Coaches often say one game doesn’t define a season.
Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis certainly hopes that isn’t the case.
Davis and his Blue Raiders anxiously sit on pins and needles unsure of their postseason fate after a stunning loss to Arkansas State on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. They were just the fourth No. 1 seed in the conference’s 35-year history that failed to reach the semifinals.
MTSU (25-6) captured the conference’s regular season championship and set a school record for regular season wins. But the Blue Raiders’ slip-up in the league tournament could cost them their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1989.
“We still think we are deserving,” Davis said on Wednesday morning while heading to Florida to watch a high school basketball tournament. “We’re practicing just like we are going to get an opportunity on Sunday. If it doesn’t work out then we know we have a great opportunity to play in the NIT.
“I can guarantee you we are going to play our tail off whichever tournament we get in.”
By winning the regular-season crown, the Blue Raiders earned the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NIT — if they're not in the NCAA tournament, that is.
But MTSU feels its résumé is NCAA Tournament-worthy and hopes to hear its name called during the selection show at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Before Sunday’s loss to Arkansas State (14-20), MTSU held an RPI of 47. That slipped to 59.
The Blue Raiders don’t have any wins over RPI top 50 teams, losing to No. 27 Vanderbilt by seven points. They split a two-game series with NCAA Tournament bound Belmont (RPI of 61). Another respectable loss was at conference foe Denver (79). They collected victories over Ole Miss (58) and Akron (62) and at preseason top 15 UCLA (117).
“We went out and scheduled like the committee asks college basketball teams to do,” Davis said. “We think our non-conference schedule is just what the committee wanted us to do.”
Losses that might hurt them in terms of RPI are to UAB (109) and Sun Belt rivals Western Kentucky (209) and Arkansas State (219).
The latest RPI figure was before WKU (15-18) rattled off four wins in four days and captured the Sun Belt Tournament crown on Tuesday. The Hilltoppers secured the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and most likely will be slotted as a No. 16 seed — perhaps opening up in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio next week for a crack at one of the four No. 1 seeds.
On Feb. 25, WKU handed MTSU just its second conference loss of the season. With the top seed in the tournament locked up, the Blue Raiders dropped their regular-season finale and made just nine of 18 free throws.
That turned out to be an ominous sign for MTSU. In the loss to Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders were just 11-of-22 from the foul line. Trailing by one in the final minute, they missed five free throws.
Now they’ll privately gather in their locker room in the Murphy Center on Sunday and watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, hoping those missed opportunities don’t keep them from dancing.
“We had a great year. Obviously we had a bad last week. We did,” Davis said. “We go 20-for-40 from the free-throw line. If we make free throws we don’t have this discussion.”