From 1985, the year the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, through 2016, 148 teams seeded 11th through 15th won their first round games. Only four of those schools returned to the tournament as a double-digit seed the following year, and won their first-round game again. Middle Tennessee State became the 149th and fifth teams in those two groups Thursday. The 12th-seeded Blue Raiders topped fifth-seeded Minnesota, 81-72, advancing to the second round where they will meet Butler.
None of the four teams that preceded Middle Tennessee in winning games as a double-digit seed in consecutive tournaments—Tulsa in 2002-03, UW-Milwaukee in 2005-06, VCU in 2011-12, and Dayton in 2014-15—advanced to the Sweet 16 the second time around. The Blue Raiders didn’t the first time around, either, getting run out of the gym by Syracuse after taking down No. 2 seed Michigan State, viewed as one of the favorites to win the national championship, as a No. 15 seed. Unlike those four teams, however, this version of Middle Tennessee State is clearly better than last year’s, a fact not lost on head coach Kermit Davis.
“We’re totally different than we were last year,” Davis said after Thursday’s win over Minnesota, adding that this year’s Blue Raiders are in a better position to move on to the Sweet 16, “with our depth and our experience and the amount of games we've won.”
The first-round win over Minnesota was Middle Tennessee’s 31st of the season, third most in the country behind Gonzaga and Villanova. If they’re going to get their 32nd, and buck the trend of former back-to-back double-digit winners, they’ll have to beat the best team they’ve seen this season, a fact not lost on Davis.
“You beat Villanova twice, you have to be a heck of a defensive team,” Davis said of Butler. “We’ve done a lot of scouting on them. It has always been one of the best-positioned defenses in the country.”
It’s true that Butler did an excellent job defensively on Villanova in their two meetings, holding them to 58 and 66 points, and 12-of-50 from behind the arc in the two games combined. But offense is the Bulldogs calling card. They rank 18th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and own the ninth-lowest in turnover rate in the country. Butler presents a much different challenge to Middle Tennessee’s defense than Minnesota did in the first round.
To begin with, Butler features a lights-out three-point shooter in Avery Woodson. The fifth-year grad transfer knocked down six threes in Butler’s 76-64 win over Winthrop on Thursday. Minnesota’s most dangerous three-point shooter this season was Akeem Springs, who suffered a torn Achilles in the Big Ten Tournament. Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer can both hit from distance, but neither challenged the Blue Raiders defense in the first round.
Second, Andrew Chrabascz is a forward whose more skilled offensively than any frontcourt player on Minnesota. Chrabascz didn’t make a huge scoring impact in the win against Winthrop, but the Bulldogs can throw the ball into him anywhere within 10 feet of the hoop and let him go to work. Again, that wasn’t something Middle Tennessee had to worry about covering Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry. Chrabascz will present a much different, more dynamic challenge to Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams inside on Saturday.
Third, and this cannot be overstated, Middle Tennessee will not be able to overwhelm Butler with bodies the way it did Minnesota. Davis mentioned his team’s depth as a strength in his press conference on Thursday, and that is certainly true. It’s an even greater strength when the team you’re playing comes into the game with a six-man rotation and gets into early trouble up front. Butler will play eight guys on Saturday, four of which—Kelan Martin, Tyler Wideman and Nate Fowler, in addition to Chrabascz—are capable of banging with Upshaw and Williams in the paint. It will be a vastly different look for the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee is a skilled defensive team, and its multiple looks, including a 1-3-1, halfcourt trapping zone, gave Minnesota fits on Thursday. The Bulldogs, with Kamar Baldwin, Kethan Savage and Tyler Lewis, is better equipped to handle everything Davis will throw at them. If Middle Tennessee is going to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, it will need even more out of its offense than it got in the first round. And that is where the final challenge lies.
Baldwin did an incredible job shutting down Winthrop’s Keon Johnson on Thursday. He helped hold Winthrop’s best player to 7-of-19 from the floor, including 3-of-10 from distance. He’ll draw the primary assignment on Giddy Potts, the Blue Raiders electric point guard. The obvious difference between Johnson and Potts is their size. Johnson is 5’7”, while Potts is 6’2”. That means the latter will have a slight height advantage over Baldwin, who had a sizable height advantage over Potts. Still, neither Johnson nor Potts wins with height. Both win with speed, and that is something Baldwin also has in abundance, to go along with his top-flight on- and off-ball defensive ability. Middle Tennessee can’t likely won’t Butler without a big game from Potts. His battle with Baldwin will be one of the best individual matchups of the second round.