After winning only eight games a season ago, the Minnesota Golden Gophers won 24 games this season and found them seeded No. 5 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Their reward will be the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who in 2016, pulled off one of the biggest tournament upsets in recent memory.
As a No.15 seed last season, Middle Tennessee defeated the Michigan State Spartans, a team many predicted to play in the Final Four. After that huge upset, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking the Blue Raiders lightly.
South Region: No. 12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4) vs. No. 5 Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-9)
Time: 4 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Bradley Center (Milwaukee, Wis.)
Keys for Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee can score with any team in the Tournament and that’s what makes them potentially the most dangerous double-digit seed. The Blue Raiders are led by Giddy Potts, who scored 30 points in the Conference USA Tournament title game and Reggie Upshaw.
A transfer from Arkansas, JaCorey Williams was the conference player of the year and leads the Blue Raiders in scoring at 17.3 points per game. The biggest question in regards to Middle Tennessee is on defense. The Blue Raiders tend to get into a lot of shootouts and don’t put in the same intensity on the defensive end as they do on offense.
Keys for Minnesota
Minnesota has a deep and talented lineup led by junior and leading scorer Nate Allen, who is averaging 15.5 points per game along with five assists. The Golden Gophers also get key contributions from Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy as well.
Minnesota’s bread and butter is on defense, holding opponents to 39.8 percent shooting from the field (16th in the country), and limiting them to just 69.1 points per contest.
Many people will likely pick Middle Tennessee based on its upset victory over Michigan State a year ago. While this Blue Raiders team has the potential to make a Sweet 16 run, their defense could ultimately be their downfall.
Minnesota had one of the best defenses in the Big Ten and conference coach of the year Richard Pitino won’t take Middle Tennessee lightly like Michigan State did in 2016.
Prediction: Minnesota 71, Middle Tennessee 67
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of @MT_MBB)