The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders won’t just be taking on Michigan State, but history as well.
Prior to this year’s NCAA tournament, only seven No. 15 seeds in NCAA history have managed to upset a No. 2 seed.
That’s good for an all-time record of 117-7.
The last occurrence of a 15-seeded team shocking the field came in the 2013 season, when Florida Gulf Coast University upset two-seed Georgetown. Other teams that have pulled off such an upset include: Lehigh (2012), Norfolk State (2012), Hampton (2001), Coppin State (1997), Santa Clara (1993) and Richmond (1991).
When No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee challenges two-seeded Michigan State Friday afternoon at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, the magic number will be eight. And out of all No. 15 versus No. 2 seeds in this season’s tournament field, MTSU and Michigan State could be one of the more intriguing matchups.
But what qualities in a team are “giant-killer” characteristics?
Most would agree that strong defense, rebounding and three-point shooting are at the top of the list when figuring out which teams are capable of pulling off an upset.
And MTSU has those traits.
Much like FGCU in its 2013 run to the Sweet Sixteen, the Blue Raiders have relied on their gritty defense and athleticism. After winning the C-USA championship on March 12, MTSU finished with the second-ranked scoring defense in Conference USA, giving up only 62.4 points per game.
Following injuries to guards Jacob Ivory (concussions) and Ed Simpson (ankle), MTSU senior guard JaQawn Raymond has shined in his new role at the point spot, especially on the defensive end.
When challenged by Old Dominion guard Trey Freeman, who led C-USA in scoring, Raymond restricted Freeman to 17 points on 7-of-23 shooting.
MTSU’s Perrin Buford and Reggie Upshaw have also been versatile for the Blue Raiders, both on offense and defense.
Offensively, Blue Raider guard Giddy Potts is the most efficient three-point shooter in the country with a 50.3 shooting percentage to lead the country.
One interesting point with the Blue Raiders is their ability to win high-scoring, or close-scoring, games.
In the C-USA tournament, MTSU defeated Marshall 99-90 to advance to the C-USA championship game. Against ODU in the C-USA title game, the Blue Raiders won a low-scoring contest, 55-53.
MTSU’s ability to grind out wins has been a season-long trend, and it may be the driving force for Friday’s game.
The Blue Raiders’ last tournament appearance came in the 2012-13 season, which ended in a loss to St. Mary’s in a play-in game. In that season, MTSU had an average winning margin of 17.7 points, with 19 wins coming by 10 or more points.
Summary: MTSU head coach Kermit Davis and the Blue Raiders weren’t a battle-tested team.
In contrast, the current lineup has only nine wins by 10 or more points with an average winning margin of 9.2 points. Some matchups haven’t been pretty, but the capability to close tight games may have prepared MTSU for March. Even with the lack of respect being shown to Conference USA by the selection committee, C-USA teams have become bracket busters over recent years.
During the 2014-15 season, No. 14 seed UAB upset No. 3 seed Iowa State. In 2010, 11-seeded Old Dominion upset No. 6 seed Notre Dame. Friday’s matchup is certainly a different case, but it still presents itself as an intriguing matchup due to MTSU’s strong play.
The Blue Raiders have held their last five opponents to a combined 38.7 shooting percentage from the field en route to their first conference championship since 1989.
If MTSU wants to shock the Spartans and win a tournament game for the first time since 1989, active defense must be the focus, much like FGCU did in its cinderella run.
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