Hours after Middle Tennessee State let a potential marquee victory slip away in an 84-77 loss at Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis acknowledged a win could have been his team's ticket to an at-large bid.
"That's why this loss stings," Davis said.
That wasted opportunity will surely haunt Middle Tennessee State even more this week now that the Sun Belt League's automatic bid is no longer an option. Ninth seed Arkansas State upset the regular season champion Blue Raiders 64-61 in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, which means unless Middle Tennessee State earns a surprise at-large bid, it is NIT-bound.
An at-large bid isn't completely out of the realm of possibility for Middle Tennessee State considering its 25-6 overall record bolstered somewhat by non-league wins over Ole Miss, Akron, UCLA and Belmont, but there's no denying it's a long shot. The Blue Raiders' No. 66 RPI certainly won't help, nor will back-to-back losses to end the season to Western Kentucky (13-18) and Arkansas State (14-19).
The likelihood of Middle Tennessee State missing the NCAA tournament is as big a bummer as Iona losing in the MAAC semifinals Sunday because the opening weekend of March Madness is better when these types of teams make it.
Fueled by 6-foot-9 Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy and the contributions of a talented supporting cast, the Blue Raiders set a school record for wins this season and appeared to be in position to make its first NCAA tournament since 1989. That's why it was so shocking to see them fall to an Arkansas State team that finished second-to-last in the Sun Belt's Western Division.
What cost Middle Tennessee State on Sunday was 11 missed free throws in 22 attempts including one by Dendy that could have tied the game in the final minute. Arkansas State also shot 43.8 percent from the field and sank 6 of 12 from behind the arc.
All the Blue Raiders can do now is sit, wait and hope until Sunday.
Had they beaten Vanderbilt five weeks ago, they might feel better about their chances.
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