MILWAUKEE (AP) — Middle Tennessee would like to raise its profile from mid-major darling to name-brand program, following a trail blazed by Butler over the last decade or so.
A trip to the Sweet 16 would certainly afford the bracket-busting Blue Raiders a new level of respect.
But to be the “next Butler,” Middle Tennessee will have to beat Butler in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday , so Bulldogs coach Chris Holtmann wouldn’t mind putting this feel-good story on hold for just one more season.
“Before the tournament even started, I think people were picking Middle to come out of this pod, or whatever you want to call it, and I get that,” Holtmann said Friday. “You look at their body of work, and it makes sense.”
The 12th-seeded Blue Raiders (31-4) have made it to the second round for a second straight season after beating a Big Ten team. But the win over Minnesota on Thursday was less surprising than the shocker that they pulled off over Michigan State as a No. 15 seed last March.
Middle Tennessee built off that upset by storming through Conference USA for a league record 17 wins and setting the single-season school record for overall victories.
Fourth-seeded Butler (24-8) has set a high standard for a program’s emergence.
The Bulldogs went to back-to-back national title games in 2010-11 under Brad Stevens, who now coaches the Boston Celtics. Then a member of the Horizon League, Butler raised expectations for mid-major teams and provided a blueprint that showed that lesser-known programs can hang with the best power conference squads in the country.
“It’s been a goal of mine for a while,” coach Kermit Davis, in his 15th season at Middle Tennessee, said about raising the team’s stature as a mid-major. “Really I’ve had such a great respect for Butler from afar because they do it at our level in such a way with integrity, with athletes and academics.”
Butler is now a member of the Big East, which sent seven of its 10 teams to the NCAAs. The Bulldogs are looking for their fifth Sweet 16 appearance since 2003, and first since the last run to the national final in 2011.
“We embrace that role of being where they were a couple of years ago and being in that smaller conference and kind of shocking the world,” forward Reggie Upshaw said.
Some things to watch for in the only game played in the South Region on Saturday:
Guard Avery Woodson’s 3-point shooting gave the Bulldogs a lift in the first-round win over Winthrop . Woodson tied a career-high with six 3s in the game, including five in the first half. The senior is averaging 11.4 points a game and shooting 48 percent from behind the arc since moving into the starting lineup on Feb. 7.
“Seeing a few go in, especially at this magnitude of a game … He’s going to have the utmost confidence going into this next game,” senior forward Andrew Chrabascz said. “Those are great shots for us when he’s just spotting up on the 3-point line like that.”
IN THE ZONE
Middle Tennessee threw off Minnesota by switching defenses, especially when Davis turned to a 1-3-1 scheme with pressure. The look seems to especially play to the strengths of the Blue Raiders, who start three guards along with versatile forwards Upshaw and JaCorey Williams.
“You can’t really be complacent,” Williams said about playing the 1-3-1 zone. “I think the pressure has to be very aggressive.”
Williams and Upshaw are both 6-foot-8 with similar athletic builds. Both are seniors who are seniors who can bring the ball up the floor and shoot the 3. “Neither one of them (are) traditional big men,” Chrabascz said.
Tyler Lewis had eight assists against Winthrop, falling one shy of the school mark in an NCAA Tournament game, while adding nine points in 23 minutes off the bench. The senior led the Big East with a 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The winner moves on to the South Regional semifinal on March 24 in Memphis, Tennessee.