Middle Tennessee did it again. After beating Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2016, the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota, 81-72, in first-round action Thursday.
“It’s a great feeling both years,” Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis told Jon Rothstein, who was filling in as host of CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I think it’s a game – and not to sound arrogant at all because I thought Minnesota is a really good team – I think our guys had more of a mindset that they thought they were going to win. They knew it’d be a tough game, so I think they expected good results. Last year, I don’t know if we all knew that our very best would beat Michigan State. It’s kind of a more business-like mindset in that I really think we’ve moved on to Butler.”
No. 12 Middle Tennessee led Minnesota 37-31 at halftime and never looked back. Davis, though, didn’t get caught up in being a popular pick.
“We didn’t talk about it at all,” he said. “It’s all relative. I understand this is an NCAA tournament game, but we had been favorites in probably our last 22 games. So we’ve had in our league and really maybe only a couple of games all year long where we were underdogs. Our guys understood the quality of opponent, but I thought they knew they were going to play well. We just prepared.”
Middle Tennessee (31-4) will face No. 4 Butler (24-8) in the Round of 32 on Saturday at 7:10 p.m. ET. In the past, Davis has said he wanted Middle Tennessee to emulate Butler.
Now the Blue Raiders will go toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs.
“Well, No. 1, obviously, is sustainability,” Davis said, when asked what he admires about Butler. “There are some programs like Butler, Gonzaga, VCU, those are the teams that we were hoping (to emulate). Last year, there were only seven teams in the country that won an NCAA Tournament game and had a 100 percent graduation rate. We were one of them, Butler was one of them, I think Kansas, Duke, Notre Dame, Iowa. So not only is it very good just from a basketball standpoint, but just the overall culture – of winning, how you handle yourself, academics. That’s what was so appealing to me. They just seem like they just do it year in and year out.”
Butler has one of the most impressive resumes in college basketball. The Bulldogs beat Northwestern, Bucknell, Vanderbilt, Arizona, Cincinnati, Vermont and Providence, all of which made the tournament. They also beat Villanova twice.
“It’s their balance, their size, just spacing offensively, and then when you turn on the tape and you watch them at Villanova, you know when they’re geared up and they’re ready to play their best, how locked in they are,” Davis said. “If you can beat Villanova twice, then you can win a national championship.”