The wait seemed interminable.
Suddenly, time is of the essence for the Middle Tennessee State basketball team.
The Blue Raiders had a week to sit and wonder whether they had done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Once they found out Sunday that they were, in fact, in things began to move quickly. They earned an 11 seed and a spot in the First Four, one of four games scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, that reduce the field from 68 teams to the more traditional 64.
MTSU will face St. Mary’s (Calif.), 8:10 p.m. (CST) Tuesday.
“We'll get on a flight early in the morning, practice, and it'll be a quick turnaround, but it'll be a quick turnaround for Saint Mary's, too,” coach Kermit Davis said.
With a victory, the Blue Raiders will face Memphis in the second round Thursday at Auburn Hills, Mich. Those two and Belmont are the only teams from Tennessee in the field. The University of Tennessee, also considered a bubble team, did not make it.
MTSU (28-5) last made the tournament in 1989, when it was a No. 13 seed and upset Florida State in the opening round.
“I had a quiet confidence, but as always, a little anxiety when you're waiting this long for that particular moment, and it kind of popped out of nowhere,” Davis said. “I'm just so happy for our players, so happy for our fans and it's just great publicity for Middle Tennessee.”
Doubt about the Blue Raiders’ prospects for a spot in the NCAA field were raised when they lost 61-57 to Florida International in a Sun Belt Conference tournament semifinal on March 10.
They won the regular season title with a 19-1 record, had a program-best 17-game winning streak and had non-conference wins over SEC tournament champion Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The last time two Sun Belt teams made the NCAA tournament, though, was 2008.
The conference’s automatic bid ultimately went to tournament champion Western Kentucky.
“There was a lot of anxiety not knowing if we were going to play in the NCAA or the NIT,” junior guard Kerry Hammonds said. “There is a lot of relief finally knowing we are going to the NCAA Tournament."
MTSU is 2-6 all-time in NCAA tournament games. Davis previously went in consecutive years (1989 and 1990) when he was head coach at Idaho.
The seeding matches the highest in program history. As a No. 11 in 1982, the Blue Raiders upset No. 6 Kentucky.
“Coming in to it, we have all been stressed,” senior guard Bruce Massey said. “There hasn't been much sleep in the last couple of days because we weren't sure if we were in or out. To see our name called early in the first bracket was a sigh of relief.”
It won’t be long now before they’re actually playing in the tournament.