Another Sun Belt tourney loss leaves Middle Tennessee’s fate in the committee’s hands

The headline that ran in Sunday morning's Murfreesboro Daily Journal read: "This MTSU team is simply different."

By Sunday night, however, the Blue Raiders were experiencing a sickening case of Déjà vu

Again Middle Tennessee entered the Sun Belt tournament as the favorite after dominating the regular season. Again the Blue Raiders crashed out early in the tournament. And again they'll have to rely on a surprise at-large bid from the selection committee to avoid having another dream season end in the NIT.

One year Middle Tennessee missed the NCAA tournament as a result of a quarterfinal loss to Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders fell 61-57 in the semifinals Sunday night against fourth seed Florida International. Middle Tennessee had swept the regular season series against the Panthers on its way to a 19-1 record in Sun Belt play.

Unlike last March, when an at-large berth would have taken a huge leap of faith from the selection committee, this year's Middle Tennessee team has the credentials to be one of the more hotly debated bubble teams come Selection Sunday.

Boosting the Blue Raiders' stock is a 28-5 overall record, a No. 28 RPI and a 12-5 record in road/neutral games. The question is whether that offsets the fact they've beaten just two RPI top 100 teams and their best wins came against fellow bubble team Ole Miss, rebuilding Vanderbilt and mediocre Central Florida.

Prior to Sunday's loss, Middle Tennessee at least had the look of an NCAA tournament team for what that's worth. A deep, talented squad that plays 10 guys more than 10 minutes per game, the Blue Raiders have relied on a fast-paced but balanced and efficient offense and a ball-hawking defense to rack up 55 wins the past two seasons.

What caused Middle Tennessee to fall behind by nine at halftime on Sunday was mostly on the offensive end.

Perhaps a bit anxious and jittery after last year's costly Sun Belt tournament loss, the Blue Raiders rushed shots and made poor decisions, shooting just 37.5 percent and committing 13 turnovers. Point guard Raymond Cintron in particular had a rough game, going scoreless in 14 minutes.

Lost amid the anguish of Middle Tennessee is the incredible job Richard Pitino has done taking the threadbare FIU team Isiah Thomas left and revamping it into an upper-echelon Sun Belt program. The Panthers will play either Western Kentucky or Arkansas State in the Sun Belt title game, a winnable game regardless of the opponent.

Middle Tennessee, meanwhile, will wait and hope.

A 26-win Blue Raiders team was snubbed last year. Next Sunday, Middle Tennessee fans will find out if this year's team really is different.

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