The countdown to the first-round matchup (yes, I still call it the “first” round) between Minnesota and Middle Tennessee State draws ever closer. Unless you’ve been under a rock the past few days, you’ve noticed that the entire nation and their mother is picking the Blue Raiders over the Gophers. Why? Well, a number of reasons - MTSU has 30 wins on the year, they beat Michigan State last year, the Gophers are newcomers to the tournament, and everyone loves to pick an upset. It’s cute, really.
MTSU fans are feeling pretty confident too, and they’re not shy in telling you about it (seriously, just tweet something mildly negative about MTSU and watch the Raider Twitterati descend like a plague of locusts). But after a 30-4 season and some good accolades from the national press, who wouldn’t be riding high?!
We did find a reasonable MTSU blogger friend, however. AJ at Underdog Dynasty gave us the lowdown on the Blue Raiders, what they’ve been up to this season and why they’re going to win. Thanks for the pep talk, AJ!
Can you give us the MTSU elevator speech? What have been the highs and lows of the season? How are you feeling these days?
This MTSU team is a veteran squad looking to continue to make history as they have done all season. It became very clear early on that this team was something special, racking up multiple quality wins in their non-conference schedule. This is when the real hype around this team began.
The low point of this season was definitely the loss to Georgia State. The team had just lost a hard-fought game at VCU and just looked uninspired and tired. That loss was also the last game before the team's New Year’s break and what has transpired since can explain a lot.
This MTSU team is 20-1 since the beginning of the new year. Yes, that is all conference play but is still a difficult feat. But as the season progressed, this team has withstood the best shot every other team in the conference could give them. Through that, they have proved that they can win in multiple ways. The veteran leadership of this team continues to step up when they need to and has become the core of the team.
What is MTSU's preferred style of offense and defense?
On offense, MTSU likes to push the ball and catch defenses in transition. In the set, MTSU will spread out a defense, boasting multiple shooters that can score from a variety of ranges. MTSU's "Big Three" is a good example of this. Reggie Upshaw is a 6-8 forward who is physical inside but can also step out and hit the three. Giddy Potts, who led the nation in 3PT% last year, is a guard trapped in a middle linebacker's body and can score from anywhere on the court. JaCorey Williams was Conference USA's player of the year this year. He is almost automatic with his mid-range jumper but also works the post as well.
On defense, MTSU will switch defenses on the fly the whole game. On made baskets, MTSU will set up a 1-3-1 half-court trap, then switch to either man or a 2-3. Honestly, it is really hard to follow sometimes, but Kermit Davis works the guys hard on defense to create turnovers and force bad shots."
What needs to go right for MTSU to win?
Create turnovers, have a well-focused start, strong leadership from our big three, make shots (lol kinda obvious)
Minnesota is arguably the best team MTSU has faced all season. Is there any risk of being lulled into complacency by a soft C-USA schedule?
It's possible, but MTSU has always seemed to get up for big games. The Vandy game was built up as a big game and MTSU stepped up. They feel like they can match up with any team in the nation and be competitive. Expect them to be just as confident as they were against Michigan State last year and be ready.
Seriously. Why is the entire nation picking MTSU over Minnesota?
I think mostly it is because of the folklore of the 12-5 match-up and many experts felt like MTSU deserved a higher seed after a 30-win season and are most likely to pull the upset. There is also a lot of carrying over from last year's upset and this team has ridden the wave of momentum they gained from that right back into the NCAA tourney.
How do you think this one ends up?
As you might expect, I am going to go with MTSU here as well, but it will be close. These are two very well matched teams that have a lot of talent. I see the difference being MTSU's bench. The big three have been playing well, but the bench has really stepped up of late and given MTSU great minutes. MTSU by 5.