MILWAUKEE – Every NCAA tournament, there’s a team that catches the fancy of basketball fans nationwide, and this year the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders might be that feel-good story.
The 12th-seed Blue Raiders, who upset Michigan State in the first round last year before losing to Syracuse, are 30-4 entering Saturday’s second-round game at the Bradley Center against Butler.
The Blue Raiders won’t come out and say it, but veteran head coach Kermit Davis and his players were a bit surprised to be seeded that low considering their impressive resume that included wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt plus a Conference USA crown.
“It wasn’t a disappointment because we were glad to be in the tournament,” said Davis during Friday’s press conference a day after an 81-72 win over Minnesota. “It kind of alarmed us going forward that, you know, we were ranked in the coach’s poll 25th and RPIs like 35, and everybody says you need to play a good non-conference strength of schedule. It was 18th. We won 30 games (this year).
“So, what alarmed us is what do we have to do next year or the year after. It’s a question you will have to ask the committee. It’s full of a lot of guys with great integrity. So it is something that was a concern. But it was about matchups, and obviously our team was excited about being in.”
Davis’ players say they don’t pay much attention to the seedings.
“I wouldn’t say that we get caught up in the seeding or anything like that, because, I mean, last year was a perfect example of, you know, us just going out and playing the game,” Reggie Upshaw said. “You know, that’s the same way we approached this game yesterday as far as, you know, just going out and trying to execute what coach Davis was calling and the different defenses that he was throwing out, you know, in between transitions and stuff like that.
“We really didn’t pay attention to the seedings and the upsets or what’s not an upset. I mean I don’t know,” Jacorey Williams said. “People had us favored to win the game and some people say it was an upset. I was kind of confused with the media.”
Butler coach Chris Holtmann definitely felt his opponent got snubbed.
“I don’t think there is any way in the world they’re the seed that they were,” he said. “I didn’t think that going in. I really don’t know how it all works, and I don’t really pay attention to it. I think the committee does a difficult task well. There are going to be some seedings issue at times. They are as good as any team I’ve seen at that seed in a long time.”
The Blue Raiders have four players in double figures — JaCorey Williams at 17.2, Giddy Potts at 15.8, and Upshaw at 14.8. There’s nobody else close to double figures. The Blue Raiders average 75 a game, but only give up 63.
It’s the latter stat that should grab everybody’s attention. Teams shot 41.8 from the floor this year, including 30.3 from beyond the arc. Defensive numbers like that are going to win a lot of game.
Middle Tennessee plays a 1-3-1 defense, and they play it well.
“I think the big key playing the 1-3-1 zone you can’t be complacent,” Williams said. “I think the pressure has to be very aggressive. Our backline has to be correct on the rotations. Basically all five guys have to be on the same page. I think the more aggressive you are, the better it can be.
“It is a guard stopper. It helps keep the guards out of the lane. They can’t split it because we have a guy in the middle. I think it gets team out of rhythm.”
Holtmann, who thinks the Blue Raiders could be a Final Four team, is impressed with the way MTSU executes its zone.
“It is pretty unique in what they do and how they play it,” said the Butler coach. “We try not to overcomplicate things. I think our spacing needs to be good and our decision making with the ball needs to be good because they are great at turning you over.”
A win over Butler would be huge. It would get the Blue Raiders into the Sweet 16, but it would be another step for Davis in elevating his program. He wants a program comparable to Gonzaga or Butler when it was considered a mid-major program.
“I used to be the coach at Idaho, so I saw Gonzaga play at a place (gym) with 2,200,” Davis said. “Dan Fitzgerald was the coach and then they hired Dan Monson.
“I really have great respect for Butler because they do it with integrity, with athletes and academics. It is something we are striving for. We are not there by any means. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
A win, however, would be another big step in the right direction.