15 Years in the Making
Kermit Davis led Middle Tennessee to a surprising 2nd Round win over Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
The moment when Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis Jr. realized the program might have reached the destination he set out for 15 years ago didn’t occur last March after their incredible victory over Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It occurred last month in Richmond after a three-point loss at VCU.
As Davis Jr. walked off the court, a VCU administrator stopped and told him: “Coach, I just want you to know: In the A10 this year, this is probably the best win anybody has had in the nonconference.”
Middle Tennessee enjoyed a top-20 RPI at the time. The VCU fans understood they'd just claimed an important win sure to prove valuable on NCAA tournament Selection Sunday. For Davis Jr. it eased the sting from a narrow defeat, for a minute anyway.
“It was a tough loss,” Davis Jr. recalled. “But that’s where you want to get your program too. It’s tough for scheduling, but it helps you in scheduling. We just finished the home-and-home with VCU, just signed a four-year deal with Ole Miss, a three year deal with Auburn. Those teams need good RPI wins too.”
Middle Tennessee is 18-3 and 8-0 in Conference USA entering a critical home game against second-place Louisiana Tech (6-1) this weekend. The Blue Raiders have won eight games in a row, beating CUSA competition by an average of 14.2 points. Rice is the lone team to manage a single-digit deficit.
Not that the Blue Raiders are surprising any opponents. They’ve won 24 games or more in four of the last five years. They’ve won or shared the conference title in five of the last seven.
What they accomplished last March will never be forgotten in Murfreesboro, Tenn. - or East Lansing, Mich.
With national Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine running a veteran team, Michigan State was the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region and a popular pick to deliver coach Tom Izzo’s second national championship. How popular? Prior to the tournament 22 percent of the 13 million participants in ESPN’s Bracket Challenge picked the Spartans to clip the nets in Houston.
It was a logical choice, especially when considering Izzo’s sterling March record of seven Final Fours.
Middle Tennessee refused to follow the narrative.
Sizzling shooting from every position scalded Sparty’s defense. The Blue Raiders swished 59 percent of 2-pointers and drained 11 3-pointers. They entered the game 198th in the nation in offensive efficiency yet blistered their heavyweight opponent for 1.32 points per possession, scoring 90 points in a nine-point victory that shattered brackets and shocked the college basketball world.
Middle Tennessee crashed back to Earth in the second round, befuddled by Syracuse’s nasty 2-3 zone in a 25-point loss. The damage was done, however. The statement every under-the-radar program covets had been made.
University administration rewarded Davis Jr. with a raise and eight-year contract extension. He, his staff and returning players were determined to ride the wave from the victory and not let the ripples fade.
“The hardest thing, as you know, for schools like us, is to back it up year after year. And that was a huge challenge for myself personally and my team,” he said. “It was not about the Michigan State win but can we sustain ourselves as a national power like Butler or Gonzaga or VCU.”
A loss at home to Tennessee State in the third game of the season was a bump along the road. Middle responded with eight consecutive victories, defeating UNC Wilmington (No. 2 in the Mid-Major Top 25), Ole Miss (by 15), Vanderbilt (by 23) and No. 11 Belmont (by 13).
The losses to VCU and Georgia State closed the nonconference slate on a disappointing note, but the Blue Raiders have rebounded by plowing through the Sun Belt.
“We all just fight for our brand,” Davis Jr. said. “It’s been really good from a recruiting standpoint. We signed five guys early (last fall), gained recognition. Guys knew they could come here and play on a national level. When you have the start like we have this year, people give you more credit, because you beat Michigan State … they say well, ‘they’re good again.’”
On paper, this Middle Tennessee squad is stronger on both ends of the court. The Blue Raiders still prefer a deliberate pace on offense, but are 59th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom, ranking first in conference games. They’re also 53rd in defensive efficiency, proficient at forcing turnovers and protecting the defensive backboard.
They returned two stars from last season’s team and added another via transfer.
Giddy Potts - who led the nation in 3-point percentage last season - has diversified his game and averages 15 points per game. Reggie Upshaw, a 6-8 forward, continues his trek toward becoming a Middle Tennessee legend. He provides 14.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. The leading scorer is Jacorey Williams, a versatile 6-8 transfer from Arkansas who is making his mark on CUSA in his lone season in the program. The senior forward averages 17 points and seven rebounds, knocking down 52 percent of his shots.
Potts is a terrific player with a million dollar smile who is beloved in the community. Blessed with a smooth shooting stroke, the Athens, Ala. native was lightly recruited out of high school because he was 6-1 and weighed 240 pounds.
The coaching and training staff helped Potts change his diet. He bid farewell to Jolly Ranchers and the other sugary sweets he preferred, hit the weight room and the track, shed fat and created muscle. He’s 219 pounds with seven percent body fat and hopes to drop 5-10 pounds to further improve his agility and quickness.
“His eating habits aren’t totally great,” Davis Jr. said. “I don’t know if you ever take a guy from Alabama, I’m from Mississippi, and … the way us country cats eat some time, and change him completely. He’s athletic for his position. His ball skills have gotten better. He’s just an elite shooter but he can impact the game in other ways now.”
Part of Potts’ development is adjusting to a new role as go-to scorer in tight games.
VCU coach Will Wade described Potts as a player who “can always get his shot.”
“I have to take that role on,” Potts said. “Coaches have confidence in me so I can take the shots and I have to have the confidence to take the shot. I never really took that shot in high school or as a freshman or a sophomore.”
Potts quit paying attention to potential rankings or RPI recently. He’d discussed the team's position with teammates prior to playing VCU. When the Blue Raiders lost, Potts decided to focus solely on the game ahead.
Still, Davis Jr. knows some players follow the RPI and pull for teams on Middle Tennessee’s schedule to win games. The Blue Raiders have a nonconference strength of schedule of 33 and maintaining it until Selection Sunday could win them favor with the selection committee should they fall short in the CUSA tournament.
Davis Jr. knows his team doesn't have any "mulligans." They can't afford a road loss to a team in the bottom of the standings, like a power 5 conference school can. Their shot at an at-large bid hangs in the balance each night.
“If you think you have an NCAA tournament team, you have to try to schedule that way. Our players, they were in tune that Vandy beat Florida,” Davis Jr. said. “When your team is paying attention, maybe they’re not just looking at Snapchat. Maybe they’re looking at something that affects us. I don’t care what any coach says. We all pay attention to it. We all follow the schools that we played, it’s part of the whole process.”