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From Cinderella to Conference USA power, how will Middle Tennessee handle expectations?

The Blue Raiders can’t sneak up on anyone this year.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament- Marshall vs MIddle Tennessee State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves a tournament upset, and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders engineered arguably the biggest ever last season in their win over Michigan State. You could point to the Spartans possibly overlooking a hungry, senior-laden Middle Tennessee squad that led to their early exit. Or, it was the magic of March and its ability to surprise and shock our senses year-in and year-out. Expect the unexpected. It’s been dubbed as a program-changing win for the team in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and in result, has removed the slipper and placed the bullseye squarely on their backs after they followed it up with a 30-win season.

You’ll have to look back to the 2012-13 season to find the last Conference USA team to win 30 games in a season. Like the Blue Raiders, Josh Pastner’s Memphis team won both the regular season and conference tournament in their final season before transitioning to the American Conference. You’ll have to go back even further to the find the last time Conference USA had a team win an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive seasons, which John Calipari’s Memphis team did in the 2008 and 2009 tournaments.

Our friends in the desert currently have the 12th-seeded Blue Raiders and fifth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers as a pick-em, which tells me that in their minds, both teams are mis-seeded and the pairing mirrors more an 8-9 or 7-10 game. The two teams share a like kind win over Vanderbilt in December, but both teams have come a long way since then.

Both squads rank in the top 50 in adjusted defense per, which means this will be by far the best defensive team Middle Tennessee has faced all season. Kermit Davis’s squad has been among the best in the nation in terms of protecting the ball and enforcing its offensive game plan. The Blue Raiders will have to execute with a laser focus against a long and athletic Golden Gopher defense. Richard Pitino, who is 1-4 all-time vs. Kermit Davis, is going to force the Middle Tennessee guards to shoot jump shots early, which they’ll have to make with consistency to open up the paint for Conference USA player of the year JaCorey Williams and Swiss Army knife forward Reggie Upshaw. Giddy Potts will need to be cookin’ on the dance floor.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If Middle Tennessee is able to win on Thursday, it may mark the passing of the torch from Memphis’s dominant days in the conference to the reign of the Blue Raiders as the consensus top team going forward. A win could also mean more rumor and speculation of Kermit Davis’s departure from Murfreesboro after 15 seasons. The likes of LSU, Missouri, and others will all be courting candidates at the tournament, which will be a distraction that they’ll have to overcome. If they’re able to, the Blue Raiders have the ability to dance all the way to the Sweet 16 in Memphis.

How to watch:

Time: 3:50 p.m. ET
Location: Bradley Center, Milwaukee, WI