MILWAUKEE — Who was surprised by Middle Tennessee, and what the Blue Raiders did to Minnesota Thursday? Anyone? Anyone at all?Certainly not the rest of Conference USA, whose futility chased them all season. Or Tom Izzo, who doesn’t need to stretch his memory much to recall how they ruined March for his No. 2 seeded Michigan State team a year ago this very weekend. Or all those bracket analysts who took one look at this match and saw “UPSET” in huge neon lights. If that’s what it was.
And certainly not the Blue Raiders themselves, never mind this was one of those 5-12 seed games that are supposed to breed wild celebration for the underdogs, if they pull it off. After the Michigan State game, the locker room was Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Thursday, with the final 81-72, it was a calm pond.
As guard Ed Simpson was saying, standing by his locker, “Last year we were going bug wild. It’s quieter this year. This year, we belong here.”
And as Reggie Upshaw was saying, after beating the Gophers with 19 points and the biggest shot of the game, “We’re a lot more composed. Last year we felt like we could win, but when it happened, we got way too excited. We kind of lost our focus.”
When Minnesota cut a 17-point lead to four Thursday, Upshaw buried a 3-pointer to kill the rally, then pumped his arm going back to the other end. Somewhere, old Michigan State Spartan Denzel Valentine must have had flashbacks to 2016.
But remember what Syracuse did Middle Tennessee in the second round?
“They beat us by 25,” Giddy Potts quickly answered. The dreaded letdown. The Blue Raiders were national darlings for 48 hours, but then there was another game to play. This year will be different," Potts vowed. “We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to put this game behind us.”That could make things tougher for the team they play next. By the way, you know who else isn’t surprised to see the Blue Raiders advance? Butler coach Chris Holtmann. “A very trendy pick for the Sweet 16,” he called them.
An ironic match it will be.
How could Middle Tennessee not be a Cinderella story again, as a 12th seed? “I think we’re beyond that,” Upshaw said. “Tonight on TV, people will say that it was a 12-5 upset but a lot of the analysts and us as a team, we came into this game thinking it wouldn’t be an upset.”
Meanwhile, remember when Butler was its own cuddly fantasy story? Now the Bulldogs are brutes from the Big East, a high No. 4 seed. They expect to do well in the tournament. And the upperclassmen who have never been to a Sweet 16 consider it a mandatory assignment that they go.
“The great thing about Butler is, it’s a basketball school,” senior Andrew Chrabascz said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, there’s no denying that, from our university. But we love it.”
And Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis admires it. “I took this program over 15 years ago. My biggest goal was trying to get our program to be like Butler.”
The Bulldogs have had quite the season. It should be known that . . .
They have played 20 of their 32 games against teams that ended up in the NCAA Tournament, and won 15 of them.Villanova has lost three times in its last 40 games, and Butler accounts for two of them.
The Bulldogs are 9-0 all-time in the tournament against lower seeded teams.
With leading scorer Kelan Martin now coming off the bench, they have a 542-264 gap in bench scoring over opponents.
And they’ve never, ever been seeded this highly before. So it kind of sounds like David vs. Goliath, who used to be David. The reality is, Middle Tennessee is nobody’s underdog, not anymore.
Not with the best winning percentage for any team in the nation not named Gonzaga or Villanova. “We’ve earned something a little more than that,” Potts said. “Some of the teams respect us now. Some of them don’t even consider us a mid-major team. They consider us a high-major team.”
They looked like it Thursday. And afterward acted as if they knew it was coming all along.