National media does not often shine light upon basketball programs from the “mid-majors,” a term that refers to all Division I conferences outside of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC 12 and SEC.
There are certain exceptions, however.
Consider Gonzaga, VCU and Butler. Although they respectively hail from the West Coast Conference, the Atlantic Ten Conference and the Big East, each team has climbed into the national scene thanks to perennial appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Butler and VCU have earned a bid to March Madness six times through the past seven seasons, while Gonzaga not only has earned a bid in 19 consecutive seasons but also has reached the Final Four of this year’s Tournament, marking their best postseason run in school history.
Other basketball programs are fighting for admittance to the upper echelon of the mid-majors. Examples include Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference, Princeton in the Ivy League and Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference.
However, one of the most recent and strongest contenders is Middle Tennessee State University.
The Blue Raiders first garnered national attention in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, when they stunned Michigan State in the first round with a 90-81 victory. The upset marked just the eighth time in 32 years that a No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2 seed in the Round of 64.
”Just the national branding over that one game," MTSU head coach Kermit Davis said, "It's helped recruiting. If we walk through an airport, people recognize our players. People give our program more credit.”
Middle Tennessee carried its Cinderella story momentum from last year into this year, producing arguably one of the best seasons in school history.
The team tallied a 31-5 record with double-digit wins over Belmont, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Junior Giddy Potts and seniors JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw averaged more than 14 points per game while earning All-Conference USA honors. And Middle Tennessee ranked in the nation’s Top 25 for the first time in school history after their regular-season finale, a 93-59 win over Florida Atlantic.
"Just to be ranked in the last regular-season poll by these coaches that have seen your whole body of work means something," Davis said. "For a guy like me (who) has been invested for 15 years and seen how much our program has grown … I am just so proud for our university."
The Blue Raiders' success this season resulted in large part from effective handling of the basketball. The team’s three top scorers — Potts, Williams and Upshaw — each averaged less than two turnovers per game, and the Blue Raiders as a whole earned the 11th best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation at 1.461.
“That’s probably one of the best things we do as a team, limit the amount of turnovers,” Davis said. “In a basketball game, (with) the limited number of possessions that you can get, when you take care of the ball and get shots at the goal, that’s huge.”
The Blue Raiders finished the 2016-17 regular season with a 17-1 interconference record. They went on to win the Conference USA title and an automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Tournament, where their remarkable year came to an end in the Round of 32.
They upset Minnesota in the first round but fell to Butler 74-65 in the second round.
Although this loss undoubtedly disappoints Middle Tennessee fans, it should not belittle the Blue Raiders’ accomplishments this season. For the first time, the team won the conference title and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years.
The loss should not quench excitement for the Blue Raiders’ future.
On March 24, Middle Tennessee offered Davis a seven-year contract extension that will keep him at the team’s helm through the 2023-24 season. Davis is already the winningest coach in school history with an all-time record of 307-180 (0.630), and he looks to further carry his team into the national spotlight.
"I've never been more energized and excited about the future of Middle Tennessee basketball," Davis said. "We have a lot of hard work ahead of us but look forward to gaining traction at a national level academically, on the court, and in the continued growth of our Blue Raider fan base.”
Although Middle Tennessee will lose two of its top players to graduation, Williams and Upshaw, the team returns 10 active players from the roster. Four of them are presumed to be secure starters for the 2017-18 season: Tyrik Dixon at guard, Brandon Walters at center, Ed Simpson at small forward and Potts at guard.
There is no question that Potts is the best returning player for MTSU. This season he averaged 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 42 percent from the court and 38 percent from the 3-point line. He will be the team’s senior leader.
There are also high hopes for Walters at center. Coming off the bench this season, the 6-10, 265-pound redshirt junior showed flashes of great play. He led the team in rebounds per minute as well as field goal percentage (60.3). And in each of Middle Tennessee’s Tournament games, Walters scored in double-digits.
Time will tell if Davis can guide this new group of players and his basketball program to the upper echelon of the mid-majors. A year from now, if Davis finds himself in the second round of the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year, analysts may start saying he has done so.
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