Are the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders really as dangerous as every expert in the country says they are?
Twelve seeds are always trendy picks to beat 5 seeds, but MTSU is the trendiest of the trendy upset picks this year largely due to their upset over Michigan State as a 15-seed last year.
"I'll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn't think they'd hit some of the shots they hit," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after losing to MTSU last season, via ESPN. "We didn't guard them good, but man, they made some shots."
This five-minute highlight package from the game shows some of the wild shots MTSU hit.
The slipper wouldn't already be on MTSU's foot if not for a brutal start by the Spartans. MLive.com's recap from last year's game is perfect:
"Michigan State's start qualified as its worst of the season. It took the Blue Raiders just 3:30 to to go out to its 15-2 lead. Middle Tennessee State came out with more energy, hit from inside and outside as Michigan State was lethargic on both ends to climb into an early hole."
Basically, Michigan State started that game similar to how Minnesota started in Saturday's Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Michigan. That can't happen again on Thursday.
Gophers defense will test Middle Tennessee
The crazy shots Izzo mentioned didn't drop in MTSU's second-round NCAA Tournament game last year, losing to Syracuse, 75-50.
- Against Michigan State: 55.9% shooting, 11-of-19 on threes
- Against Syracuse: 29.7% shooting, 8-of-24 on threes
Reggie Upshaw led MTSU with 21 points against Michigan State and then shot 1-of-10 against Syracuse. Giddy Potts scored 19 against the Spartans and just 9 against Syracuse.
The difference: Syracuse played great defense and Michigan State didn't.
The Gophers are a really solid defensive team, 10th in the nation in 3-point defense and second in the nation in blocks. Reggie Lynch, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, has the second-most blocks in the country (111).
Upshaw and Potts are both back and MTSU added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who was named the Conference USA Player of the Year. So yes, they are better, but that doesn't change the fact that their win over Michigan State probably wouldn't have happened if they played that game again.
MTSU knocked off UNC-Wilmington, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt this season, but Vandy was garbage in early December – definitely not the same team that played Kentucky to the wire and beat Florida twice down the stretch to earn a 9-seed in the dance. Upshaw finished two assists shy of a triple double against Ole Miss.
Middle Tennessee is streaky
Should the Gophers be frightened by a team that went down 19 points to 7-win Florida International? Think Richard Pitino hasn't called his former team for a scouting report? Pitino was FIU's head coach before coming to Minnesota.
More: Potts led the country in 3-point percentage last season at 50.6%. He's down to 39.7% this season. Still good, but not elite.
Bottom line: MTSU is streaky. Whey they are hot they can beat anybody. When they're off, they're prone to get beat.
If MTSU can't score against Minnesota's tremendous interior defense they'll have to score from the outside against a Gophers team that limited opponents to 30.5% on 3-pointers.
Advantage for Minnesota
Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis is readily aware of the home-court advantage Minnesota could have with the game being played in Milwaukee.
"We know Minnesota is going to travel really well, it's kind of Big Ten country in that area," Davis told WGNS. "It would make our players feel really good to have a great contingent of Blue there on Thursday."
MTSU is experienced and dangerous, but not as surefire of an upset as a lot of experts are making them.