About an hour after his team's back-and-forth 84-77 loss to SEC contender Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis summed up his reaction to the outcome.
"Extremely disappointed," he said without hesitation.
It's a testament to how good Davis believes his team is that he found no joy in pushing Vanderbilt to the limit Saturday. Instead he lamented what might have been if Middle Tennessee State not gone cold in the final two minutes of tie game or not let Vanderbilt erase an eight-point deficit at the end of the first half.
Had the Blue Raiders (20-3, 9-0 Sun Belt) beaten Vanderbilt, they would have secured the signature win that could have propelled them into the Top 25 for the first time in school history and put them squarely in the hunt for an at-large NCAA tournament berth. Instead Davis admits he likely won't feel secure about Middle Tennessee State's NCAA tournament chances unless it wins the Sun Belt conference tournament in March.
"That's why this loss stings," Davis said. "I still think an at-large is a real possibility, but in leagues like ours you have to have the mindset you have to win your conference tournament. We've all seen teams get disappointed who had great resumes."
Even with the Vanderbilt loss, the mediocrity of some of the power conferences this season should give Middle Tennessee a realistic chance at an at-large if it dominates the Sun Belt regular season but falls in its conference tournament.
The Blue Raiders have a spotless league record, an RPI hovering around No. 50 and solid non-conference wins over Ole Miss, Akron, UCLA and Belmont. Plus, if any selection committee members were watching on Saturday, they certainly had the look of an NCAA tournament-caliber team.
An influx of talent this season elevated Middle Tennessee State from a consistently upper-echelon Sun Belt program to a program favored to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 years. The Blue Raiders rank in the top 10 in the nation in both field goal percentage (49.5) and field goal percent allowed (38.4) and they get to the free throw line a staggering 24.7 times per game.
Six-foot-9 Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy became eligible and added interior scoring and rebounding. Junior college transfers Marcos Knight and Raymond Cintron have provided speed, outside shooting and playmaking ability in the backcourt. And returners J.T. Sulton and Shawn Jones have elevated their games from where how they were playing a year ago to help spark the team's success.
"They're physical, they're good, and they play hard," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. "They played really hard. If they play this hard all the time, then they'll be in the NCAA tournament, I think."
To have any hope of an at-large bid, Middle Tennessee State will probably have to win the Sun Belt in emphatic fashion, which won't be easy considering perhaps the Blue Raiders' three most challenging league games remain. A cross-country road trip to North Texas (13-9, 6-3) and Denver (16-6, 6-3) beckons this week, followed by a home game against Western Division-leading Arkansas-Little Rock (9-12, 7-2) when the Blue Raiders return.
Of course, none of those teams have two elite wings and a 6-foot-11 pro prospect in the paint the way Vanderbilt does. The Commodores struggled in patches earlier this season while Ezeli was out due to injury and suspension, but Saturday's season-high 21-point performance was the first time he's looked fully healthy since returning a few weeks ago.
"Should have played this one in November or December," Davis said with a chuckle. "Ezeli was just terrific. He was the difference."