Middle Tennessee confident it will continue in the NCAAs
ST. LOUIS — They had been so cool. They had shocked the world, yes, but they had not shocked themselves, and so as 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee walked off the court after Friday’s fearless and complete victory over No. 2 seed Michigan State, the Blue Raiders carried themselves more like, say, a No. 9 seed toppling the No. 8, rather than only the eighth No. 15 in NCAA tournament history to win a game. They smiled and hugged, but they did not bounce off the walls. Their feet didn’t leave the ground. Within minutes their brilliantly named sharpshooting guard, Giddy Potts, was dispassionately telling reporters in the locker room about the unfinished and even more improbable business of advancing further still. “We just made history,” he said then. “It's a big deal, but it's not a big deal really.”
As the adrenaline wore off and the team left the cocoon of competition, the magnitude of the accomplishment took root. The team bus idled outside the Scottrade Center, waiting for a few players and coaches to wrap a series of interview requests, leaving those already on board to begin reliving a game they will remember all their lives. Jaqawn Raymond’s four-point play. Potts’s block. Reggie Upshaw Jr.’s dunk. The chatter continued over dinner at the team hotel overlooking the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium and then deep into the night, as Middle Tennessee's players fluttered in and out of one another’s rooms to watch highlights, waves of social media notifications draining their phone batteries. When they awoke on Saturday, a new day had recast the previous one in an uncanny hue. “Reggie and Jaqawn were talking at breakfast,” sophomore guard Edward Simpson said Saturday afternoon, some 22 hours after the final horn. “They were like, Damn, when we woke up this morning, I forgot that we played. It’s like a dream. Some people are still in awe.”
It had been, in the word’s truest definition, an awesome performance. The Blue Raiders had pushed repeatedly into the teeth of the Spartans’ defense, then buried it with bombs launched from beyond the arc. They had stymied the potential national player of the year, Michigan State point guard Denzel Valentine, with a revolving array of defensive schemes (switching among man-to-man, 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones), and grabbed nearly a third of their misses against the nation’s eighth-best defensive rebounding team. “We got beat by a team that played better than us today,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo, a current Hall of Fame finalist, told reporters after. His counterpart, Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis Jr., was kept so long by post-game TV and radio appearances that the bus ended up leaving the Scottrade Center without him.
The Blue Raiders enter Sunday’s game against Syracuse as the unlikeliest second-round party crashers in a tournament that has been overrun by them. They will again oppose an elite coach (Jim Boeheim, inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2006), a vaunted and difficult defense (Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone), and a name-brand program easily cast as one of March’s Goliaths. (That this year’s Orange team is seeded 10th and has lost 13 games will do little to dissuade that perception.) Middle Tennessee snuck up on Michigan State and the rest of America as a collection of directional-school unknowns with a clunky moniker (the full run-on: Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders) from an institution whose most famous alumni include Al Gore's father and one of the singers from the country band Lady Antebellum. Friday’s win was the school's first in the NCAA tournament in 27 years and the fifth ever for a program that has produced just two NBA players—Warren Kidd and Duane Washington—who combined to play 87 games in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Now thrust into the spotlight, the school's current representatives had proven to be well-cast for their center stage roles in March’s ever-refreshing drama. After Friday’s introduction, they are worth revisiting in more detail:
• Potts, the Blue Raiders’ burly, bearded sophomore shooting guard whose nickname (so given because of his mother’s giddiness at his birth) and shooting ability (his 50.3% mark leads the nation) seemed wished into existence by a March Madness marketing department. Against the Spartans he scored 19 points but most memorably full-palm swatted a three by Bryn Forbes (the nation’s third-best shooter) in the final 30 seconds. He was never one for fear: As a high school freshman in Athens, Ala., he had defeated a senior in a game of one-on-one, after which the senior threatened him. Soon thereafter they crossed paths at school. “I went into the hallway,” Potts recalled Saturday, “and told him I was gonna beat his ass, and I got suspended.” After beating Michigan State he spent much of the night playing Call of Duty: Black Ops III on the Xbox One he often brings on road trips and hanging out with his family. “We just talked about the game,” he said, “and how my uncle was on TV.”
• Upshaw, the springy, freckled 6'7" junior forward who led Middle Tennessee with 21 points on Friday, two of which came on a rim-hanging, tongue-darting dunk in the closing minute. His father played defensive end for the Blue Raiders in the mid-90s, but Reggie Jr. grew up in Chattanooga as a fan of the University of Tennessee. He had drawn interest from the Volunteers and Vanderbilt as a tight end but decided to stop pursuing football after breaking his ankle. Middle Tennessee offered him scholarships in both sports, and the football program has extended him a standing invitation. (Asked Saturday if he thought about accepting it, the junior paused and smiled: “We’re still thinking about it.”) His team bio touted his 2012 state title in the high jump (a 6'4" leap) as his greatest athletic achievement. It had since been topped, easily. “This,” he said Saturday, “is definitely the highlight of my life right now.”
