All hands on deck: Middle Tennessee’s quest for a ‘three-peat’ in C-USA

Photo by Darwin Moore / MTSU Sidelines

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raider men’s basketball program has made a name for itself in the last two years. With two Conference USA Tournament championships, a regular season conference championship and two marquee wins over Big Ten programs, head coach Kermit Davis is closer than ever to making his team a national program.

It all started in March of 2016. After defeating Old Dominion in the 2016 C-USA Tournament, the Blue Raiders were given the 15th seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament. This meant a date with Denzel Valentine and the second seeded Michigan Spartans, a team many believed should’ve been a one seed.

Coming into the game as an 18-point underdog, Middle Tennessee came out on a mission. By the time Spartan coach Tom Izzo called his first timeout, the Blue Raiders were 6-6 from the floor and held a 15-2 lead over MSU.

While the Spartans cut the lead down to one at many points in the game, they never held a lead and Middle Tennessee shocked the world with a 90-81 win in one of the biggest upsets in history.

Enter the 2016-17 season.

The Blue Raiders reloaded in the offseason with the additions of players like JaCorey Williams, Antwain Johnson and Brandon Walters. Davis called this team his biggest and most athletic team ever. Expectations were sky-high, and the team did not disappoint.

In the nonconference schedule, the Blue Raiders blitzed through SEC teams in Mississippi and Vanderbilt and won three impressive games in the Challenge in the Music City Tournament. Conference play saw them dominate even more with a school-record 17 wins in C-USA play.

This led to Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw and Williams each being named to an All-Conference team, with Williams also taking home both the conference Newcomer of the Year and Player of the Year awards. Davis was also named the C-USA Coach of the Year to add to his list of honors.

After storming through UTSA, UTEP and Marshall in the conference tournament, the Blue Raiders were given the 12th seed in the South region of the 2017 NCAA Tournament and a first-round match-up with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Unlike the game against Michigan State, this game did not get off to a great start, and the Blue Raiders found themselves down 7-0 at the first timeout. After overcoming the early nerves, Middle Tennessee found themselves with a seven-point lead at halftime and in good position to take over the game.

After building a 17-point lead in the second half, the Golden Gophers cut the lead down to four points with a little under seven minutes remaining in the game. This is where Upshaw took over. The Chattanooga, Tennessee native went on an individual 7-0 run, and it led the Blue Raiders to an 81-72 victory, their second straight Round of 64 win over a Big Ten team.

With the 2017-18 season on the horizon, there are many question marks about this year’s team. They have to replace a lot of scoring with the departures of Upshaw and Williams and have a much younger team than they did a year ago. For this year’s team to be successful, they will need all hands on deck for the entire season.

Giddy Potts will be the go-to option

After two years that saw him average around 15 points a game, the senior guard is in prime position to have one of the best offensive years in Blue Raider history.

Potts made his name known on the national front two years ago by leading the nation in three-point percentage with a 50.6 percent clip. While he is a prolific shooter, what he showed this past season is that his slashing game is one of the most improved aspects of his game.

One of Potts’ best showings came in the C-USA Tournament Championship when he lit Marshall up for 30 points and was named to the All-Tournament team after the win.

For the first time in his career at Middle Tennessee, Potts will be the number one option in the scoring department. With a 12.1 points per game average for his career, Blue Raider nation should not be surprised if Potts finds a way to average closer to 20 points a contest in his senior season.

Walters and Johnson are prime breakout candidates

After seeing the top two scorers on the team leave for the NBA, the Blue Raiders will need other players from last year’s team to step up and play bigger roles for the team to succeed. Two such players are senior Brandon Walters and junior Antwain Johnson.

While neither of the two put up gaudy numbers last season, they each had games where they flashed signs of being very good scorers.

Walters proved to be one of the more efficient scores in recent memory with solid showings against Minnesota and Butler in the NCAA Tournament. The junior put up 10 points on 5-6 shooting against the Golden Gophers before scoring 11 points against the Bulldogs in the Blue Raiders’ final game of the season.

One thing that showed during the conference tournament was the fact that no team in C-USA had the size to stop Walters. When the Blue Raiders needed a basket, they often turned to Walters because he had so much size on his defender and he scored rather easily. This was never more true than the contest against Marshall when he scored eight points on 4-5 shooting from the floor. Look for him to be a major contributor this coming season.

Johnson is a player that Kermit Davis still believes is learning how to use all of his talents together, but the results so far have been very promising. When the team struggled for offense in the second half of the Butler game, Johnson put together one of his best games of the year by scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-12 shooting from the floor.

Johnson also showed off great athleticism for a 6-foot-2 guard, landing multiple dunks throughout the year that had Blue Raider fans cheering loudly. His main area of improvement should be his outside shot and if that does get better, he could take a major step in his development this coming season.

All hands on deck must be the mentality

When all’s said and done, this is going to be a more challenging run through C-USA than it was last year. Western Kentucky, Marshall and Old Dominion all figure to be better challengers to the Blue Raider crown. Middle Tennessee will need everyone to play well if they team can make it a three-peat in the Conference USA Tournament.

From Giddy Potts and Antwain Johnson to Nick King and Therren Shelten-Szmidt, the Blue Raiders will need all hands on deck to make this year another one to remember for Middle Tennessee faithful.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

For more sports stories, follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter and Periscope at @Sidelines_Sport.

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