Middle Tennessee State entered the postseason as the top seed in the Sun Belt with a slim — albeit existent — shot at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But the Blue Raiders’ season came to crashing halt on Sunday night. On the strength of 16 points from Trey Finn, No. 9 seed Arkansas State upset MTSU 64-61 sending what many considered to be a potential mid-major darling to the NIT. And when I say “potential mid-major darling”, I mean it.
(UPDATE: No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock lost late last night as well, meaning that the door is wide-open for Denver and North Texas.)
MTSU is a good basketball team. They have a consistent double-double threat in 6’9″ LaRon Dendy, the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year, to anchor their front line. Throw in a handful of solid perimeter options and a team that can really lock down defensively, and you see why the Blue Raiders were able to win games against the likes of UCLA, Belmont, Akron and Ole Miss. MTSU was tied with Vanderbilt in the final minutes before losing by seven in Nashville. This group can play.
But they won’t be dancing, which is an unfortunate side effect of the way conferences decide their automatic bid. Denver is a solid team and North Texas has a potential NBA player in Tony Mitchell on their roster, but MTSU proved throughout the course of the season that they were the best team in the Sun Belt. Is a knock out tournament really the best way to determine a league champion after playing a 16 game conference schedule? I’m sure Iona fans are asking the same question right now.
Are we helping to dilute the quality of the bottom of the NCAA Tournament bracket by forcing the most-talented mid-majors to prove a second time they are the best team in their league?
The answer is probably yes, and while the excitement of Championship Week is worth missing out on that one time every decade that a 15 seed wins their first round game (at least for me it is), MTSU isn’t allowed to complain after this loss. At least not right away.
In the final two minutes, the Blue Raiders missed four free throws. Two of them were front-ends taken by Dendy. They cost themselves this game and will be playing in the NIT as a result.
Its a bummer, especially considering Iona lost to Fairfield earlier in the day, but MTSU would have a stronger argument is they had been beaten instead of given the game away.