What can Middle Tennessee do for an encore? The Blue Raiders put themselves on the college basketball map with one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Middle Tennessee never trailed for 40 minutes en route to knocking off No. 2 Michigan State 90-81 – a team that was widely considered to be a national championship contender.
Syracuse pulled out a surprise on a smaller scale. The Orange met with heavy criticism when they received an at-large bid with low RPI numbers and losses in five of their last six games coming into the Tournament. Syracuse silenced many doubters with a dominating 70-51 victory over No. 7 Dayton. Now the Orange have earned a shot at going to the Sweet 16.
No. 15 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (25-9) vs. No. 10 Syracuse Orange (20-13)
When: 6:10 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Scotttrade Center (Saint Louis)
Line: Syracuse – 6
Keys for Middle Tennessee
Break the Zone
Syracuse can make it difficult for opponents to generate consistent offense with its patented zone. If Middle Tennessee wants to take its underdog act to the Sweet 16, the Blue Raiders need to knock down 3-pointers early to open things up offensively. It will force Syracuse to guard the 3-point line tighter and open up driving lanes to the basket.
Spread the Wealth
The Blue Raiders reached the second round in large part because they got big games from several players. All five starters scored in double figures against Michigan State, led by Reggie Upshaw's 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Middle Tennessee will need a similar effort against another tough defense.
Keys for Syracuse
Put Middle Tennessee on the line
The Blue Raiders ranked in the bottom 50 nationally in free throw shooting percentage during the regular season. Middle Tennessee did well at the line over its past two games, but the law of averages is bound to catch up. Syracuse can potentially break a close game open by letting the Blue Raiders shoot themselves out of it.
Don't start slow
Middle Tennessee played fearless after jumping out to a 15-2 lead on Michigan State and was able to answer every comeback run the Spartans mounted. Syracuse needs to start strong on offense to avoid giving the Blue Raiders early confidence. The Orange could use another lights-out inside-out performance from Malachi Richardson and Tyler Roberson, who combined for 31 points and 22 rebounds against Dayton.
Middle Tennessee shocked the world with its big victory over Michigan State and the Blue Raiders are playing with supreme confidence. Still, Syracuse can be a handful for teams not accustomed to dealing with its zone. The Orange are likely to fluster Middle Tennessee's shooters enough to prevent it from becoming just the second No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Syracuse 78, Middle Tennessee 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.