Did Middle Tennessee State and Saint Mary's deserve to be in this tournament? Probably just barely, which is why I think it's fair that they get to play each other for the right to take on an admittedly weak Memphis squad. We said earlier this week that it might come down to these two teams for a spot, and given that this is a play-in game, it kind of did.
Neither of these teams played a particularly strong schedule, impressive though their records may be, so what are we in for from each team?
MIddle Tennessee State:
Credentials: The Blue Raiders sure were dominant in the Sun Belt, but that's not hard to do when you come from such a weak conference. This has been discussed before: they may have finished 10th in the MRI, but Arkansas State and Western Kentucky were the next two in line from the SBC, and they were 95th and 145th, respectively. That's an Arkansas State team that beat the Raiders at home in overtime. MTSU's best games were a road win over Central Florida (their only Top 100 win), a home win against Ole Miss, and a road loss to Akron in overtime.
Talent: This is something the Raiders definitely have. They may not have anyone who is elite, but they are deep. Marcos Knight is the leading scorer with 12.7 ppg, and he is the only player to average double digits on the season, but six other players average at least six points per game. They struggle at the free throw line beyond Raymond Cintron, but he leads a respectable three-point shooting squad.
Credentials: The Gaels come from a stronger conference than the Raiders, with the Santa Clara Broncos - 66th in the MRI - representing the fourth best team in the conference. Between their three matchups against Gonzaga and another two against BYU, they have experience with size, though their losses against Georgia Tech and Pacific show their struggles whenever they're unable to regularly get out in transition and affect the pace of play.
Talent: It all starts and ends with Matthew Dellavedova. The senior leader does an excellent job of getting everyone involved and making sure enough touches are shared. However, he is also able to get to the rim or knock down a hug three pointer when the time calls for it. Their size isn't as gifted as some other teams (Mitchell Young and Kyle Lowery) but it is still formidable to deal with. We will find out soon whether backup guard Jorden Page (an important depth piece) will be able to play after a knee injury in the conference tournament.
Bottom Line: The Gaels represent one of the best teams Middle Tennessee State has played all year, their third top 25 MRI team after struggling against Florida and Belmont. The Raiders might be deep, but they don't have the size that Saint Mary's does - Young, Rowley, Brad Waldow and Matt Hodgson are all 6'9" or taller; Shawn Jones is the only Raiders regular that can compete with that. The Raiders will be competitive, but they will not be able to hang with Saint Mary's for a full 40 minutes.
Saint Mary's 77, Middle Tennessee State 67