and six rebounds. JaCorey Williams and Giddy Potts each chipped in 14 points while Williams also contributed nine rebounds.
Next up was the lone team to beat MTSU in conference play, UTEP. However, whatever worked for the Miners in their first meeting with the Blue Raiders didn’t work this time. The only time UTEP led in the game was when they made the first basket. Middle dominated UTEP from that point on to the tune of a 82–56 victory. It was again Upshaw who led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds. Three other Blue Raiders scored in double figures–Potts (14), Williams (13) and Antwain Johnson (11).
The Blue Raiders capped off their three-day run in the championship game against Marshall. Things started out well for MT as they dominated early on, but the Thundering Herd cut the deficit to eight before the half. Marshall improved their shooting by five percentage points in the second half, but never gained a lead in the game. The Blue Raiders locked up their second straight Conference USA Tournament championship title 83–72. Potts exploded for 30 points for the second time this month, and also grabbed eight rebounds. He was rewarded with tournament MVP honors for his performance. Williams contributed 17 points and six rebounds while Upshaw produced 15 points and eight rebounds. Each joined Potts on the all-tournament team.
Having clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Raiders returned to the Kenon Sports Hall of Fame for their Selection Sunday party. Last year, having been given a 15 seed, players, coaches and fans had to sit through the entire bracket before their team was announced. This year the wait was not as long when Middle Tennessee came up on the board. The Blue Raiders were granted a 12-seed and will go to Milwaukee to play Minnesota.
Defense is a calling card for Minnesota. They boast the second-leading shot blocker in the nation in Reggie Lynch who averages just under four blocks per game, and they have held opponents to just under 40 percent from the field. They have held opponents to just 30 percent from beyond-the-arc, as well, which is the tenth lowest in the nation.
Though some of the numbers show that the Blue Raiders have their work cut out for them, JaCorey Williams is confident.
“I like the match up. I know they got a couple of good bigs, but we have a lot of versatile forwards who can put the ball on the floor and make them play off the dribble, but we have to play physical down low and rebound, though.”
This trip to the tournament has a much different feel than that of last year’s. No one expected the Blue Raiders to shock the world and beat Michigan State in 2016. With the historical trend of 12 seeds upsetting 5 seeds (at least one 5-seed has been upset 28 of the last 32 years) paired with a favorable potential second round match up, a lot of fans and analysts are expecting the Blue Raiders to make a run in the tournament.
With higher expectations, is the pressure on?
“No, we all love that,” said coach Kermit Davis. “We love what they say on the selection show and throughout all of college basketball. It shows the respect and expectations we have at Middle Tennessee.”
The expectation of a run is high inside the locker room as well.
When asked what the limit is for how far this team can go, Davis responded, “I don’t think there’s a limit at all. We’ve got really good players, we got depth, we got multiple positions that can score. So yeah, we think we can play with anybody in college basketball.”
Williams echoed Davis’ sentiment, “I feel like when we’re playing the right way and we’re playing good defense and rebounding we can play with anybody in the country. If we get rolling and we got hot, anything can happen.”
The Blue Raiders will tip off against the Golden Gophers on Thursday, March 16, at 3 p.m. CT. The game will be aired on TNT.