Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

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Sun Belt announces scheduling tweaks to bolster NCAA tournament resumes

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Add the Sun Belt to the list of conferences getting creative with its schedule in order to boost its NCAA tournament profile.

The league is shifting to a 20-game “smart schedule” with the final four games of each team’s conference schedule determined by how they fared in the first 16 in order to pit the top three teams against each other for an extra home-and-away series to finish the year.

It will work like this:

After 16 games, the league will be broken up into four pods – Pod A (#1, #2, #3), Pod B (#4, #5, #6), Pod C (#7, #8, #9) and Pod D (#10, #11, #12). Then each team will play the other two teams in its pod twice, once at home and once away. That away the top teams will get an RPI (or whatever metric you prefer) boost by playing the best competition the conference has to offer, rather than some sub-300 team that will be a drag on its profile regardless of the final score.

The Sun Belt is also tweaking its conference tournament format. The pods will essentially dictate seeding. A team from Pod A cannot be seeded lower than third, for instance. The tournament will also feature what the league is calling a “Final Four” starting in 2020. The top two seeds will earn byes into the semifinals, which will be played at the home of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Smoothie King Center. Seeds three and four receive byes into the quarterfinals and will host whichever two teams emerge from the tournament’s opening two rounds before moving to Smoothie King Center for the semis and championship.

“I applaud the commitment of our president and chancellors, athletic directors, and basketball coaches for their willingness to accept the unique concepts that were approved today,” Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement.  “Not only will these initiatives push our men’s and women’s basketball success to the next level, but our student-athlete and fan experience will be elevated with our new tournament format and host site at the Smoothie King Center.”

While a little quirky, these changes make a lot of sense, and you have to give the Sun Belt – and Conference USA and the WCC – credit for being willing to experiment and innovate in order to bolster its members’ resumes. Given that the scales are weighted so much toward teams from power conferences, it’s almost essential for mid-majors to try to game the system a little themselves in order to put itself in the best position possible.

These changes may be a little gimmicky and will almost certainly confuse fans for the first year or two, but they almost certainly will be an unmitigated success for helping the conference’s national profile come Selection Sunday.

Middle Tennessee State in line for a long weekend after falling in C-USA quarters

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One of the country’s best mid-major teams is going to have an agonizing wait for Selection Sunday.

Middle Tennessee State’s tournament future is in major jeopardy after the Blue Raiders lost Thursday in its opening game of the Conference USA tournament, getting bested by Southern Miss, 71-68 in overtime.

Without C-USA’s automatic bid, Middle Tennessee State owns a 24-7 record and a shaky position heading into this weekend.

Wins against Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Murray State are helpful, but they represent the bulk of the Blue Raiders’ resume. On the other side of the ledger are two losses to Marshall and now a loss to a sub-200 team in the Golden Eagles. That’s just not a profile that’s going to have coach Kermit Davis sleeping easy the next three nights.

This also could spell trouble for high-major bubble teams. If the committee does ultimately judge the Blue Raiders as worth of a spot among the 68, that suddenly makes C-USA a two-bid league and vaporizes an at-large spot that was anticipated to be available.

Middle Tennessee State has spent the last three years establishing itself as the real deal with back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and a first-round win over Minnesota last year before putting together another strong regular season this year. This loss to Doc Sadler’s Southern Miss squad, though, is a harsh reminder about life in the C-USA right now. What you’ve done in the past and what you’ve done over the last three months don’t matter much if you can’t run the table in the conference tournament.

No. 12 Middle Tennessee State proves itself with win over No. 5 Minnesota

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Middle Tennessee State was just better.

That may seem obvious after the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota, 81-72, in the NCAA tournament’s first round, but it bears mentioning.

Conference USA’s best team was clearly superior to the Big Ten’s second-highest seeded team in the NCAA tournament.

It was evident, it was decisive and it was without a doubt. The Blue Raiders are the real deal.

