1. I was up at #SoldOutDiddle for Part 1 of ‘100 Miles of Hoops Hate’ and witnessed an extraordinary atmosphere that night when 7, 759 red-cladded supporters brought energy an hour before tip all the way through the end of a 66-62 battle between the two rivals. My hope was that when Middle’s turn came around that their fans would match, if not top, that enthusiasm. Well, that was the case for the Blue Raider crowd, as 11,307 packed the Murphy Center and were loud throughout.
2. MTSU controlled the majority of the game in Bowling Green, leading for nearly 27 minutes of game action, and were able to hold off a constant barrage of 4-0, 5-0 runs made by the Hilltoppers that ignited the crowd each time. I was interested to see how Western would react with the crowd against this time and MTSU making the patented runs as the home team. The Toppers made an early response falling behind 7-0 early but quickly closing the score back to 7-5 after a pair of baskets from Tavieon Hollingsworth and Lamonte Bearden.
3. The defensive focus for Rick Stansbury and Western Kentucky had to be on the Blue Raiders senior duo of Nick King and Giddy Potts. King and Potts scored 9 points each in the first half but it was junior guard Antwain Johnson who had the biggest impact on the half. Johnson scored 7 of the Blue Raiders first 12 points. Johnson gave the Blue Raiders all of the momentum before the half hitting a three right before the buzzer sounded. For the half, Johnson scored 12 points on 5-7 shooting from the floor.
4. Shooting as a whole was a major factor to Middle Tennessee’s halftime lead. The Blue Raiders shot 60 percent in the half, including 7-11 from behind the arc. The Hilltoppers themselves shot well from the floor, shooting 48 percent but only connecting on two threes.
5. Middle came out of the half and scored four quick points to push their lead to 13. From this point on Western Kentucky was chasing. The Hilltoppers had their chance to make a run in the second half, trailing 62-49, following a Justin Jackson jumper Josh Anderson was fouled after a steal but missed the front end of the 1-and-1. On the following possession, the Blue Raiders turned the ball over again but Darius Thompson was unable to finish the fast break layup leading to a run out for MTSU where Nick King tipped home the Potts missed three-point attempt to give Middle a 64-49 lead, forcing Stansbury to call a timeout with 8:16 left.
6. At the end of the night, it was King and Potts in the spotlight. The seniors in their next to last game at the Murphy Center scored 18 and 11 respectively powering the Blue Raiders behind an invigorated crowd. Brandon Walters did his part contributing a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
7. The scoreline of 82-64 doesn’t do Middle Tennessee justice for how dominant they were over Western Kentucky tonight. The Blue Raiders led for all but 1:20. MTSU’s defensive effort was what was most impressive about this victory. The Blue Raiders held the Hilltoppers to 44 percent shooting on the night, making every shot difficult as the Toppers only manage 20 points in the paint. Middle’s offensive was equally as good, shooting 55 percent from the floor, knocking down 9-20 threes and scoring 42 of their 82 points inside.
8. I don’t know what’s going to happen next weekend in Frisco during the Conference USA Tournament but it’s relatively clear that Middle Tennessee should be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of whether they earn the conference automatic bid. The Blue Raiders own 12 true road wins, the No. 26 RPI and have the 7th best non-conference strength of schedule. Forget the No. 24 ranking, that’s a resume worthy of an at-large bid. Head coach Kermit Davis was on with Darren & Daunic Thursday morning and asked ‘when was the last time a ranked team didn’t earn a bid to the Big Dance’. That team was SMU back in 2014. Despite the Mustangs being ranked 25th in the AP Poll and 23rd in the Coaches Poll. What hurt SMU was their 114th ranked strength of schedule. Currently, the Blue Raiders rank 93rd in overall SOS but what typically matters for mid-major programs is if they challenge themselves in the non-conference. There’s little doubt that Davis’ team did by playing in the Diamond Head Classic with the likes of Miami and USC, a fellow bubble team, and playing SEC teams in Auburn, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. To echo more of what Davis said Thursday morning, I’d be shocked if this team is left out come next Sunday evening.