Dec 21, 2012; Murfreesboro, TN, USA; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders guard Bruce Massey (13) drives up court against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first half at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee Bubble Talk: Are Blue Raiders Deserving of At-Large Berth?

Introducing the Selection Committee’s most vexing conundrum:

What in the world to make of Middle Tennessee?

Equal parts impressive and underwhelming, Middle Tennessee has accomplished so much (28 wins, a top-25 RPI rating, the eleventh best non-conference strength of schedule), yet really so little (no Top 50 RPI wins, light intra-conference competition, another premature exit in the conference tournament). Jumbled in one uninterpretable portfolio are hints of Sweet 16 potential belied by NIT caveats, absent any instruction on how to sort between the two.

Dec 21, 2012; Murfreesboro, TN, USA; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders guard Marcos Knight (14) reacts after pulling down a rebound against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Bridgestone Arena. Middle Tennessee defeated Vanderbilt 56-52. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

A hidden gem or fool’s gold? The value of Middle Tennessee’s currency is largely up for debate and the NCAA Tournament Office of Admissions has the only estimate that matters.

Kermit Davis’ team bowed out in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament on Sunday after a listless performance against Florida International. It’s the second time in as many years — overlaying 55 wins in all — that Middle Tennessee has stumbled in closing out an otherwise exceptional campaign. And it’s the second consecutive season the Blue Raiders leave their tournament fate in the hands of a panel as quizzical about the team’s credentials as we are.

Middle Tennessee is 28-5 (only Gonzaga has more wins), owns the No. 25 RPI and a 12-5 record in road/neutral games. Color the committee impressed. By mostly avoiding RPI killers in the non-conference, Davis manipulated and exploited the statistical machine as well as he could. His strategic posturing puts the Blue Raiders in good historical stead. In the last decade, no team in possession of a top-25 RPI and at least 25 wins has been denied a ticket to the Big Dance. The Sun Belt frontrunner, however, may buck the trend.

Despite a speciously strong non-conference schedule, Middle Tennessee has defeated just two RPI Top 100 teams (No. 56 Ole Miss and No. 100 Central Florida), which is to say the Blue Raiders haven’t beaten a sure-fire tournament-bound team all season. What’s worse, the team’s lone two tests against RPI Top 50 oppoents resulted in double-digit losses. Sure, the Blue Raiders tote 12 wins away from home, but only two have come against the RPI Top 150.

Between the lines, Middle Tennessee is perhaps college basketball’s deepest team. Coach Davis runs ten different players at least ten minutes per game, and among those ten, eight average at least 5.0 points. The Blue Raiders have relied on a fast-paced offense married to a ball-hawking defense, enabled by a bottomless bench that churns out fresh bodies at virtually each timeout. Whether this derivative VCU approach is sustainable against tournament-caliber teams remains unproven.

Are the Blue Raiders a low-grade bully at the mercy of grander competition? Or are they a legitimate team unfairly devalued because of a weak conference schedule that’s out of its control? The committee casts its vote next Sunday. Here’s your chance to submit yours in the Busting Brackets caucus.

Does Middle Tennessee deserve an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament?

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