March Madness 2017 is becoming known as the “year without upsets”.
As I interrupt watching games to actually work, there have been no stunning upsets. Some 11-seeds have beaten 6s, but those are largely major-conference teams that were on the bubble beating other power conference teams. There hasn’t been that 2, 3, 4 upset loss to a one-bid league champion such as the Ohio Valley Conference winner.
As I write this, UC-Davis is giving Kansas a hard time (well, the Jayhawks have just opened a 10-point lead late in the first half). But my point is, there hasn’t been that jaw-dropping stunner which normally makes the past two days the best of the year on the sports calendar.
The closest we’ve had is Middle Tennessee State’s win over Minnesota on Thursday. But every bracket I saw, from locally to national pundits, had the Blue Raiders upsetting the Golden Gophers. Many also have the Boys from the ‘Boro bumping off the Butler Bulldogs tonight and advancing to the Sweet 16 in the Bluff City (Memphis). I saw on ESPN’s website before the game MTSU was a one-point favorite.
I think the only people who thought Minnesota would win were members of the selection committee who under-seeded MTSU and the national broadcasters who kept calling it an upset, based only on the seeding.
It brings up the question I’ve raised this week: If everyone predicts an upset and it happens, is it really an upset?
After the Raiders destroyed Vanderbilt in early December (by the way, there’s probably not a team in the country which improved more from December to March than the Commodores, but they were over-seeded as a No. 9), I said to some people this is probably the best Blue Raider team in school history, based largely on conference affiliation. Their previous leagues, the Ohio Valley and Sun Belt, are generally ranked lower than their current league, Conference USA. They were a veteran team coming off their stunning upset of Michigan State last year and have played like it since the season tipped off in the first game of the season - a late-morning tipoff against Milligan College on opening day in November.
Whether the Blue Raiders will play in the final game April 3 is unlikely. But Butler has done it in recent years and Virginia Commonwealth, two programs coach Kermit Davis is trying to emulate for his team, has also reached the Final Four this decade.
Former Lebanon High star Kip Puryear was a Blue Raider sophomore guard when MTSU reached the NCAA tournament for the first time, in 1975. Future Watertown coach Clint Dennison had joined him when the Raiders returned to the Big Dance two years later.
But it wasn’t until 1982 when MTSU stunned Kentucky that the Raiders got their first tournament triumph, spoiling a UK-Louisville matchup at a time when the Wildcats refused to schedule the Cardinals.
Three years later, current Cumberland coach Lonnie Thompson was a senior forward on first-year coach Bruce Stewart’s rebuilding Raiders who made a Cinderella run to the OVC championship at Murphy Center. During the title win, someone held up a sign which said, “Youngstown today, Georgetown tomorrow”. Thankfully, that didn’t happen as the Hoyas were the heavy favorites to cut down the nets for the second straight year. As it was, MTSU drew North Carolina and the Tar Heels, a possible Sweet 16 opponent next week, brought us students back down to earth.
Two years later, MTSU was upset by Austin Peay in the OVC semifinals, but earned the league’s first-ever at-large bid to the tournament, where the Raiders were ousted by Notre Dame.
After NIT wins over Tennessee and Georgia in ’88, Middle won the OVC in ’89 and upset pre-Atlantic Coast Conference Florida State in Nashville before ACC mainstay Virginia ended the run.
Stewart, who openly courted the Tennessee job that spring, left Murfreesboro two years later under an NCAA cloud and the men’s program was left hanging in mediocre purgatory for the next two decades.
It was in that condition Davis found the program when he arrived in Murfreesboro in 2002. Davis produced winning seasons but nothing really special for a number of years. But in this decade, the Raiders have earned another at-large berth in the tournament and the current two-year run. The fact it took Davis so long tells me he’s done it right.
MTSU basketball is in a position my peers yearned for 30 years ago when the Raiders were hamstrung as an OVC member. Climbing up the conference ladder has certainly helped.
The Raiders have reached a level where beating a Big 10 team is no longer an upset of volcanic proportions.
But will there be any eruptions this weekend before it’s too late?