Running Big Ten teams out of the arena in March is becoming second nature to Middle Tennessee.
For the second straight season, the Blue Raiders faced a Big Ten opponent in its NCAA Tournament opener and came out on top. Middle Tennessee cruised past No. 5 Minnesota for an 81-72 victory. The No. 12 Blue Raiders led by double digits throughout the game and weathered a late rally by the Golden Gophers.
Middle Tennessee (31-4) can add to its school-record victory total and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time with a win over No. 4 Butler on Saturday. The Bulldogs promise to offer a much stiffer challenge.
Butler (24-8) handled No. 13 Winthrop 76-64 in the first round on Thursday. The Bulldogs built up a 14-point halftime lead and were never seriously threatened by the Eagles after halftime. Butler is seeking to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time since 2003.
South Region: No. 12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (31-4) vs. No. 4 Butler Bulldogs (24-8)
When: 7:10 pm ET (Saturday)
Where: BMO Harris Bradley Center (Milwaukee)
Line: Butler -4
Keys for Middle Tennessee
Being aggressive on offense is critical against a team like Butler. The Bulldogs are a tough defensive team who like to slow opponents down. Getting bogged down in drawn-out possessions with Butler plays right to the Bulldogs' strengths. Middle Tennessee needs to get out in transition early and often and force Butler to deal with that pace.
Reggie Upshaw, Giddy Potts and JaCorey Williams are all capable scorers. When they catch fire, the Blue Raiders can bury opponents fast. Doing the same against Butler won't be easy. The Bulldogs are the only team to beat defending national champion Villanova twice this season and have victories over other elite teams like Arizona.
Keys for Butler
It's crucial for the Bulldogs to not let their shooters get flummoxed by Middle Tennessee's penchant for switching up defenses. Butler is prone to suffering cold spells on offense. That could spell major trouble against a Blue Raiders team that is just as aggressive on defense as it is explosive on offense.
Against Minnesota, Middle Tennessee threw everything it had at the Golden Gophers to keep them off balance. The Blue Raiders used a 1-3-1 zone on some possessions and switched to a 2-3 zone on others. They also mixed in man-to-man coverage. Offensive chaos ensued for Minnesota under these conditions.
Getting big games from the likes of Kelan Martin, Avery Woodson and Kamar Baldwin will allow Butler to keep Middle Tennessee on its heels and set a more favorable tempo.
Seeing a No. 12 seed run off multiple upsets is a staple of March Madness. When it is a team like Middle Tennessee who deserved a much better seed relative to their overall strength, a Sweet 16 run feels inevitable. Butler is a team capable of making a deep NCAA Tournament run this year. But the Bulldogs also are capable of losing to anyone as evidenced by regular season losses to Indiana State and St. John's. Middle Tennessee has more than enough firepower to make it to the second weekend.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 74, Butler 68
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of Blue Raider Athletics Facebook page)