“Don’t Say We Came Out of Nowhere in March” Team of the Week: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

February 21, 2013

I think the extremely good luck that teams that have been featured in this series finally ran out last night.

Although Oklahoma State clawed its way back into the game and forced two overtimes with Kansas, the Cowboys ultimately ended up dropping their sixth game of the season to the Jayhawks, making capturing an outright regular season Big 12 crown very difficult at this point.

I guess the luck meter will have to be slightly downgraded to simply “good” luck.

As I promised, this is the second of three posts this week about potential crashers of the NCAA Tournament. Today, we head to the Sun Belt Conference and shine the spotlight on the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders.

The Basic Info

The Blue Raiders have the fifth longest active winning streak in Division 1 at 13 games, just four games behind Akron and Memphis, who lead the nation at 17 apiece. At 24-4 overall (16-1 in-conference), Kermit Davis’s team is beginning to get the attention of fans outside the Sun Belt Conference. With an RPI ranking currently at No. 27, it is getting close enough to the end of the regular season that the Blue Raiders could be putting together an at-large type resume if they end up needing to go that route.

Most people probably aren’t familiar with Middle Tennessee State for two reasons: one is that they play in a conference that is normally run out of the building by a higher seed in its only NCAA Tournament appearance each year (the last time a Sun Belt squad won a NCAA Tournament game that wasn’t a play-in game was 2008). The other is that the Blue Raiders haven’t exactly run the gauntlet on their way to the current 24-4 mark. Put simply, Middle Tennessee State is still a bit of a mystery.

However, the Blue Raiders won’t let relative anonymity deter them from making a run at the Big Dance. The basketball team has a lot on its shoulders; although the school’s football team finished the 2012 season 8-4 and ahead of Little Caesars Pizza Bowl participant Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt standings, the team was left out of the bowl season. Thanks to that little snub, the athletics program as a whole has a chip on its collective shoulder and wants to prove to the nation it deserves a shot on the big stage in March.

Why I Like Them

This is pretty simple to explain; just take a look at the team’s record! If more fans knew that the college Middle Tennessee State even existed, they’d be jumping on the bandwagon for that very reason as well. It isn’t difficult to argue that, assuming the Blue Raiders are able to get to 27 or 28 wins on the year, it will be almost impossible for the selection committee to justify leaving them out of the NCAA Tournament in favor of some mediocre power conference school. This is especially true coming just a season after both the Drexel Dragons and Oral Roberts Golden Eagles were left out of the Big Dance after finishing the season 27-6. The committee probably doesn’t want to make the same questionable decision twice in consecutive years.

Aside from the strong record, the thing I like about Coach Davis’s team is that they have a ton of depth. Although only one player (guard Marcos Knight) averages double-digits in scoring, ten players average at least ten minutes of playing time per game. An 11th averages nearly nine minutes per contest. While not every team necessarily relies on depth, it is a very solid asset to have in the tournament.

One of the reasons that Davis is able to rely on so many players is because of smart shot selection. The Blue Raiders, while one of the top scoring offenses in the Sun Belt at 70.6 PPG, also have the top shooting percentage at 46.1%. Six of the ten players with at least ten minutes of playing time per game are shooting at least 45% from the floor. 

Lastly, the Blue Raiders possess the secret ingredient of almost all mid-major teams that surprise people in the NCAA Tournament: solid three point shooting. At 37.5% from behind the arc, Middle Tennessee State is capable of shooting as well as just about any team it encounters. To drive the point home, here is an interesting stat: of the four teams that the Blue Raiders have lost to this season, two of them have better three point shooting percentages (Belmont and Florida – MTSU is tied for 37th in the nation).

So, Why Are They Being Ignored?

It would be easy to say that the conference Middle Tennessee State plays in is the culprit for their under-the-radar status. But that is only part of the issue, as the Blue Raiders’ 116th best strength-of-schedule is also a result of the fact that Coach Davis’s team didn’t really challenge itself out of conference.

Other than games on the road against Florida, Akron and Belmont, all the Blue Raiders can really be proud about with regards to its out-of-conference slate are wins at home over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Middle Tennessee State failed to beat any of the aforementioned teams away from home, and don’t have any marquee games remaining on its schedule.

Not only does this hurt the team’s reputation in the eyes of the selection committee, but it makes it nearly impossible to catch the eye of the casual fan that will normally only watch games on ESPN and CBS.

As mentioned earlier, it may not hurt the Blue Raiders all that much if they manage to run the table during the regular season and make it to at least the Sun Belt conference championship game. But we learned last year that nearly 30 wins by a mid-major team may not be enough if the schedule was padded with soft competition.

What Can We Expect?

If history is any indication, the Sun Belt Conference tournament will be very difficult to predict. The top seeded team hasn’t won the tournament since 2009, despite the fact that there almost always appears to be a significant talent gap between the best and the rest of the teams in the conference.

If the Blue Raiders can buck that trend, all will be well and it is possible that the team could receive as high as an 11 or 12 seed. Currently, Joe Lunardi has the squad in a 5 vs. 12 matchup. However, if the team manages to make it to the conference final and loses that game, things get a bit messy.

In that scenario at the very least Middle Tennessee State will have won 26 games, even if it loses the rest of its regular season games. Since that probably won’t happen, it is safe to assume that the Blue Raiders will probably have somewhere between 27 and 29 wins to finish the regular season. After last year’s debacle, I predict Middle Tennessee State would make the Big Dance with that many victories regardless. However, if they failed to win the Sun Belt tournament its seeding may drop to a No. 13 or possibly No. 14 seed.

Seeding will dictate the chances the Blue Raiders play more than one NCAA Tournament game. As an 11 or 12 seed, they would be in prime position to upset a squad that can’t defend the three ball well. As a 13 or 14 seed, it would be very difficult for Coach Davis’s team to pull off an upset.

If you would like to submit a team for consideration for this weekly series, please send me an email at kbecks@aroundthecorn.com, tweet me @KBecks_ATC or contact me on Around The Corn’s Facebook page. In addition to any submissions, you are more than welcome to send a short summary of why you think the team is a good candidate for this type of article. Thanks everyone.

– K. Becks

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