March Madness is still a week or so away, but the mid-major mayhem that precedes the madness is in full effect. Middle Tennessee was a victim of the mayhem on Sunday, losing to Florida International in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
If this script sounds familiar, well it is. The Blue Raiders were in a worse position a year ago after losing to ninth-seeded Arkansas State in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
The 2012 team wound up beating Marshall and Tennessee and reaching the quarterfinals of the NIT before falling to Minnesota.
The Blue Raiders will be a much-debated team over the next week heading to selection Sunday. They’ve been in my Top 40 at After Further Review for several weeks now, but with their 17-game winning streak gone, one has to start looking more closely at their resume.
Middle Tennessee is 28-5. Before Sunday night’s loss, the Blue Raiders had an RPI of 25 and non-conference strength of schedule of 11. Solid, right? Well, maybe.
MTSU was just 2-3 against the RPI top 100—that means that 26 of those 28 wins were at the expense of teams outside of the top 100. Their most impressive victory came over Ole Miss. So, yeah, not so impressive.
Not making it to the conference tournament finals, at the very least, may come back to bite Middle Tennessee yet again, a year after they saw Western Kentucky fill what should have been their spot on the Big Dance card.
One team with no such worries is the Liberty Flames. Liberty smacked around top-seeded Charleston Southern on Sunday 87-76 to win the Big South Conference’s automatic bid despite heading into the tournament with a record of just 15-20.
Liberty becomes just the second 20-loss team to reach the NCAA tournament, joining the 2008 Coppin State bunch that went 16-20 before losing to Mount St. Mary’s in the opening round.
Creighton joined the tournament field on Sunday, as well, beating Wichita State 68-65 to win Arch Madness, the Missouri Valley Conference’s nice name for its conference tournament.
Harvard won the Ivy League bid again, making it three straight. The Ivy League is the only conference in Division I that doesn’t play a tournament.
Belmont will be back in the Big Dance after an overtime win on Saturday over Murray State in the Bruins’ first year in the Ohio Valley Conference. Belmont spent the last several years dominating the Atlantic Sun before making the jump to the OVC.
Belmont is one of those teams that people keep predicting will beat one of the big boys in what is now the second round, but the Bruins haven’t quite pulled it off yet—they did give Duke a major scare in the 2008 tourney before losing 71-70.
The other team already in the field is Florida Gulf Coast out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. This is just the second year the Eagles have been eligible for postseason play after transitioning from Division II, so that’s pretty cool.
Of course, the big conferences will begin their tournaments later this week, but for the next day or two, it will be the little guys’ turn to bask in the spotlight—or, in the case of Middle Tennessee, get par broiled under it.