Middle Tennessee proved it was no one-year wonder. A year after pulling off a stunning 15 over two seed upset of Michigan State, the Blue Raiders handled another Big Ten team, dispatching no. 5 seed Minnesota 81-72 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But do not call this an upset.
"I don't think so at all," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "Our record speaks for itself and what we've done all year long. It was a pick 'em game, and it was a good team, but I know our players don't think it was an upset by any means."
If you didn't look at the seeds and just watched the way Middle Tennessee handled Minnesota for 40 minutes, you would've thought the Blue Raiders were the higher seed.
After falling behind 7-0 early, the Blue Raiders stood up to one of the Big Ten's top defensive teams, recovering to take a 37-31 halftime lead. Then, with shot-blocking Minnesota big man Reggie Lynch on the bench in foul trouble early in the second half, Middle repeatedly attacked the vacated paint for dunks and layups while building a 17-point lead.
"The difference was last year we were a major underdog," Middle Tennessee forward Reggie Upshaw said. "We still kept the mindset coming into this game. We just played our game (and thought) we would be able to walk away with a win."
The 24-win Gophers didn't go away quietly, using an 18-5 run to trim the Blue Raiders' lead to 62-58. But Upshaw made sure they got no closer, scoring seven straight points -as Middle pushed the lead back out to double digits.
"I was just thinking I'm a senior leader," Upshaw said. "JaCorey (Williams) was having a rough night, Giddy (Potts) was in foul trouble. I felt like this was the perfect time for me to kind of step up and, you know, kind of shoulder the offense and try to get everybody else going.
And that's the thing that makes this year's Middle Tennessee team a real threat to make an extended run in this tournament. Unlike most mid-majors, they don't have to play perfect to win.
The upset of Michigan State a year ago was the product of blazing hot shooting, the college basketball equivalent of a perfect game. But Middle can play better than what they played against Minnesota. Williams, the Conference USA Player of the Year, went just 4-14 from the floor and Potts was limited to just 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
But Upshaw and strong effort from the bench was good enough for the now 31-4 Blue Raiders to move on. Look out, Butler.
"I think we're totally different than we were last year," Davis said. "I just think with our depth and our experience and the amount of games we've won. It should be a great basketball game."
A year ago, Middle Tennessee stunned the world and maybe even itself. This time around, it expected to win. And it expects to keep on winning.
The Blue Raiders are no Cinderella.
They beat a Big Ten team by nine Thursday. And it was no upset.