GENARO C. ARMAS, AP Sports Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Bracket-buster Middle Tennessee is back in the NCAA Tournament with a chance to take down another Big Ten team.
This time, though, the Blue Raiders won’t take anyone by surprise.
A year after upsetting Michigan State as a No. 15 seed, Middle Tennessee will be eager to show that it’s no one-year wonder when it faces fifth-seeded Minnesota in a first-round game on Thursday. The Blue Raiders (30-4) are seeded No. 12 this year after setting a school record for victories.
“We’re going to get Minnesota’s very, very best shot,” coach Kermit Davis said. “And for a whole university and for people around the country to now notice us and start thinking of us as a national program and picking us to win, I think that’s great for basketball and it shows how far we’ve come in the last 10, 12 years.”
The Blue Raiders (30-4) built off that Michigan State upset by storming through Conference USA to win a record 17 league games. Whenever Middle Tennessee gets in a tough spot, players can remember what they accomplished last March and try to replicate the winning formula.
“Move the ball, rebound like we did and at least try to get more buckets in transition like we know we can. Just try to feed off that game,” guard Giddy Potts said.
Middle Tennessee appears to be another chic pick to pull off an upset, so much so that the script might be flipped in this 5-12 game.
“If I was (Minnesota coach Richard Pitino), I would love to hear everybody say that,” Davis joked.
Taking on an underdog role is fitting in a way for Minnesota (24-9), which bounced back from an eight-win campaign for the biggest single-season turnaround in the country.
Pitino, the Big Ten coach of the year, does have some familiarity with Middle Tennessee. He coached one season at Florida International in 2012-13, when that school was in the Sun Belt Conference with Middle Tennessee.
“You know, it’s funny, I don’t need to be told to respect Middle Tennessee, probably because I was in their league and I know how good of a coach (Davis) is,” Pitino said. “Whenever people talk about coaches that people may not talk about, he’s the first one on my list every single time.”
The winner faces either fourth-seeded Butler (23-9) or 13th-seeded Winthrop (26-6), which plays the early game in South Regional action in Milwaukee on Thursday. The rest of the teams in the regional open play on Friday.
BLOCK PARTY: Six-foot-10 center Reggie Lynch anchors the paint for Minnesota. He’s the Big Ten defensive player of the year after setting a school record with 111 blocked shots. Creating mismatches on ball screens to try to create long close-outs for Lynch and Minnesota’s other big men will be important for Middle Tennessee, forward Reggie Upshaw said.
SPRINGS’ STEP: Senior guard Akeem Springs plans to wear a suit when he watches the game from the bench. He’s out for the tournament after tearing his right Achilles last week during the Big Ten Tournament. It was a bittersweet end to his college career, especially after Springs played his first three seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Springs averaged 9.5 points a game at Minnesota, taking on a leadership role from his first day of practice.
“He’s been really, really mature about it. His family has been great about it. It’s no surprise the way he’s handled it,” Pitino said.
BUTLER DEFENSE: Opponents have shot well from 3-point territory during Butler losses. Now the Bulldogs will face a Winthrop team that isn’t shy about firing away from beyond the arc. Winthrop has hit 37 percent of its 814 3-point attempts this season.
“I think probably our lack of length on the perimeter has impacted that a bit,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said about his team’s 3-point defense. “That’s obviously going to be important, but they score it in other ways, too. They’re terrific in transition, too.”
NEON KEON: Winthrop guard Keon Johnson hasn’t let his diminutive stature prevent him from making fearless drives into the lane. The 5-foot-7 guard is Winthrop’s dynamic leader , a player coach Pat Kelsey calls the “heart and soul” of the squad. Johnson is averaging 22.5 points a game and hitting 40 percent from 3-point range.
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