Can Middle Tennessee State Finish Strong, Reach NCAA Tournament?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are on almost an identical path as last year as the Sun Belt Conference Tournament approaches. Head coach Kermit Davis is sure hoping for a different result.

Last year, when Davis’ Blue Raiders finished the regular season 14-2 in the Sun Belt and earned a No. 1-seed in the conference tournament before bowing out in the second round to the 9th-seeded Arkansas State Red Wolves following a first round bye. They accepted a bid to the NIT, advancing to the quarterfinals before losing to Minnesota, 78-72. Bittersweet.

This year, with a sour taste still in their mouths, the Blue Raiders have ravaged Sun Belt opponents en route to an 11-1 mark in conference and lead the Sun Belt East Division by three games, thanks to the 14th-best defensive efficiency in the country. They thrashed the West Division leader, Arkansas-Little Rock, 82-50 in mid-January. They’re currently ranked 7th by ESPN in its Mid-Major Power Rankings, and are riding an eight-game conference winning streak with an average margin of victory of 13.3 points per game. To say they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder might be a bit of an understatement.

The Blue Raiders played a challenging schedule early on to help prepare them for a run in March, this time with hopes it’ll be in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve played (and beaten) Central Florida, Ole Miss (before they were ranked) and Vanderbilt. They also played at Florida but lost by 21.

The benchmark for their success has certainly been their defense. They’re allowing only 58.6 points and just 8.1 assists per game while holding opponents to 40.5 percent shooting.

I mentioned their defensive efficiency–they give up only 87.9 points per 100 possessions. Part of the reason for their efficiency is the knock-down-drag-em-out type basketball they play. They don’t score a whole lot of points, but they don’t have to–they limit possessions by working the shot clock on offense and swarming on defense. Their defensive intensity can backfire on them from time to time–they’re 3rd in the nation in fouls committed (469) but fortunately hasn’t led to many free throws.

Their defense is so good, opponents are only shooting 62.6% from the free throw line–third in Division I.

As good as their record indicates they are and as good as their defense is, unless the sum of all their hard works equals a trip to the Field of 68, they won’t be satisfied in Murfreesboro.

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