Middle Tennessee State defined the odds in its opening round win over No. 2 Michigan State Friday night. The Spartans rolled in on cruise control and was trailing the Blue Raiders 15-2 before ever getting their game in drive. Reggie Upshaw led MTSU with 21 points and all five starters finished in double-figures in the win.
Not many nights a team shoots nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc and still comes up short. That is unless the opposition nets 58 percent of its triple attempts, including an 8-12 shooting spree in the game's opening 20 minutes. All while torching the Spartans for their highest allowed field goal and three-pointer percentage all season.
But the game wasn't decided solely on what was on the stat sheet, rather by a group of guys who play as one, while representing a conference that many discredit as a pushover league.
MTSU did it their way, with four of the five starters seeing 37 minutes or more of action in the win. Kermit Davis trusts his leaders, and they made him look like a genius in the biggest upset in the 2016 Tournament.
Now the Raiders turn their attention toward the No. 10 seed Syracuse in the second round and history is not on their side. Friday's upset was only the eighth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Of those eight wins by the No. 15 seed in the opening round, only Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 has moved on to the Sweet 16.
It will be the matchup of the team that wasn't expected to make the tournament versus the team from the conference that nobody cares about. Syracuse comes in with a 70-51 throttling of No. 7 Dayton while using its signature defensive pressure to hold the Flyers to on 32 percent from the field. The Orange dominated the Flyers on the glass, grabbing 48 boards to Dayton's 28. Tyler Roberson led the way with 18 boards, including eight on the offensive glass.
The difference in the lopsided win came from the Orange's work on the glass. Syracuse earned 16 second-chance points and scored 26 points in the paint while allowing only four second-chance points in the win. Malachi Richardson's 21 points led the Orange as five players finished in double-figures and much like the Raiders, four of the five starters recorded more than 35 minutes.
The Raiders will have their work cut out with Roberson down low, and will need someone to help with Upshaw in the battle. Xavier Habersham is a name to remember, as he can provide a sizeable body in the paint should Davis need a spark from the bench.
The key to this game will come down to how quickly MTSU can adjust to Syracuse's 2-3 zone, which often seems like there's a sixth man on the floor. The Raiders must force the Orange to guard sideline to sideline, while taking care of the ball and scoring off Syracuse turnovers. MTSU coughed it up only 10 times against MSU while Syracuse gave it away 15 times versus Dayton.
This matchup favors MTSU if they can hit from long range and force Syracuse to man defense. Giddy Potts is a handful in a one-on-one matchup, leaving Syracuse clinging to hopes of staying in a zone much of the night. Middle is not a 2016 version of FGCU Dunk City, but it will have the similar outcome as in 2013.
PREDICTION: MTSU 77 Syracuse 70