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Against a former Cinderella, Middle Tennessee has a shot at another program-building win

The Blue Raiders look to follow Butler's blueprint

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee State Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t so long ago that a small private school from Indianapolis that played in the Horizon League marched its way to the NCAA tournament final in consecutive years, captivating basketball fans around the nation. Those amazing tournament runs for Brad Stevens’ Butler teams helped catapult the program into the Atlantic 10 Conference, then ultimately the Big East as Stevens moved on to the NBA.

Butler followed Gonzaga in developing the blueprint for a mid-major to climb its way into the national spotlight. Of course it helps that the Bulldogs are in the heart of basketball country and their infrastructure and support has always been there. Nevertheless, Butler’s mid-major days are over, and Gonzaga has long run its program more like a high-major as well. The opportunity is there for Middle Tennessee to take the reins.

It’s easier said than done.

For Middle Tennessee, continued and sustained success in March could potentially yield them upward movement in the next round of conference realignment. Beating the team who laid out the path to achieve such things would be quite the feather in their cap.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Butler vs Winthrop Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

A glance at the matchup

The Blue Raiders have fed off the energy of being the “little guy” the past two seasons, where they’ve now beaten two Big Ten teams and three SEC teams. On Saturday, the game won’t quite have the David versus Goliath billing when they face Butler, which could be an interesting mental hurdle to keep an eye on.

In their first-round win over Minnesota, the bread was baked by the men in the paint. JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw, and Brandon Walters exposed the Golden Gophers’ inability to effectively defend the pick and roll. Coach Kermit Davis will likely dish out another heavy dose of the same stuff, given the Bulldogs’ struggle to defend larger front lines this season.

In looking at the backcourts of these two teams, Butler has the advantage despite what Giddy Potts can bring on the offensive end for Middle Tennessee. Defense usually trumps offense at this point of the season. In Jordan Majewski’s preview of the Winthrop-Butler game he described the Bulldogs’ front court best.

However, the Butler guards are defensive pests of the highest orders. Kamar Baldwin practically wears the opposing ball handler’s jersey, and Kethan Savage is a shut down perimeter defender as well

Davis has done a masterful job of protecting freshman point guard Tyrik Dixon from vulnerable situations all season and the Butler guards are most certainly going to test his savvy. Potts found open looks Thursday but I wouldn’t expect him to get much breathing room against a team that held Villanova under 70 points twice this season.

Overall, I’d expect a defensive chess match that will result in many lead changes and hopefully some exciting late-game heroics. This game has the potential to be one of the most exciting and evenly matched of the Round of 32.