• Darnell Harris, the senior 6'10" pick-and-pop specialist from Milwaukee who attended camp at Michigan State in high school, then scored 15 points against it as a college senior. He began his collegiate career at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, then headed to Northwest Florida State College to play juco ball before landing at Middle Tennessee last year. It was a long journey to NCAA tournament stardom and perhaps an even longer one to go without getting a haircut, which Harris has not done in five years. “I hated barbershops,” he explained Saturday. “I hated going and waiting for hours. That was one of my pet peeves.” Before this season he had promised his teammates that if they won the Conference USA tournament, he would shave off the long dreads he now keeps tied behind his head. He has yet to follow through. “They’ve been on me about it, so I guess I’ll do it someday,” he said. “I thought about cutting it, but in reality I get scared and can’t do it.”
• Simpson, a mechatronics engineering major and normally a 6'2" part-time starter who was recast as the team’s top bench cheerleader when he broke his right fibula and tore two ankle ligaments during a practice drill before the Conference USA tournament. Surgery was initially scheduled for this past Tuesday, but when his teammates won the league’s NCAA bid—as they had vowed after lying with him on the court following his injury, reciting prayers—he pushed the surgery back 10 days. When he tired of crutches, his insurance covered the purchase of a scooter on which he could rest his right leg at the knee while kicking it along with his left. On the first day his left foot caught a front wheel, nearly sending him toppling into a faceplant. He has since gotten the hang of it, and spent late Friday afternoon wheeling around the Blue Raiders’ locker room in joy. “People say I have too much fun on it,” he said, “like I look like a little kid.”
And so on. Despite the makings of a crowd-pleasing underdog they have carried themselves through St. Louis with the air of a top seed. The day before upending brackets everywhere they had spoken confidently of the matchup problems they would present for a team many were tabbing for the national title. They knew of the past 15-seed winners, but did not discuss them as motivation because they considered themselves relatives only on the bracket and not in truth. At one point in Friday’s second half, Aldonis Foote, a reserve juco transfer averaging eight minutes per game, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his hips while Valentine brought the ball up court against him. Asked about it after the game, Foote said, “I do commend the player that he is, but I don’t think he’s ever played against anybody that just really wanted to go at him and really just beat him.”
That belief in themselves “all starts with coach,” said Jarrod Lazarus, the team’s director of operations. Davis too had an enticing backstory, having risen to become Idaho’s head coach at age 28 and taken the Vandals to consecutive NCAA tournaments in his first two seasons. He left to take over at Texas A&M in 1990, then went 8-21 and resigned after the Aggies were found to have committed NCAA violations by providing benefits to a recruit from, of all places, Syracuse. “I made some mistakes there,” he said Saturday of his time in College Station. “We kind of had to recycle our career.” The process began with an assistant job at Chipola (Junior) College, then continued with another at Utah State, the head job again at Idaho for one season, and five years under his good friend John Brady, who was then the coach at LSU. In 2002 his climb back up the coaching rungs reached Middle Tennessee, where he has been since.
His rise was catalyzed by his preparation, for which he is known to be fanatical; after the Michigan State win, Blue Raiders assistant Win Case said they had gone into the game knowing everything the Spartans would run. Whatever element of surprise might have helped power Friday’s upset, Middle Tennessee carries into Sunday not only newfound expectations but also the placement under a greater microscope. Syracuse players watched the Michigan State game in their hotel, balancing a fan’s enjoyment with an opponent’s anticipatory focus (sharpened, one imagines, by the caliber of team the Blue Raiders were soaring past). Adrian “Red” Autry, the Orange assistant responsible for scouting Middle Tennessee, estimated he had watched 10 Blue Raiders games on film since Selection Sunday, searching for a tell that might reveal when Davis’s defense might shift. “I watched them enough yesterday and in tapes last night to know as much about them as I need to know,” said Boeheim, who before Friday night had not seen the Blue Raiders all season. “Maybe I know too much about them, in fact.”
He could be forgiven for the feeling. Middle Tennessee Mania had gripped the St. Louis sub-regional, providing insatiable fodder for the reporters who drive a site’s off-day media conversations. (See: this story.) On Thursday, during the Blue Raiders’ availability on the eve of their first game, their locker room was so devoid of outsiders that when a reporter (and always a reporter) spoke with a player many of his teammates looked on, rapt. In Saturday’s session multiple players held court with more than one interviewer at a time, their faces alit by TV cameras.
What they said remained unchanged: follow the game plan, trust in their coach, play how they play and more good will come. Now they said it to more people, who had more reason to believe them. Only Potts, the team’s burgeoning media star, seemed at all bothered by the sudden crowd. “I really don’t like doing media, but Eric, he made me do it,” he said, referring to Eric Beovich, the team’s communications director. “I’m getting used to it. It’s great to be part of this.”