MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders set a school record with 25 wins this season and sprinted to a Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship by going 14-2 in conference play.
As special as their season has been, the only way to ensure the Blue Raiders will be playing in the NCAA Basketball Tournament is for them to win the Sun Belt Tournament.
Action started Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark. to decide the Sun Belt champion, but Middle Tennessee State won't play its first game until Sunday at 7 p.m. ET because of its first-round bye (tune in to CSS for the game). It's simple for the Blue Raiders; win three more games and claim the Sun Belt's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
For a team that's only lost five games all season, and just two in-conference, that task seems like it shouldn't be too difficult. But because the Blue Raiders might not get into the NCAA Tournament without winning the Sun Belt Tournament; there is a lot of pressure to win.
"At our level the pressure is more," said head coach Kermit Davis. "When I was at LSU, the first five or six teams could get an at-large bid. You kind of knew with two or three weeks to go in the season, unless you collapsed."
Now that Davis is at Middle Tennessee State, away from the so called major-conference action, he admitted that no matter what happened during the regular season the importance of winning the conference tournament and getting an automatic bid is great.
"At our level, you had better bank on winning your conference tournament," said Davis. "There's been a lot of really good mid-level teams that get talked about on Selection Sunday that are sitting there disappointed afterwards. You'd better put all your efforts into winning your conference tournament."
The Blue Raiders do have a good body of work this season on their resume. Their Realtime RPI is currently at 44 and their Sagarin rating is 47. Among their 25 wins are three quality wins over Akron, Belmont and Ole Miss. The Blue Raiders also played Vanderbilt extremely tough on Jan. 28, losing by seven on the road.
Davis said he feels those quality wins will keep Middle Tennessee State "in the conversation" on Selection Sunday and pointed towards a recent history of the Sun Belt Conference getting an at-large bid.
The Blue Raiders upset the No. 1 seed South Alabama in the 2008 Sun Belt Tournament in the semifinals and then lost to Western Kentucky in the finals. Western Kentucky received the conference's automatic bid and South Alabama notched an at-large bid, a 10 seed in the East Regional.
"It's possible," said Davis about Middle Tennessee State's chances for an at-large bid if it doesn't win the Sun Belt Tournament. "That's what makes March Madness the most anticipated tournament event because everybody has a chance."
It's also what devalues the importance of the regular season for teams in mid-major conferences like the Sun Belt. If the league doesn't provide a strength of schedule with enough pop to supports regular at-large bids year in and year out, no matter what a team does, the conference tournament is the only sure-fire method of NCAA Tournament entry.
"It does," said Davis on the thought that the regular season is less important than the Sun Belt Tournament. "Sometimes teams, coaches and staffs are measured by three days in March. You look at a body of work at what a team has done -- take us, Sun Belt wins and different things like that -- a lot of things could happen in three days; injuries, foul trouble, any of those things."
If the Blue Raiders can avoid any of "those things" over the next three days, they have a good chance at winning the Sun Belt Championship and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989. If someone other than Middle Tennessee State wins the tournament, the Blue Raiders will sit around on Selection Sunday and wait for a group of ten members to decide its fate. And Davis is OK with that.
"It's our level and it's the beauty of college basketball."