Conference: C-USA (Auto bid)
Record: 30-4 (17-1)
NCAA tournament seed: 12, South
How they got to the Big Dance
No team had a bigger upset in the NCAA tournament last year than the Blue Raiders. Beating No.2 seed Michigan State, a team that many picked to win the tournament, was the talk of the tournament. This year’s Middle Tennessee team may be even better. The Blue Raiders lost only one conference game, a three-point defeat at UTEP, which was their only loss since their Dec. 21 defeat against Georgia State. Despite a strength of schedule that ranks 165th, they boast wins over Vanderbilt and UNC Wilmington. The winners of ten in a row are led on offense by Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, and play stingy defense, only allowing 63.3 points per game.
The Blue Raiders won the Conference USA regular season title and then won the conference tournament in order to secure the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
This team has to have some confidence. Obviously, it is not the same team as last year, but the players have to hold the belief that they have the ability to succeed in the tournament like they did last year. This team is hot, and no opponent wants to run into a hot, confident underdog in March.
Also, the Blue Raiders have the scoring trio of JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts, and Reggie Upshaw, who all average over 14 points a game, and a combined 47.6 points per game. Having these offensive options could cause problems for opposing teams, especially because of them all playing at different spots on the floor. Potts can cause problems as a guard, and Upshaw and Williams cause problems as forwards.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
Can lightning strike twice? This year’s Middle Tennessee team is seeded higher than last year’s team, and isn’t playing the powerhouse Michigan State. However, the Blue Raiders will not be sneaking up on anyone. With Potts, Upshaw and Williams averaging 47.6 of the Middle Tennessee’s 75 points, the other team will have to focus on marginalizing the Blue Raiders’ offense. If other teams are able to effectively neutralize these three, Middle Tennessee could be primed for a quick exit.
Player to watch: Forward JaCorey Williams
The Arkansas transfer leads the Blue Raiders in scoring and rebounding. Averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, he drastically increased his output from his days at Arkansas. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward is shooting 54 percent from the field and 71 percent from the free throw line. These productive and efficient numbers made Williams the Conference USA Player of the Year. In his three years at Arkansas, he did not average more than 20 minutes a game, so being the main focus on a big stage like the NCAA tournament will be a new experience.