I know our players don’t think it was an upset by any means,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.

Neither did Las Vegas, which pegged the Blue Raiders as the betting favorite. Apparently, only the selection committee thought the difference between Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota was seven seed lines. Whatever the relative disparities in schedule and conference strengths, that was a mistake.

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

A 7-0 start to the game and a late run by the Gophers notwithstanding, the Blue Raiders controlled the style and substance of the game for nearly its entirety. They exerted their will and got their way at almost every turn.

Minnesota’s strength is its interior with Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy one of the best one-two shot blocking tandems in the country. Middle Tennessee State went right at them, putting both in precarious foul trouble throughout the game. The Blue Raiders were savvier and stronger, forcing Lynch and Murphy to play themselves out of the game at times.

It was the same story on the glass, where Middle Tennessee truly won the game. The Blue Raiders kept Minnesota to just four offensive rebounds while pulling down 11 themselves. Most times out, you’d expect the Big Ten team to be able to out-muscle, out-tough and out-athlete a Conference USA squad, but it was the exact opposite Thursday at the Bradley Center as Middle Tennessee State stronger and deeper.

“They’re a big, strong, physical team,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We were getting tired, and they kept subbing and subbing and getting sharper as the game went on.”

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

This was no fluke or Cinderella story. This Blue Raiders team isn’t the one that shocked Michigan State last season. They didn’t need to shoot some outrageous percentage. They just needed to be themselves. That was plenty good enough.

“The only difference was last year we were a major underdog,” senior Reggie Upshaw said, “and this year everybody kind of had us either winning by 2 or losing by 2. Pretty much even matchup.

“We still kept the same mindset coming into the game. We just played our game, you know, we would be able to walk away with a win.”

Upshaw had a lot to do with it. The 6-foot-8 forward finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but his contribution to winning went beyond numbers.

After trailing by as many as 17, the Gophers went on an 18-5 run and pulled within four on a three-point play from freshman Eric Curry. Seconds later, Upshaw responded with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven. After a Middle Tennessee State stop, Upshaw got another bucket, this one a layup to put the lead at nine. The Gophers scored on the next possession, but Upshaw got another bucket, keeping Minnesota far enough away that the Gophers could never close.

“He’s winning better than any player in the history of our school,” Davis said. “He made big shot, big play for the last two, three years.”

With players like Upshaw and a team like Middle Tennessee State, picking a 12 over a 5 is no upset. It’s chalk.

“When you blow the whistle, that team is a focused group, great practice team,” Davis said. “Today at game day practice right on point, and there was no doubt in their mind that they thought they were going to win the game.”

They were proved right. They were just better.

Introducing Cinderella: Will Middle Tennessee pull off another upset in 2017?

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Conference: Conference USA

Coach: Kermit Davis Jr.

Record: 30-4 (17-1 C-USA)

Ratings and Rankings:

– Kenpom: 49
– RPI: 36
– AP/USA Today: N/A

Seeding: The Blue Raiders have 30 wins on the year, a pair of which came against the RPI top 50. NBC Sports current bracket projection tabs them as a No. 11 seed. A scary No. 11 seed.

Names you need to know: The big three you need to know for Middle Tennessee State is JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts. Upshaw and Potts introduced themselves to the nation last year, combining for 40 points in No. 15 over No. 2 upset of Michigan State. Williams, the transfer from Arkansas, was a first team all-Conference USA performer this year, averaging 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Stats you need to know: 11. That’s how many 3-pointers they sunk in an upset win over No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round of 2016 NCAA Tournament. While they don’t have some of the big men who helped space the floor, they still have the potential light it up from deep.

Big wins, bad losses: Middle Tennessee has a bunch of good wins: a neutral floor win over UNC Wilmington — another trendy upset pick next week — at home against Vanderbilt and on the road against Ohio Valley regular season champion Belmont. Middle Tennessee’s worst loss came against Tennessee State back in November, allowing 46 second half points in a 74-63 defeat.

