Middle Tennessee entered the NCAA Tournament with all eyes on it despite being a No. 12 seed, and the Blue Raiders lived up to the hype by beating overmatched Minnesota in the first round.
MILWAUKEE — No leaping into each other’s arms. No pointing into the camera and lifting the chest of the jersey.
Not Middle Tennessee. That was so last year’s Blue Raiders.
JaCorey Williams dribbled out the clock – OK, there might’ve been a couple exaggerated high, hard dribble in there – then handed it to the referee and joined his teammates for some harmless high-fives after No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee defeated fifth-seeded Minnesota, 81-72, on Thursday. And Williams wasn’t even in uniform last year when the Blue Raiders shocked No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round.
But he remained subdued. Just like MTSU did when Minnesota took a 7-0 lead to start the game. And just like it did when the Golden Gophers went on a brief run in the second half to pull within seven points. And just like it did after its previous 30 wins.
And why not? Middle Tennessee was the better team all along. It was under-seeded by the committee and pitted against an undeserving No. 5 seed in Minnesota.
Don’t get it twisted, though. The Blue Raiders didn’t win because the Gophers played poorly. They won because they were better. Plain and simple.
“The only difference is last year we were a major underdog, and this year everybody either had us winning by two (points) or losing by two,” said Reggie Upshaw, who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds and helped end Minnesota’s second-half run. “But we still kept the same mindset coming into the game (that) we would be able to walk away with a win.”
Coach Kermit Davis wasn’t surprised, either. Middle Tennessee didn’t get caught up in the NCAA Tournament moment, or in the increased attention throughout the season.
“Our record speaks for itself and kind of what we’ve done all year long,” Davis said. “I know our players don’t think it was an upset by any means.”
There should be no more Cinderella talk when it comes to these Blue Raiders. They have experienced senior leadership in Upshaw and Williams, who step up their games when guys like Giddy Potts get in foul trouble, as Potts did Thursday.
They have role players like Tyrik Dixon, Edward Simpson and Brandon Walters – unsung heroes who don’t need big-time recognition to feel appreciated. They simply do their jobs.
And they have a head coach in Davis who has been at Middle Tennessee for the last 15 years and has brought it to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five years. The Blue Raiders winning shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore.
“We’re a loose team. We have a lot of fun,” Davis said. “But when you blow that whistle, that team is a focused group. There was no doubt in their mind they were going to win the game.”
Last year, Middle Tennessee lost that focus in the second round and got blown out by 25 points against a Syracuse team that made an improbable run to the Final Four. If the Blue Raiders make that mistake Saturday, they’ll be sent home again as a one-hit wonder.
Davis is determined not to let that happen again.
“I took this program over 15 years ago. My biggest goal was trying to get our program to be like Butler,” Davis said.
“I have a ton of respect for their program, but I think it’s going to be a heck of a basketball game.”