Facing off versus a tournament favorite in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders won over more than a few fans in disposing of the #2 seed Michigan State 90-81 in the opening round. They were unable to keep that success going in falling in the round of 32 to Syracuse, but woke up the nation to the CUSA program.
Head coach Kermit Davis is in his 15th season leading the Blue Raiders, but last season was only his second trip to the Big Dance. MTSU has been very good with 19 or more wins in each of the last five seasons, but always seemed to falter when it came to the conference tournament. After finally breaking through last season, they finally know how to win in the postseason.
It is easy to say that MTSU is a good team when looking at their 13-3 record and wins over two different SEC schools to start the season. The question remains whether they can put everything together and earn a high enough seed to realistically make a run in the Big Dance.
Let’s take a look at five reasons MTSU is built for the postseason (and one why they could fail).
The big three:
Two of the biggest reasons for MTSU turning the corner and winning Conference USA last season was the play of Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw.
The duo combined for nearly 30 points per game and found a way to come up with a variety of important shots throughout the season. One of the most iconic moments of the 2016 NCAA Tournament was Upshaw’s and one dunk to seal the win over Michigan State.
The two have been just as good as advertised heading into the season with Potts putting up a 16.1/2.8/5.3 line and Upshaw going for 15.6/3.1/6.6. Yes, the 6-8 forward is dishing 3.1 assists in addition to upping his points per game average by 1.9 from last season. Upshaw’s rebounds per game is down slightly, but there is a 6-8 reason for that decline.
Welcome to the big time JaCorey Williams. The Arkansas transfer spent the 2015/16 season ineligible due to transfer rules and got to experience the season from a distance. The Blue Raider faithful had high hopes heading into the season for the redshirt senior, but he has exceeded their wildest dreams. Williams is averaging a team-high 17-4 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, and nearly two assists per game. He has been amazing to watch especially in a three games in three days stretch versus Toledo, UNC Wilmington, and Evansville. Williams averaged 36.7 minutes played, shot 31-47 (66.0%), pulled down 22 rebounds, and averaged 24.0 points per game.
Williams has gone from preseason unknown to one of the favorites for CUSA player of the year.
In total, the big three for the Blue Raiders average 49.1 points, 7.2 assists, 19 rebounds, and 4.2 steals per game.
Smart with the ball:
The quickest way to see a team fall in an upset bid is carelessness with the ball. For the most part, the Blue Raiders are very cautious with the ball, giving up only 10.0 turnovers per game. When they are struggling at shooting, they have the tendency to press and turnovers follow.
On the flip side, they put together performances like the North Texas game when they turned the ball over only five times and were never truly challenged in the win. That is MTSU at its best, an athletic and talented team that does not beat itself.
Dominant in the first 20 minutes:
The goal for Kermit Davis and company in every game is to build a lead and control the second half while playing cautious basketball. That has been very successful this season with MTSU leading on average by nearly nine points at halftime. Building the early lead not only give the team a comfort zone, but it also allows the Blue Raiders to experiment with different combinations.
The ability to experiment somewhat could pay dividends later on in the season when a team comes along that can neutralize one of the big three. That is when Davis can insert a player in the right situation and not miss a beat. We will see in March if that strategy can work versus some of the big boys.
Playing a tough non-conference slate:
As a whole, Conference USA has been a bit worse than expected in recent years in the middle and bottom of the league. This year has seen better quality, but MTSU needed to find challenges outside of league play to prepare for the postseason.
According to CBS Sports, the Blue Raiders played the #14 ranked out of conference schedule in the nation. That is better than Duke, Kansas, Oregon, Maryland, LSU, and many more power programs. Simply stated, MTSU went out and challenged themselves in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Wins over UNC-Wilmington, at Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, at Belmont, Murray State, and others will grab the attention of the selection committee. A one loss regular season in league play and a loss in the CUSA tournament would still make MTSU an almost guarantee as an at-large selection due to that great non-conference schedule.
Shoot the lights out:
MTSU does an excellent job of waiting for the right shot and taking as few ill-advised shots as possible. As a result, they are connecting on nearly 48% of their shots on the season. When you just look at the big three, that number rises to 52.3%. Getting more consistent shooting from Tyrik Dixon and Edward Simpson could really make MTSU lethal.
The scariest thing about their shooting is the ability to hit three pointers at a high level from their top shooters. Potts (42.9%), Simpson (45.7%), and Xavier Habersham (50.0%) have taken nearly 60% of the team’s three-point attempts and are all over 40% shooters. Getting Upshaw away from the arc would help as he is only a 32.6% shooter and has taken the third most three point attempts on the team.
Why MTSU could be a one and done: Concentration issues
As good as the Blue Raiders have been this season, the inability to play a complete game is a worry. They seems to have at least one stretch when they look mentally checked out and allow opponents to pull closer than they should. Case in point was the early season loss to Tennessee State. The Tigers are a good OVC team, but preyed on a somewhat disinterested MTSU squad and won by 11. That cannot happen down the stretch with the selection committee paying attention to them as a possible at large invitee in case they do not win the tournament.
With Marshall and bitter rival Western Kentucky coming up this week, it is very important for MTSU to be fully alert and ready to play.