Middle Tennessee's presence in HERO Sports' Bracketology has not wavered since the first preseason bracket back in October. Should the Blue Raiders lose at home to Western Kentucky, it could all be erased, leaving uncertainty with NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday days away.
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There's no denying Middle Tennessee is one of the premier mid-major programs in the country this season. The Blue Raiders are 15-1 in Conference USA, own a 10-game win streak and are projected as high as an eight seed in some brackets. As of Thursday, they have an RPI of 25, KenPom has them rated 45 and they are ranked 24th in the AP Poll. Nick King is the best player in the conference this year, averaging 21.5 points per game, 18th best in the country.
It's all great.
Except it's not great enough to guarantee a spot in the tournament.
Dive in and you see a mid-major team with no statement wins. The teams Middle Tennessee beats average a 195 RPI. Its only quadrant one win outside Conference USA is Murray State.
Its high RPI and ranking should not be a comfort either. There have been plenty of mid-major schools left out in year's past with similar resumes. No doubt their stock would drop should they lose before the season is over.
Middle Tennessee needs to win to stay safe in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Western Kentucky's desperation is much more palpable.
The Hilltoppers have one good thing going for them, however, that Middle Tennessee does not, a bonafide high-quality win. Although it was in November, that victory over Purdue in the Bahamas is a beacon of light. The one twinkle of hope that could be the difference on whether or not they get in, or are headed to the NIT.
The road to the NCAA Tournament has its defining moment Thursday in Murfreesboro.
Western Kentucky needs this win to get back in the conversation. The loss to RPI-183 San Antonio is a stench the Hilltoppers have carried over to this point. Last week they beat Old Dominion, which began the conversation. A win over their Conference USA rival would eliminate that and get them back into serious bubble contention.
They currently have an RPI of 53, KenPom rates them at 55. To make the tournament, they will need to win every game, hope for some losses from other bubble teams, and then maybe they can sneak in should they lose in the conference tournament. It's a razor-thin margin of error that most mid-major teams are forced to deal with.
There is one way both teams could win, however. If Middle Tennessee were to win on Thursday, it would clinch the conference title and continue one of the nation's longest win streaks. If the Blue Raiders win out until the conference tournament championship game, it should be enough to secure an at-large berth. If Western Kentucky were to beat the Blue Raiders in that title game the Hilltoppers would secure the automatic bid, thus allowing for two Conference-USA teams.
It's a long shot, and the whole thing is as convoluted as it was when the two teams first met up on January 20. The only difference is it's March now. The time of madness. Where the impossible becomes reality and the resumes are written in permanent ink. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky have the opportunity to put pen to paper on Thursday.