Middle Tennessee working to be next mid-major powerhouse

Published 1:12 am Wednesday, March 15, 2017

By Teresa M. Walker

AP Sports Writer

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have gotten downright greedy when it comes to March.

They are trying to build Middle Tennessee into a powerhouse basketball program, rising from the ranks of mid-majors to join the Gonzagas and Wichita States on the NCAA landscape. The Blue Raiders are back in the tournament for second straight year with a gaudy 30-4 record featuring wins over two Southeastern Conference teams after upsetting Michigan State in the tourney a year ago.

“But the hardest part is the sustainability, and that’s what Gonzaga and those teams have done,” Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said. “So we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”

The Blue Raiders will try to take the another step Thursday against Minnesota in Milwaukee as a popular pick to be the latest No. 12 seed to upset a five seed. Middle Tennessee has a chance to even reach the Sweet 16 in a loaded South Region.

Their biggest success to date came a year ago, stunning Michigan State as a No. 15 seed. Texts and messages poured in celebrating the shocking win, then the bottom fell out in lost to Syracuse by 25 in the second round.

Even though they were blown out by the Orange, the big win against the Spartans lingered to the point that Davis had to sit his team down in July and remind everyone they could not fast-forward to March.

“Nick Saban’s the best at it where they go through that same process all the time, so we got back to the basics of what really makes you good,” Davis said.

It also helps to have talent, and Davis’ team has that.

JaCorey Williams, a 6-foot-8 and 220-pound forward, paid his own way to St. Louis to watch that upset of Michigan State while sitting out his transfer year from Arkansas. Now he is Middle Tennessee’s leading scorer, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Tyrik Dixon has started 32 of 34 games at point guard as a freshman.

Davis still had senior Reggie Upshaw and junior guard Giddy Potts along with a deeper bench.

“It makes us a tough team to beat,” Upshaw said.

The Blue Raiders (30-4) have lost only once in 2017, 57-54 at UTEP which they avenged in the league tournament last week by 26 points. They beat a pair of NCAA Tournament teams in UNC Wilmington, the No. 12 seed in the East; and Vanderbilt, the ninth seed in the West. They also beat a second SEC team, downing Mississippi by 15 in Oxford.

After fighting for respect a season ago, Davis said Middle Tennessee has gotten every team’s best shot. That has helped build the Blue Raiders’ confidence.

“I talk to them all the time about being a national program, and I think they carry themselves like they think they belong in the elite of college basketball,” Davis said.

Middle Tennessee’s No. 12 seed is three spots better than a year ago. But Davis still worries where his team would’ve been if they hadn’t won the league’s automatic bid with the tournament title even with a nonconference strength of schedule of 18, a 35 RPI, the first team receiving votes in the final AP college basketball rankings.

Conference USA last sent two teams to the tournament in 2012 when Memphis, now in the American Athletic Conference, was still a member.

“That was my only thought process,” Davis said. “Where do we go from here?”

For now, the Blue Raiders must prove they aren’t a one-year wonder even though they’ve already made school history simply by qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years.

“To kind of cement ourselves up there with those mid-major teams that are known nationally, it’s all about being consistent year in and year out,” Upshaw said.

That’s where Davis believes experience will be a huge benefit.

“Boy, that feeling that our players had last year,” Davis said, :I mean you want to be back in the worst way.”