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Middle Tennessee Is a Contender Masquerading as a Cinderella

Don’t call the Blue Raiders’ win over Minnesota an upset

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Don’t call it an upset. Seriously, don’t. Middle Tennessee may be a no. 12 seed, but in Vegas sportsbooks it was favored by one point over Minnesota, the no. 5 seed in the South region. The Ringer’s own Rodger Sherman was all over this game on Selection Sunday, singling it out as one in which the lower-seeded team might win, and things played out exactly according to script. Minnesota raced out to a 7–0 lead, but it was all Middle Tennessee from there, as the Blue Raiders pulled away for an 81–72 victory in one of the more convincing wins from the early slate of games on Thursday.

Middle Tennessee is much better than your typical no. 12 seed. It was one of the darlings of last year’s tourney, when it stunned no. 2 seed Michigan State, one of the favorites to win it all, as a no. 15 seed in a 90–81 win. The Blue Raiders shot 55.9 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from 3 in that game, carving up the Spartans defense with an NBA-style attack based on pick-and-rolls and 3-point shooting. They fizzled out in the second round against Syracuse’s aggressive 2–3 zone (part of the Orange’s run to the Final Four), and they brought back most of their roster in 2016–17.

They’ve built off that success, and came into Thursday with a 30–4 record, including a 15-point win at Ole Miss, a 23-point home win over Vanderbilt, and a five-point home win over UNC Wilmington, a no. 12 seed in this year’s bracket that acquitted itself very well in a narrow loss to Virginia. Middle Tennessee was 17–1 in Conference USA play, with its only defeat coming in a three-point loss at UTEP. Head coach Kermit Davis’s team has an offensive rating of 112.5 (32nd in the country) and a defensive rating of 95.0 (28th), the type of balanced profile you would expect from a high-major team in one of the top four seed lines.

The reason this squad was seeded so low is because it didn’t have many opportunities to play against elite competition. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were the only Power 5 conference opponents on its schedule, as there’s simply not much incentive for higher-profile programs to play a good team from Conference USA, particularly after the realignment-driven exodus that has hit that league over the last decade. No one else from C-USA was even close to sniffing a tourney bid, which meant Middle Tennessee had no chance to make a national impression after the start of the New Year.

Reggie Upshaw (Getty Images)
Reggie Upshaw (Getty Images)

In contrast to Middle Tennessee’s lackluster slate of games, Minnesota faced three Power 5 teams in nonconference play and then went 11–7 over its 18-game Big Ten slate before advancing to the conference tournament semifinals. The Golden Gophers had road wins at Maryland, Purdue, and Northwestern, three schools that never would’ve scheduled MTSU. The only common opponent the two teams faced was Vanderbilt, which Middle Tennessee beat by 23 and Minnesota beat by only four. Minnesota wasn’t rated as high as Middle Tennessee on offense or defense this season — there was no reason to think the Gophers were the better team, besides the fact that they play in a more reputable conference.

The best player on the floor Thursday was MTSU senior forward Reggie Upshaw, who had 19 points and nine rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting. When Minnesota pulled within four late in the second half, Upshaw took over, scoring seven points in a little under two minutes, including sinking a beautiful one-legged fadeaway jumper that was reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki. At 6-foot-7 and 222 pounds, Upshaw was a mismatch nightmare for Minnesota, with the size of a forward and the speed of a guard, and he played at the top of the 1–3–1 half-court trap that gave head coach Richard Pitino’s team trouble all afternoon. While he will have to improve as a long-range shooter, Upshaw has the physical tools and the skill set to eventually find his way to the NBA. This game had a similar story to what happened with Virginia and UNC Wilmington, except this time the low-major team had the NBA-caliber wing.

Middle Tennessee is much more than just Upshaw, though. Its leading scorer is redshirt senior forward Jacorey Williams, an athletic 6-foot-8 big man who started his career at Arkansas. Its second-leading scorer is junior guard Giddy Potts, a 220-pound fire hydrant who bombs more than five 3s per game at a 39 percent clip. Potts, who has the grizzled features of a 35-year-old man, could end up capturing America’s heart with a big game against no. 4 seed Butler on Saturday. All three players are upperclassmen, making the Blue Raiders as experienced as any of the remaining teams in the field. Maybe the craziest thing about the roster is that it features a 6-foot-10, 265-pound center in junior Brandon Walters, who came up big against Minnesota’s massive frontline. Double-digit seeds aren’t supposed to have players like that, much less coming off their bench.

Middle Tennessee doesn’t have any holes on its team. It has a freshman point guard, Tyrik Dixon, who is wise beyond his years and can get the ball to the three scorers. Everyone in the Blue Raiders’ eight-man rotation can shoot 3s except their two centers, and they have athletes at every position. They’re well coached, play a high level of offense and defense, and have trounced Big Ten teams in the last two tourneys. MTSU has the profile of a team that can compete with anyone. It was a Cinderella last year, but it should be disappointed if it comes away with only one win this time around.