How’d they get here?: The Blue Raiders dominated C-USA. They set a record for 17 conference wins, 14 of which were decided by 10 or more points. After getting a fight from Marshall in the second half, Middle Tennessee stretched the lead to double figures, picking up a 83-72 tournament title win.

Outlook: Middle Tennessee will be the trendy upset pick. Although it won’t be surprising giving its upset win over Michigan State from a season ago. The Blue Raiders are led by a trio of reliable scorers, who all happen to be experienced upperclassmen. While this team is missing some key pieces from a season ago, they’ve become a more efficient team on both ends of the floor.

How do I know you?: From last year when they ruined your bracket.

VIDEO: Reggie Upshaw surprised by his brother on senior night

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Middle Tennessee won its seventh-straight game Saturday to finish the regular season 17-1 in winning the Conference USA title, but that wasn’t the highlight of the evening for the Blue Raiders.

During senior night ceremonies, Blue Raiders senior Reggie Upshaw was surprised by his brother Gage, an Air Force Academy cadet, bringing him to tears.

The Blue Raiders defeated FAU, 93-59, while Upshaw had 11 points and 10 rebounds. They open conference tournament play Thursday against either Western Kentucky or UTSA.

Team of the Week: UCLA Bruins

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We may not see a better win all season long than what UCLA did on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena, at least not in the eyes of the selection committee.

And that’s before you consider how talented Kentucky is, how well they have been playing this season and the fact that UCLA was playing their first road game of the season against them in front of 23,000 screaming members of Big Blue Nation.

With all that in mind, really consider what the Bruins did on Saturday, overcoming a sluggish start and an early Kentucky run to more-or-less manhandle the Wildcats for a solid 25 minutes. UCLA was up double-figures for the majority of the second half and would have won by that amount if it wasn’t for a late flurry of buckets from Kentucky.

And they did all of that despite the fact that Lonzo Ball really only played about 20 good minutes on Saturday. T.J. Leaf was terrific, Ike Anigbogu opened quite a few eyes and Aaron Holiday completely changed the course of the game when he entered in the first half.

It was a team effort, one that proved a point to everyone: This UCLA team is here to stay.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 03: Jevon Carter #2 of the West Virginia Mountaineers dribbles the ball against London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 3, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Jevon Carter (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • West Virginia: The Mountaineers certainly made a statement on Saturday, as they went into Charlottesville and knocked off No. 6 Virginia. They did so despite not having anyone on the roster score more than 11 points and while forcing just 14 turnovers. West Virginia really needed this win after falling against Temple earlier in the season.
  • Indiana: The Hoosiers landed their second elite win of the season as they knocked off No. 3 North Carolina in Assembly Hall on Wednesday night. This comes three weeks after they beat Kansas on a neutral court, giving them the best pair of wins in the country. The bad news? O.G. Anunoby sprained his ankle and will have to miss some time, but that’s neither here nor there. That injury isn’t going to take either of those wins off the board.
  • Middle Tennessee State: Kermit Davis may have a better team this season than the one that he had last season, when the Blue Raiders beat No. 2 seed Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Raiders obliterated Ole Miss on the road on Wednesday, following that up with a win at South Alabama.
  • Illinois: Coming off of a three-game losing streak that seemingly had Illinois fans ready to fire John Groce on the spot, Malcolm Hill and the Illini responded with a pair of quality wins. They knocked off Dennis Smith Jr. and N.C. State on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and followed that up by beating VCU, 64-46.
  • TCU: The Horned Frogs are one of just two teams in the Big 12 that remain undefeated after a 2-0 week. TCU not only knocked off potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz at the Washington Huskies for the second straight time, they also manhandled a good Arkansas State team, 77-54. Jamie Dixon and company will head to SMU and raucous Moody Coliseum on Wednesday. We’ll know more about them by then.