There will be flashier teams in the NCAA Tournament this year than Middle Tennessee State. There will be teams with more stars, and there will be hotter picks for underdogs to pull upsets, too.
Few teams have taken as much of a complete team effort on the court to get an NCAA bid this year, though, than the Blue Raiders, who defeated Old Dominion 55-53 to win the Conference USA tournament and clinch their first trip to the Big Dance since 2012. Reggie Upshaw hit two free throws with 2.9 seconds left for the winning points as the 2 seed defeated the fourth-seeded Monarchs for MTSU’s first conference tournament championship since winning the 1989 Ohio Valley Conference tourney.
Twelve players have played for Middle Tennessee this season; 11 of them have played in at least 26 games (point guard Jacob Ivory started 11 of 16 games played but has missed half of the season due to concussion symptoms and is out the rest of the year). Ten of the 12 have started at least one game, and seven have led the team in scoring in at least one game. Coach Kermit Davis is among the better coaches in the country when it comes to using his bench, and is unafraid to put any player on his roster into the game at any given time.
The Blue Raiders have had a workmanlike but successful season, improving to 24-9 overall after winning Saturday. MTSU seldom blows out opponents-15 of its 24 wins are by single digits-but also is never blown out-just one loss by more than 11 points. Few of its wins have the glitz factor-the Blue Raiders won the Great Alaska Shootout and also beat Belmont and Auburn, but just missed out on a home chance against VCU. Quietly, though, MTSU has been very solid and built on its finish a year ago, when it advanced to the C-USA tourney final before losing to homestanding UAB.
Middle Tennessee likely will be a 13 or 14 seed in the NCAAs. The last time MTSU won a conference tournament title, it went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed…and proceeded to handle fourth-seeded Florida State 97-83. This year’s team won’t be a hot pick to duplicate anything like that, but its season says it will be around in its game, and that any number of players will be responsible for it.
- Among the many other teams to clinch automatic bids on Saturday: Buffalo (MAC), Cal State Bakersfield (WAC), Fresno State (MWC), Hampton (MEAC), Hawaii (Big West), Kansas (Big 12), North Carolina (ACC), Oregon (Pac-12), Seton Hall (Big East), Southern (SWAC), Stephen F. Austin (Southland), Stony Brook (America East) and Weber State (Big Sky).
- Among the title games Saturday, some of the best were the MAC, where Buffalo got a three-pointer from Blake Davenport with two seconds left to beat Akron 64-61; the WAC, where Cal State-Bakersfield clinched its first-ever NCAA Division I tourney trip on Dedrick Basile’s three-pointer at the buzzer; and the America East, where Stony Brook broke through at last and beat Vermont 80-74 thanks to Jameel Warney’s incredible 43 points-on 18 of 22 shooting-and 10 rebounds. Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki wrote about the Seawolves’ journey here.
- Phil also commented on LSU, which lost to Texas A&M 71-38 in the SEC tourney semifinals and may well not even deserve an NIT bid, much less the NCAA spot ESPN wishes it could mandate.
- Also, a reminder that Phil will be a guest on College Basketball Tonight, hosted by Ted Sarandis and which will air on WOR AM 710 in New York, with links posted on Hoopville after the game. It’s a terrific show with all kinds of quality commentary from veterans in the sport about the NCAA Tournament.
- Also, this morning we put together our thoughts on which teams should compile the field of 68.
- We’re down to five conference championship games. The Atlantic 10 will include VCU and Saint Joseph’s squaring off; the Big Ten (Purdue/Michigan State) and SEC (Kentucky/Texas A&M) match top 20 teams; and the AAC (Connecticut/Memphis)and Sun Belt (Arkansas-Little Rock/Louisiana-Monroe) have underdogs looking to steal a bid from teams that may or may not be on the bubble if they lose.
Have a great Sunday.