In a massive upset in the Conference USA tournament quarterfinals, ninth-seeded Southern Miss took down number-one Middle Tennessee in overtime. The Golden Eagles, who only went 14-17 in the regular season, played step for step with their conference’s regular season champ all night, eventually outlasting them 71-68, and dealing perhaps a critical blow to the Blue Raiders’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The legendary run of what we’ll call the Giddy Potts era at Middle Tennessee could now have a pretty awful, anticlimactic end.
The Blue Raiders, who gave the NCAA Tournament one of its biggest upsets in history when they beat Michigan State as a 15-seed in 2016, and also upset Minnesota last year as a 12-seed, won the regular season Conference USA title by going 16-2—with their only losses, strangely enough, both coming against fourth-place Marshall. In getting that record, they beat a very good Western Kentucky team twice, and a 24-6 Old Dominion group on the road. Non-conference play, however, lacks a signature win, as the team played Auburn, USC, and Miami (FL) in December but lost to all of them.
By most measurements, that resume puts Middle Tennessee right squarely on the bubble, with their fate in the hands of a committee that historically doesn’t—and has no real incentive to—favor smaller schools in its process. Illinois State went 17-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2017, but couldn’t top Wichita State and ended up on the outside looking in come Tournament time. Monmouth, too, went 18-2 in the MAAC in 2017, winning that conference by four games but losing their bid when they got upset by Siena in the conference tournament. On the surface, Middle Tennessee looks no different from these teams.
However, there is some reason to hope. For one, Middle Tennessee’s a proven winner in the Big Dance already, with their 2-2 record in the past two years outpacing many more prominent schools. That shows that they’re no one-year fluke team, and it could give them an edge. The Blue Raiders’ RPI, a terrible stat that’s nevertheless taken seriously by the selection committee, is also currently a strong 28th in the country, which shouldn’t be why they get in, but also couldn’t hurt. And going by the elusive “eye test,” MTSU is a great defensive team with a strong core of upperclassmen who have yet to get blown out all year—all positives for a tournament group.
If you’re picking the field, it all comes down to, what do you want in your NCAA Tournament? Do you prefer a team that went through a tough, grinding conference schedule with less-than-stellar results—like Alabama, Oklahoma State, or Syracuse? Or do you reward a small school for a low-key but impressive year, even if they didn’t earn an expected automatic bid? This is a weird, parity-heavy year in college basketball, so it’s hard to agitate that any team on the bubble deserves to get booted when it feels like any one of them can make a run. But even though a lesser team will take the allocated Conference USA slot, the Blue Raiders should still get a chance for another upset.