MTSU has history within its reach

March 16th, 2017

The Knoxville News Sentinel

JOE REXRODE

MILWAUKEE — This time MTSU is a stylish pick in the world of NCAA tournament forecasting, and shocked faces will be few if the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota in the first round of the NCAAtournament.

The only thing that would surprise me is if Thursday’s 4 p.m. game at BMO Harris Bradley Center doesn’t come down to a few plays at the very end. If the Golden Gophers make them, it will not change the fact that this was an extraordinary MTSU team, finishing 30-5 while playing all season under the pressure of producing a sequel to last year’s NCAA glory.

And if the Blue Raiders make them?

Well, then we can really start talking.

About a chance at the first Sweet Sixteen in school history. About the kind of free publicity that MTSU would have to spend hundreds of millions to buy.

About the two words coach Kermit Davis keeps using to describe his vision: “national program.” And yes, possibly about someone trying to poach that coach – the open LSU job is a natural fit for Davis, and NCAA tournament success is an intoxicant for athletic directors on the hunt.

If the Blue Raiders follow up last year’s epic first-round upset of Michigan State with another NCAA win, then we can start talking about Butler. Not just because MTSU probably would play Butler in Saturday’s second round.

Also because MTSU wants to be Butler.

“That’s something you always talk about and point toward,” MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro said.

Butler, a small private school in Indianapolis, estimated that the publicity from its 2010 NCAA run – which ended with a loss to Duke in the title game – would have cost $639 million to buy. To put that in perspective, MTSU’s annual athletics budget is $25 million.

And Massaro and his staff figured last year’s win over Michigan State alone created at least $10 million in free publicity. In the hours following that shocker in St. Louis, Massaro said, MTSU was getting about 18,000 social media mentions every 30 seconds.

A loss to Syracuse in the second round kept the Blue Raiders out of the Sweet Sixteen in Chicago, which would have meant a week of intense national attention and brand enhancement. But in the season that followed, average attendance for home games at Murphy Center went up 14 percent (from 5,184 to 5,909). Davis said 3,000 MTSU fans showing up for last week’s Conference USA tournament in Birmingham was a “big step” in the building process.

The Blue Raiders have so much more recruiting clout now that “it’s not even close,” Davis said.

“And applications to the school are up 15 percent,” Massaro said. “I don’t know if I’d attribute that all to basketball,but that’s significant.” So is the opportunity at hand. MTSU senior star Reggie Upshaw said he wants this program to become one of those “mid-major teams that are known nationally,” with Wichita State, VCU and Gonzaga joining Butler as prime examples of programs from smaller conferences with wide reach.

“You can make the argument that this year is even bigger than last year in some ways,” Massaro said. “If we can win again, it validates last year in the minds of some people nationally.

Then you start getting more respect.”

Then maybe more teams from power conferences such as the SEC and ACC will agree to schedule games with MTSU. Scheduling is always a problem at this level, and a bad season for CUSA hurt the Blue Raiders and resulted in them getting just a No. 12 seed in the tournament despite a 30-4 record.

Switching to a stronger conference could be part of the process from here.

That’s what Butler, a No. 4 seed in this tournament, did on the way to becoming a perennial college basketball power. The Bulldogs moved up from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East in 2013.

They’ve also consistently hired head coaches from within and have survived the departure – also in 2013 – of star coach Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics. MTSU could be in that position soon.

I asked Davis about the LSU job and he pointed out that he just signed an eight-year deal (for $565,000 a year plus bonuses) and added: “I’m totally committed to seeing this thing through to the national level.”

But he would have to take a long look if approached by LSU, where he was an assistant for five years before taking over at MTSU in 2002. You’re talking about triple the salary, massive program resources and no more scheduling or exposure headaches.

And LSU should look at Davis, regardless of what happens in this tournament. You’re talking about a guy who has gone 153-53 in the past six years while graduating 52 straight players.

MTSU coach Kermit Davis (right) directs his team during practice Wednesday at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

MARK HOFFMAN USA TODAY NETWORK

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