Middle Tennessee State is far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference.
Let’s start with the obvious: they went 19-1 in league play. Their only loss came to Arkansas State on the road in overtime. Arkansas State won the Sun Belt’s Western Division with a 12-8 record. South Alabama, who finished second to MTSU in the Eastern Division, had a 14-6 record.
The Blue Raiders, in other words, won their league — which was a true, double round-robin, meaning they played every team in the league at home and on the road — by a full five games. That’s incredible. But there are two problems here:
A) It may not be enough to get the Blue Raiders an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as their impressive RPI is overshadowed by the fact that their only top 100 win came against Ole miss.
B) They now have to extend that dominance for three more games in order to earn the automatic bid for the conference.
As much as we all love upsets and excitement during Championship Week, you really should be rooting for the Blue Raiders to get that automatic bid. They are good enough to make a run in the Big Dance.
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Where: Hot Springs, Arkansas
When: March 8-11
Final: March 11th, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Favorite: Middle Tennessee State
To expand on what we wrote above, the Blue Raiders are a deep, balanced and veteran group that has experienced both regular season dominance and postseason disappointment. After running through the Sun Belt last season, they dropped a couple games down the stretch and lost in the conference tournament, winding up in the NIT. To get an idea of what this team is all about, think about this stat: MTSU dominated the league as thoroughly as a league can be dominated, yet they had just one player — Marcos Knight — get named to one of the two all-conference teams. Knight averaged 12.6 points and 5.4 boards. Six other players in the ten man rotation average between 6.3 points and 8.6 points.
And if they lose?: South Alabama has the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year on their roster and nearly took MTSU out at home back in January. But the Jaguars also lost by 35 to the Blue Raiders on the road. Arkansas State is the one team that has beaten the Blue Raiders this year, and Kenpom has then as the second-most likely team to win the tournament.
Sleepers: North Texas has been beat-up all season and as disappointing as any team in the country, but they may actually be the most talented team in the Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic lost eight out of ten at one point this season, but they have a dynamic back court that can put up points in a hurry when they get hot.
– Tony Mitchell, North Texas: He’s a lottery pick, even if he hasn’t played like one since last March.
– Augustine Rubit, South Alabama: Rubit averaged 18.9 points and 10.0 boards this season and notched 16 double-doubles.
– TJ Price, Western Kentucky: Price is a big-time scorer that dealt with some injuries during the season but seemed to hit his stride down the stretch.
CBT Prediction: Middle Tennessee State will roll. They’re not going to want a repeat of last year’s disappointment.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.