Middle Tennessee burst onto the national scene last year, and the Blue Raiders still aren’t feeling any pressure heading into this NCAA Tournament with many expecting them to beat another Big Ten foe.
MILWAUKEE – Middle Tennessee arrived in St. Louis at this time last year embracing the underdog role as a No. 15 seed going up against Michigan State, which many believed could win the national championship.
One year and one historic upset later, the Blue Raiders are in a far different position.
“This year, we’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody,” forward Reggie Upshaw said.
Middle Tennessee is a trendy pick – more than the normal No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament – to knock off fifth-seeded Minnesota when it faces the Golden Gophers in a first-round matchup Thursday in Milwaukee. But that doesn’t mean the Blue Raiders are feeling much differently than last year, when they defeated the No. 2 seed Spartans.
If anything, they’re even more hungry.
Everyone remembers the Michigan State victory, but most also forget that Middle Tennessee was crushed 75-50 by Syracuse in the second round. A large contingent of amateur bracket analysts likely haven’t even seen the Blue Raiders play since that loss to the Orange, or realize they enter Thursday’s game against Minnesota with a 30-4 record.
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure because we’re still a 12 seed,” Upshaw said. “It still would be considered an upset if we won, but to us it wouldn’t be an upset. We know we have a good team and we know what kind of team we are.”
Many outsiders believe they know Middle Tennessee, too. And even if they’re simply picking it to advance because of last year, they’re more inclined to be correct.
Jacorey Williams redshirted last season after transferring from Arkansas and paid his own way last year to attend Middle Tennessee’s two games in St. Louis. He stepped right in this year, averaging 17.3 points and winning Conference USA Player of the Year.
Coach Kermit Davis calls Upshaw and Williams two of the most versatile forwards in the country, referring to them as point forwards who bring the ball up the floor regularly. Williams’ addition makes the Blue Raiders even better than the team that beat Michigan State last year, which lost three starters.
“We’re going to get Minnesota’s very, very best shot,” Davis said. “I think it’s great for Middle Tennessee. For people around the country to now notice us as a national program and picking us to win, I think that’s great for our program and shows how far we’ve come.”
Davis and his players insist they’re just as relaxed and excited as they were heading into last year’s Tournament despite the role reversal. There’s no feeling of having to live up to outside expectations just because Middle Tennessee is being penciled into the second round – and beyond – and many brackets.
“This team is a loose team, it’s a fun team,” Davis said. “I think it’s similar to last year. We were confident then, too. Last year, I didn’t know if our best was good enough to beat Michigan State, but I knew we’d play well. I expect our team to play really well (Thursday).”