The giant killers are back, and this time Middle Tennessee’s sights are set on a sweet 16 date with Gonzaga. The only problem? SU is barreling headfirst towards the exact same thing. The Blue Raiders shocked the world and destroyed brackets across the country when it did the seemingly impossible and knocked off Michigan State on Friday afternoon. Later tonight, the Orange will attempt to bring itself back to the sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. How will it do this?
Middle Tennessee was able to beat Michigan State amid one of the best shooting performances in tournament history. The Blue Raiders shot 56 percent from the field and knocked down an impressive 57.9 percent of its three point attempts, which clearly was the deciding factor in a nine-point win against Tom Izzo’s Spartans. And while the trendy analysis is to point out that deep three pointers can topple Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, these experts fail to understand that the zone is actually doing a great job stopping the three ball. The Orange ranks ninth (!!!) in the country in opponent three-point field goal percentage at 30.3 percent, while the Blue Raiders are 14th-best in the country at shooting the three ball. On Friday afternoon, Middle Tennessee only turned the ball over ten times against the Spartans, and the zone will hopefully be able to create more opportunities in transition than the Spartans had. Simply put, if the Blue Raiders cannot replicate their nearly-60 percent shooting output, and the Orange can force turnovers leading to transition buckets, SU will have a huge advantage.
The Orange was able to absolutely demolish Dayton on the boards, something it hasn’t done in a very, very long time. Despite beating the Spartans, Middle Tennessee was still out-rebounded in the game, which has something to do with the high shooting percentage. While both teams have a similar rebounding rate, SU has the size advantage on the floor, much like it had against Dayton. The Orange will be facing a roster that features only one player at 6-foot-9 or taller, freshman Karl Gamble, who averages just four minutes per game. Reggie Upshaw, the leading rebounder on the squad, is just 6-foot-7. When SU’s point guard is the same height as the opponent’s leading rebounder, good things will come. Expect big things from DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson today.
SU was able to hit Dayton with an onslaught of weapons, which it hasn’t been able to do late in the season. When SU struggled, it was because the offense was too reliant on Micahel Gbinije. With Malachi Richardson leading the charge on Friday, the entire offense flowed better. Five players scored in double figures, including Trevor Cooney who finally crossed the 40-percent shooting mark with a 4-of-10 performance from the field. As size will play a big role rebounding, it should also play a huge role for the offense too. Starting guard Giddy Potts, who also happens to be among the nation’s leaders in three point shooting, is just 6-foot-2, so Gbinije should have plenty of space to create shots with a five-inch advantage. Similarly, Boeheim might try to expose the Blue Raiders’ lack of interior size by feeding Coleman and Lydon down low, or by telling Richardson and Cooney to get to the rack instead of relying on the three ball. As long as SU stays out of foul trouble, it should be moving onto the sweet 16 on Sunday evening.