Call it the Sun Belt Conference’s revenge.
Though the Blue Raiders won at least 25 games and the Sun Belt regular-season title for the second straight year, they once again exited early from the league tournament. Falling short of that automatic bid could leave MTSU (28-5) on the outside looking in when the NCAA Tournament field is announced Sunday.
To head coach Kermit Davis, a 61-57 loss to Florida International in the semifinals on Sunday is a moot point considering his team’s body of work. With an Ratings Percentage Index of 29 and the second-most wins in the country, the Blue Raiders will be considered for an at-large berth.
“I don’t think there is any question about it,” Davis said. “We can’t do any more than we did to try to schedule the toughest non-conference schedule. And we did. We did the ninth [toughest] one. We can’t control sometimes the league. But we can control that. We had some great wins. Disappointed [with the loss to FIU] but I don’t think there is any question we’ll be in on Sunday.”
There is certainly no love lost between the conference and MTSU, which will part company after this year as the Blue Raiders jump to Conference USA. Ironically, the conference’s relatively weak performance could keep Middle out of the tournament.
Before the loss to FIU, MTSU had the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games. Plus, none of the Blue Raiders’ non-conference losses are “bad losses” from an RPI standpoint: Florida (six), Belmont (18), Akron (53).
Hurting their case is a shortage of “good wins.” They have just one win over a RPI Top 100 team — against Ole Miss (56) in Murfreesboro.
Despite a 19-1 conference record, the Blue Raiders are in a lose-lose situation. The Sun Belt (15) actually has a higher RPI than the Ohio Valley Conference (16). But MTSU is the only Sun Belt team in the RPI Top 100. Thus, losing on the road in overtime to Arkansas State (162) and the loss to FIU (111) actually do more damage than the 20 wins over league opponents helps.
Last year, MTSU was 25-6 entering Selection Sunday but had an RPI of 56. It wasn’t enough to get the Blue Raiders into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989. Instead, they reached the quarterfinals of the NIT.
As the regular-season champ, MTSU is once again guaranteed a spot in the NIT. The Blue Raiders hope they won’t have to use it.