I can't quite recall the last time a loss really helped a lesser-known college basketball team, but Middle Tennessee State is getting a helping of favorable media coverage after being downed by Vanderbilt over the weekend.
The Blue Raiders, a Sun Belt powerhouse that's slowly garnering "at large" consideration, may be one of the most underrated yet dangerous mid-majors in recent years. With Murray State's perfect start leaving the media starry-eyed, MTSU has racked up wins against UCLA, Ole Miss, Belmont and Akron.
Despite losing to the Commodores, the match-up against Vanderbilt was perfectly timed. MIddle Tennessee is on the national radar now and trending up, which is far better than being just a short-term blip in mid-December.
After eeeking one out over MTSU, Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said, "They're physical, they're good, and they play hard. They played really hard. If they play this hard all the time, then they'll be in the NCAA tournament, I think."
Hopefully we can provide a bit more insight into the make-up of these guys.
What they're good at
- Getting to the line: Whether it be personal or team fouls, preserving them in the NCAA Tournament is of utmost importance. The Blue Raiders will scare higher-seeded teams because they're great at getting to the line. Currently ranked eighth in the country in free-throw rate, their ability to draw fouls means they can create extra possessions for themselves and limit opportunities for opponents to go on an run.
- Preventing sharing: MTSU opponents currently have a 0.6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. What does that mean? Well if you don't have a player that can create his own shot, you're probably going to have a hard time scoring against this team. Ball movement is always preached by coaches, but against the Blue Raiders, you may be better off letting your gunner go one-four low and try and beat his man.
- Playing against the spread: This for the betting man (and woman) only, but MTSU is currently 16-5 against the spread, 15-1 when the spread is less than 10.5 points. That's exceptional, and something to consider when placing your wager on them now or especially if they're in the field of 68. Based on their style of play, they're never out of the game.
What they struggle at
- Limiting scoring opportunities: While MTSU does a great job of getting to the line, their opponents snag more than 13 offensive rebounds a game, which means too many opportunities for second chance points. Upset minded teams must limit things like this when playing against a more talented team. You can't give teams extra chances.
- Scoring from deep: If they get down early this team could be done for. MTSU is a dismal three-point shooting team, shooting only 20 percent from beyond the arc. I can't back it up, but I'm willing to bet no team has incited an tournament upset relying solely on two-pointers from perfectly executed offensive sets. You need a little bit of luck and the cajones to let it fly from deep, I'm not sure if this team has both.
What to expect
Despite all this gushing, MTSU is not on the short list of low/mid-majors who are eligible for an at large tournament berth. The Sun Belt is currently ranked 18th by RealTimeRPI.com, and its only sent multiple teams to the dance twice since 1994. The conference is theirs to waltz through, but one loss and their RPI could slip well in to the 60s.