Let’s get this out of the way right now: outside of Syracuse fans, basically everyone in America is going to be rooting for Middle Tennessee State to keep up its potential miracle run through the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Raiders pulled off arguably the biggest upset in March Madness history, topping Michigan State 90-81 (and destroying my bracket in the process), and now they’re looking to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
Now, in the very long history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, eight 15-seeds have won their opening round games against 2-seeds. Syracuse fans know this far too well, considering the Orange were the very first victim of a 15-seed back in 1991.
Santa Clara in 1993 (led by some kid named Steve Nash), Coppin State in 1997, Hampton in 2001, Norfolk State and Lehigh in 2012, and of course, Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. That’s it, along with MTSU. Out of all of those teams, only Dunk City won in the second round. Unfortunately for the Orange, Middle Tennessee looks a lot more like FGCU than some of those other 15-seeds, and Syracuse will have to play well to win and advance.
For starters, the 25-9 Blue Raiders are built to play against a zone defense. At 39.2%, they rank 15th in the nation in three point percentage, and they’re the 61st most prolific three point shooting team in the country. That’s thanks largely to 6-foot-2 sophomore guard Giddy Potts, whose name, again, is Giddy. He’s no doubt so giddy in part because he leads the nation in three point percentage, shooting 50.7% from beyond the arc.
Like the first round opponent, Dayton, Middle Tennessee doesn’t have a ton of size, at least in terms of bulk. But they do have quite a bit of length, with eight players on the roster between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9. They’re a decent rebounding team, ranking 89th in the nation in total rebounds but just 157th in offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, opponents have grabbed nearly 1,200 boards against them, ranking them 220th in the nation in that category. They’re 297th in the country in defensive rebounds allowed, meaning Syracuse has a chance to seriously limit their second chance opportunities.
That’s always crucial, and something that the Orange can hopefully use if Tyler Roberson comes to play with the same fire he displayed against Dayton. That was the “good” Roberson, getting after every single loose ball and rebound, keeping plays alive and throwing himself after the rock like a man possessed. The Orange should be able to do pretty well on the glass, but it’s not a given that they’ll be in control. After all, this is a Syracuse team that ranks 335th nationally in offensive rebounds given up.
Potts leads the Blue Raiders in scoring at 14.6 points per game, and Reggie Upshaw, who I’m telling you right now looks exactly like Chris “Kid” Reid of Kid ‘n Play fame, is right behind him at 14.1 points. At 6-foot-7, Upshaw also leads MTSU with 8.5 rebounds per game, and has the ability to stretch the floor with a 38.6% clip from downtown. He doesn’t shoot a ton of threes, having made 27 in the team’s 34 games, but he can definitely knock down open jumpers.
Darnell Harris, on the other hand, is a guy who will take – and possibly make – quite a few threes himself, along with Potts. Potts has made 76 triples this year, and Harris has made 57 at a clip of 40.7%. Harris is another big player who can do some damage inside and out, as the 6-foot-8 senior averages 11.7 points (but just 4.0 rebounds per game despite being one of the most physically imposing players on the roster, weighing in at 231 pounds).
Perrin Buford, a 6-foot-6 forward, averages 12.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and is another player with the ability to stretch the floor. He’s only attempted 36 threes on the year, but he’s made 41.7% of those attempts.
The quartet of Potts, Upshaw, Buford, and Harris do the bulk of the scoring for Middle Tennessee, accounting for about 72% of the team’s total points per game. MTSU averages 73.2 points per game, compared to 70.2 for the Orange. The Blue Raiders are decent defensively, ranking 95th in the country with 68.7 points against.
Syracuse has to keep up its strong perimeter defense against the Blue Raiders, as more than 35% of Middle Tennessee’s field goal attempts come from long distance. Nearly 33% of all of Middle Tennessee’s points this season have come on three pointers (813 out of 2,489). Syracuse will also need to hit from deep as well, and the Blue Raiders are certainly susceptible to three point shooting teams.
For the year, MTSU’s opponents are hitting 34.8% from long range, which ranks the Blue Raider three point defense at just 195 nationally. They’ve surrendered 224 three pointers, or an average of about 6.6 made three pointers per game. Syracuse, meanwhile, ranks 10th in the nation in three point percentage defense at 30.3% allowed, at a clip of about seven made threes per game. Kind of amazingly, considering how big a role three pointers are in Middle Tennessee’s offense, Syracuse has actually made more (288) triples than the Blue Raiders (271) this season.
The Orange and the Blue Raiders do have one common opponent this year, as Middle Tennessee played – and beat – Charlotte twice, first by a score of 73-72 on the road, and then a 79-61 hammering in the C-USA tournament. Syracuse played Charlotte in the fourth game of the season, coasting to an 83-70 victory in which Syracuse led 50-27 at halftime. The Orange got 26 points from Michael Gbinije in that game, and Syracuse drilled 14-of-28 treys in the team’s opening game at Atlantis.
One of the big things I was hoping to see on Friday was improved interior defense, and Syracuse got that in spades. Yes, Dayton missed some baskets they shouldn’t have, but it’s unfair to take all of the credit away from what was one of the most active defensive efforts by Syracuse all year. The Orange did a terrific job closing down passing lanes on the back line of the zone and they’ll need to keep it up if they want to continue to make a run in this year’s tournament.
Syracuse should win tomorrow when they take on Middle Tennessee, but it certainly won’t be a cakewalk. That said, if Syracuse plays like they can, they’re the better team. I’m going to go ahead and predict a 74-66 victory for the Orange as they look to advance to the Sweet Sixteen and take on either Utah or Gonzaga (right now, Gonzaga leads 60-39 with 12 minutes left as I type this…so chances are, whoever wins between SU and MTSU will face the Zags next weekend).