Middle Tennessee Rescues a Relatively Ho-hum First Day

Middle Tennessee NCAA Tournament

It feels slightly strange to ask, but, is Day 2 going to bring the upsets?

Thursday morning the NCAA Tournament would open, and one full day of hoops later only two upsets would occur. Coincidentally enough, both victims were over-seeded Big 10 teams—Minnesota (5) and Maryland (6). And although the results look it, not every contest was so straightforward.

Virginia Tech made Wisconsin sweat up until the last couple minutes; 16-seed Mount St. Mary’s gave Villanova one helluva first half. The same can be said about fellow 16-seed South Dakota State in their contest with Gonzaga. Familiar bracket-buster Bucknell (13) pushed Bob Huggins and his stout West Virginia (4) defense to the brink as well.

The list could go on.

Princeton (12) was this close to upending Notre Dame (5) with a last-second three-pointer. And if not for a brutal gaffe by Vanderbilt (9) guard Matthew Fisher-Davis, Northwestern (8) might have found themselves going home almost as quickly as they arrived. Yet with all the chaos being teased, Thursday was primarily a day for favorites.

Then along came the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.

Winners of Conference USA with a 30-4 overall record (17-1), Middle Tennessee cruised. And when they did have more of a marquee showdown (68-63 over UNC Wilmington; 71-48 over Vanderbilt; three-point loss to VCU) the Blue Raiders handled themselves well.

And remember, we’ve seen this from them before.

As a 15-seed in 2016, Middle Tennessee took down Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans. No matter how rough around the edges Michigan State could be in any given season, such as this current one, it isn’t wise to bet against an Izzo-coached side—especially during the big dance. But Middle Tennessee would take them to task. Then came 2017 and their opponent: Minnesota.

By just about every available metric, the Golden Gophers shouldn’t have been a 5-seed. At the very least, Minnesota shouldn’t have been one of the higher-seeded Big 10 sides. Yet here we are. By RPI, Minnesota (23) was deemed to have held that edge over the Blue Raiders (28), but if you had told me you were taking Middle Tennessee and not thinking twice about it, I would have been on board.

Look, the Big 10 had seven representatives coming into the tournament. Two of them are gone after Day 1; another one was this close. Of the three moving on, Purdue probably has the best shot at advancing to the Sweet 16. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if both Michigan and Michigan State fell today. (Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to check back after I’m undoubtedly proven wrong.) But while the Big 10 held several representatives, not a single one of them were overpowering.

So when the selection committee paired arguably the third-best Big 10 team with Middle Tennessee, it was always going to be tough. Perhaps Wisconsin would have been a more even draw, but that might not have been much fun for the Badgers either. Instead, Wisconsin takes on Villanova (1), which on a very basic level has to be bothersome for Jay Wright’s Wildcats.

And thanks to the Golden Gophers/Blue Raiders pairing, we now get one heck of a matchup between Butler (4) and Middle Tennessee. I give the edge to the Bulldogs, but wouldn’t bet against either side. If the Blue Raiders can continue their hot three-point shooting (53.8 percent in Round 1) and make free throws more consistently (only 66.7 percent on Thursday), the recipe for an upset is very much on the table.

So while Minnesota ended up being the victim of strange seeding, Middle Tennessee wasn’t about to lie down for anybody. And instead, ended up bringing us the least surprising upset of the day.

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