Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4) are headed back to the NCAA Tournament, earning a twelfth-seed and a match-up with the fifth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers. Only a year removed from the shocking defeat of Michigan State, Middle is entering the tournament even stronger this year as they have a much healthier team.
One of the biggest missing pieces from last year’s Cinderella run was Ed Simpson, a now-junior guard that is widely considered to be the team’s best perimeter defender. Simpson suffered a broken ankle during the 2016 Conference USA Tournament and missed both NCAA games against Michigan State and Syracuse.
Needless to say, the Ocean Springs, Mississippi native is excited to compete on one of college basketball’s grandest stages.
“I feel great, just to be back out there on the court,” Simpson said. “I’ll be out there 100 percent, all [together] in my mind. I’m giving all I’ve got.”
While some may think that sitting out for a great run like the Blue Raiders had last year might be really hard, Simpson took the optimistic approach.
“It seems like it would be harder but I was just happy for my team in general,” Simpson said. “You want to be out there on the court with everybody doing your thing, but just to experience it was still worth it.”
After struggling through the month of March, Simpson stepped up in a big way for the 2017 conference tournament in Birmingham. In their opening match-up with UTSA, Simpson scored 11 points and hit three crucial shots from long range. It was a performance that head coach Kermit Davis has been waiting for.
“I thought Ed had a great conference tournament, he’s our best defender,” Davis said. “He’s such a great teammate, our guys love having him out there.”
Last year the team was in more of a underdog role, whereas this year they expect to do some damage. Sitting at 30-4 with both the conference regular season and tournament championship, they are poised to make an even bigger run. Adding Simpson to the mix makes them even more dangerous than before.
Even with the higher expectations, Davis has been quick to employ the same mentality that his team had last year.
“I got out some old practice plans that we had from [March Madness] last year, there won’t be a lot of physical contact this week,” Davis said. “We’ll cut hard and play hard but I just want our guys totally healthy, fresh and going into that game with a good mindset.”
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are a physical team that is tough on defense. For the Raiders to have any chance to win, they will have to continue their physical play on the boards.
“I think [the biggest key] is rebounding. That’s going to be the biggest thing for us,” Simpson said. “Just to be big on the boards and lock down on defense because the offensive end isn’t really a problem.”
The Blue Raiders and Golden Gophers will do battle on Thursday at 3 p.m. in Milwaukee. The game can also be viewed on TNT.