Middle Tennessee looks even more dangerous than last season

Tuesday January 24th, 2017

Remember Middle Tennessee? How could you forget? The Blue Raiders pulled off the shock of the 2016 NCAA tournament when they stunned No. 2 seed Michigan State—a national title pick of many—in the first round. The hot shooting of forward Reggie Upshaw and guard Giddy Pots, among others, led Middle Tennessee to that win—and now they’re back for more.

Upshaw and Potts, now a senior and junior, are once again key anchors for the Blue Raiders. And while three other starters have departed, Middle Tennessee gained the services of Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who sat out the 2015–16 season but has emerged this year as the team’s leading scorer. The 6' 8" Williams never quite broke out with the Razorbacks, spending three years as a role player, but he’s found the perfect home in Conference USA.

With averages of 17.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game on 52.6% shooting, Williams has been one of the conference’s most valuable players. In fact, Williams, Upshaw and Potts are all currently on kenpom.com’s five-player All-Conference USA team, an enviable trio that none of its opponents can match. It’s no wonder then that the Blue Raiders have opened C-USA play 7–0, including four road wins. Middle Tennessee is 17–3, and has a 23-point home win over Vanderbilt, a 15-point road win over Ole Miss and a win over upstart UNC Wilmington on its résumé; it’s one of just two teams to beat the Seahawks so far.

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Those victories show why this year’s version of Middle Tennessee should be considered scarier than last year’s, even despite the Spartan stunner. Last season’s Blue Raiders were a good mid-major team that finished second in Conference-USA and had enough strong three-pointer shooters to outgun Michigan State. This year’s team is only shooting a tad worse from three, but it has been considerably more efficient on offense and has improved defensively as well. And while Middle Tennessee has been solid again from behind the arc, it’s relying on the three ball much less this season, which gives it more leeway on an off-shooting night.

Its improved efficiency statistics have added up to a No. 46 ranking on kenpom.com, and it fares even better, No. 35, in the RPI. All of that is to say that, barring a downward turn in the last several weeks of the season, the Blue Raiders should do better than the No. 15 NCAA tournament seed they were last season—if, of course, they make it there. Middle Tennessee would likely be a trendy first-round upset pick as a No. 12 (its slot in SI.com’s latest Bracket Watch) or No. 13 seed, and while some would probably base that on what it did last year, this team can more than stand on its own.

The Blue Raiders have a favorable schedule the rest of the way in conference play. Louisiana Tech is looking like their biggest challenger for the regular-season crown, but the Blue Raiders only have to face the Bulldogs once (this Saturday) and hold home court advantage for that game. If they can get that win and push their advantage atop the C-USA to two games, they’ll be in very good shape for grabbing the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. From there, anything can happen, but this is an experienced team with a multitude of weapons, and it shouldn’t be underestimated either now or in March.

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Game of the Week: Nevada at Boise State, Wednesday at 10 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

Nevada made headlines a few weeks ago for its wild 25-point comeback in a double overtime win over New Mexico, but the Wolf Pack have had plenty of other success this season. Just two years removed from a disastrous 9–22 campaign, Nevada (16–4) is in the midst of what stands to be its best year since 2011–12. Both it and the Broncos (12–6) are on top of the Mountain West at 5–2 in conference play, setting up Wednesday’s game as the opportunity for one to take control of sole possession of first place—though the two will meet again in late February. Wolf Pack guard Marcus Marshall and Boise State forward Chandler Hutchison are two of the top players in the conference.

Player to Watch: Grand Canyon senior guard DeWayne Russell

Russell was largely responsible for Grand Cayon’s near-upset of Louisville in a raucous GCU Arena in December. The 5' 11" guard poured in 42 points that night—60% of the Antelopes’ scoring output—helping Grand Canyon take a narrow halftime lead before the Cardinals took control in the second half to win by nine. Russell had his way with the Louisville defense in that one; an impressive feat considering that defense is one of the very best in the country.

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And while Russell hasn’t had a performance quite like that since, he’s continued to have a tremendous senior season. Ninth in the nation in scoring (22.7 ppg), on 42.8% shooting, Russell adds 3.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He’s played a full 40-minute game eight times this season and has rarely left the court during WAC play so far, playing in 98.8% of the action. Russell can shoot it from outside (40.7%), but he most often utilizes a mid-range and pull-up game, which was on full display in the loss to the Cardinals. Grand Canyon only made the jump to Division I in 2013, but behind Russell, the Antelopes will aim for their first D-I NCAA tournament this year.

Stat of the Week: 44.3

If you’re looking to slow the Cal State Bakersfield offense, you might want to zero in on Roadrunners sophomore guard Damiyne Durham, who has taken 44.3% of his team’s shots when he’s on the court—a percentage that leads the nation and is 4.3% higher than anyone else, per kenpom.com. Nearly 70% of his shots come from behind the arc, where he’s averaging nine three-point attempts per game and shooting 36.3%.

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