Middle Tennessee's win over Minnesota an 'upset'? Not so fast

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- The day before Middle Tennessee's first-round NCAA tournament matchup against Minnesota, Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis was asked the significance of so many pundits believing his team ought to win the game.

This was not mere conjecture, though No. 12 seed MTSU was considered a trendy pick to beat No. 5 seed Minnesota. In fact, the Blue Raiders entered Thursday's game favored by 1.5 points, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Was Middle Tennessee feeling the pressure? Not at all. Davis considered the distinction an honor.

"For a whole university and for people around the country to now notice us and start thinking of us as a national program and picking us to win, I think that's great for basketball, and it shows how far we've come in the last 10, 12 years," Davis said.

Even better news for Davis & Co.: The Blue Raiders aren't yet finished showcasing their progress on the college game's biggest stage.

Middle Tennessee pulled off the first seeding upset of the NCAA tournament on Thursday afternoon, handling Minnesota 81-72 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Yet in so many ways, the result did not scream "upset" at all. Consider the pregame point spread. Or the fact that, for the 29th time in the past 33 years, a 12 seed defeated a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Or that, just last year, 15th-seeded MTSU defeated second-seeded Michigan State 90-81 to become the eighth team to accomplish a 15-2 stunner since the tournament expanded in 1985.

"For us, it's not an upset," Blue Raiders forward Reggie Upshaw said Wednesday as he prepared for Minnesota. "We feel like we have a good team, and we know what kind of team we are. We know who we are, and we know that we have a very physical team."

Already this season, Middle Tennessee (31-4) beat SEC foes Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, which earned a No. 9 seed in the big dance. MTSU finished league play 17-1, cruised through its conference tournament and entered the NCAA tournament having won 10 consecutive games.

The Blue Raiders returned last season's leading scorers, Giddy Potts and Upshaw. They also added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who was named Conference USA Player of the Year this season and led the Blue Raiders in scoring. Those three again played a vital role in Thursday's victory.

Middle Tennessee took control in the first half, in part due to a half-court trapping defense that slowed Minnesota and forced the Gophers to settle for too many 3-point attempts. MTSU led 37-31 at halftime and stretched its lead to double digits in the first five minutes of the second half.

Minnesota (24-10) played without its leading 3-point shooter, Akeem Springs, who suffered a season-ending injury last week during the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers shot only 6-of-21 on 3-pointers Thursday and ended head coach Richard Pitino's first NCAA tournament appearance in his four seasons with the program.

MTSU advanced to Saturday's second-round game against No. 4 seed Butler, which has slayed a few giants of its own in recent tournament history. This time around, neither team will feel like much of an underdog on the court.