Middle Tennessee was the darling of March a year ago, but not this season. The Blue Raiders look like a beast as this March approaches.
Middle made a name for itself by stunning trendy national championship pick Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season by playing a near perfect game. The 2017 version of the Blue Raiders is even better.
Tournament field beware.
Middle improved to 11-1 in Conference USA Thursday night with a workmanlike 64-51 win over Old Dominion. And unlike the game against Michigan State, it was far from perfect.
Point guard Tyrik Dixon was benched to start the game for a violation of team rules, Giddy Potts struggled from the field and Jacorey Williams managed just two points, but none of that mattered.
In a game where Middle didn't have its best, it pounded the team it edged in last year's Conference USA Tournament final thanks to a suffocating defense that held ODU to 21 points on 29 percent shooting while building an 11-point halftime lead.
Kermit Davis has built a nice program in Murfreesboro by getting talented players to buy into the little details it takes to become a really good team. Defense and effort are hallmarks of this team that will serve it well if, like Thursday, the offense isn't clicking on all cylinders.
The Blue Raiders limited a Monarchs team with a big, athletic frontcourt to just four second half points and outhustled them to 21 of 30 50/50 balls on the team's effort chart.
It's that uncommon effort and grit that sets this team apart.
With the freshman Dixon continuing to grow up alongside the veteran Potts in the backcourt and the frontcourt duo of Williams and Reggie Upshaw, Middle will be able to match up with anyone they see in the NCAA Tournament. And after last year's experience, they won't be shy of the big stage.
Middle Tennessee won't be the Cinderella sneaking up on anybody this March. But they won't need to be.
These Blue Raiders are ready to match up with anyone.