MTSU can't overcome the perception that it doesn't measure up to the state's SEC schools 

Blinded by Giants

Blinded by Giants

For decades, MTSU was saddled with the nickname "Little Middle." It was a sort of bless-their-hearts sobriquet for the tiny school in Murfreesboro, which plied its trade both athletically and academically in the far-reaching shadows of its big brother in Knoxville — and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, the lush campus on West End 38 miles north.

MTSU is no longer little. With nearly 25,000 students, it's nearly as large as UT and has an undergraduate population equal to the state's flagship institution. Its move to what is unfortunately now called the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1999 was a concerted effort to shed its reputation as an athletic also-ran.

In the meantime, the Blue Raiders have made the move from the Sun Belt to the marginally less-mid-major Conference USA; the football team has played in four bowl games since 2006; the men's team went to its first NCAA tournament since 1989 last season; and the women's team, led by Tennessee high school coaching legend Rick Insell, has made the tournament six times since 2005.

But the powers-that-be in college basketball haven't seemed to notice that Middle is little no more.

The men's team was the longest of shots for the tournament this year. The team shared the Conference USA regular season title but flamed out in the tournament, losing out on an automatic bid to the NCAAs. The invitation to the NIT now handed out to regular-season conference champs who miss the big tournament went to Louisiana Tech by virtue of a tiebreaker, but the Blue Raiders still felt good about their chances at playing in the secondary tournament.

Alas, they were again passed over — due in large part to Southern Miss missing out on an NCAA at-large, and in smaller part to the NCAA selection committee egregiously omitting SMU. (That sent every team on every bubble down one spot.) MTSU still had a chance at the post-season — there are now two other post-season tournaments — but the team's seniors declined to participate in what could generously be described as tertiary championships.

But what the committee did to the Lady Raiders is even more abominable.

Ranked No. 22 and led by one of the country's most dynamic scorers in Ebony Rowe, MTSU won the Conference USA regular season and tournament and was widely predicted to be seeded somewhere in the four to six range, giving the Raiders a reasonable shot at the Sweet Sixteen. The committee, unimpressed, slotted MTSU as an 8-seed, which is offensive enough on its face. But to add insult to idiocy, it shipped Middle to Seattle, a 2,400-mile trip, to face Oregon State, which only has a breezy 250-mile trip for its first round game. A likely battle with perennial power Stanford awaits in the second round.

To a certain degree, this should not be wholly unexpected, even if it is abhorrent. Despite its run of success, MTSU is still only the third most recognizable women's program in its own state, with the Lady Vols virtually synonymous with success and Vanderbilt still a competitive team in the toughest women's hoops league in the country. But MTSU is a perennial mid-major power now and has bested SEC teams regularly since Insell's tenure began. Certainly, strength of schedule factors in, but the conference switch has bolstered that figure, and Insell isn't shy about playing power conference opponents.

What more could Middle have done to impress the committee into a seed that more accurately reflects their success?

Unfortunately, there's only thing that would change the committee's mind, and it's the one thing MTSU has the least amount of control over. No matter how good MTSU gets, how many challenges they take on, they can never shed that Little Middle reputation — and they can never stop sharing a state with giants.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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