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Middle Tennessee Seeks Sweet 16 Berth

Updated: .March 18, 2017

By Charles Jay

The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee scored a victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and even though they are the 12th seed in the South region, insiders didn’t consider that very much of a surprise. Now they move onto the next step, as they take on the Butler Bulldogs in a Round of 32 game that takes place on Saturday at 7:10 PM ET. CBS will televise the contest, and America’s Bookie customers will have the option of making live bets, either while the game is in progress or during breaks, by choosing the “Live Betting” tab in their sportsbook interface.

Middle Tennessee actually ended the season ranked 25th in the nation in the Coaches’ poll, so there was a bit of disrespect in having this low a seed. They defeated Minnesota 81-72 in the opening round, garnering a 37-24 rebounding edge. This team will hit the boards; they were ninth best in the nation in defensive rebounding, and one of the keys to what they want to accomplish is Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds on the season.

Butler advanced with a 76-64 victory over Winthrop. The Bulldogs are also nationally -ranked, with a #21 spot in the Associated Press poll, and they are right above Middle Tennessee in the Coaches poll at #24. Middle Tennessee comes into this game with a record of 31-4 straight-up, and they have been sizzling against the pointspread (22-10-1 ATS). Butler is 24-8 straight-up and they have also been profitable against the number, going 18-12 ATS.

In the NCAA Tournament betting odds posted on this game, Butler is favored:

Butler Bulldogs -2.5
Middle Tennessee blue Raiders +2.5

Over 140.5 points -110
Under 140.5 points -110

Williams gets a lot of support in the Middle Tennessee lineup; Reggie Upshaw averages 14.5 points, and Giddy Potts registers 15.8 points per contest. This is not a team that is dependent on making the three-pointer; in fact, only 26% of their points come that way. Instead, they rely on a sure-handed offense, which is 17th best in the nation in turnover percentage, and they like to attack inside the three-point arc. Obviously, with Williams and Upshaw, both at 6-8, they are capable of doing that.

Butler comes with some size, but not a whole lot. The Bulldogs, who lost to Xavier in the Big East tournament, are also very good at taking care of the basketball, and like Middle Tennessee, they don’t go three-point crazy, making 54.6% of their two-point shots.

A key move on the part of coach Chris Holtmann was to take his leading scorer (16.1 points per game), Kelan Martin, and bring him in off the bench, giving the second unit a little more punch. That’s okay, if you can play some defense. There is obviously some concern about how Butler does when the opponent is closer to the basket; they did allow 50.7% field goals from two-point range, and that is below average.

But what really sticks in our mind is the relative level of opposition between these squads. Middle Tennessee did beat Michigan State last year in the NCAA Tournament, but out of conference the best wins they scored this season were over Vanderbilt, UNC-Wilmington and Ole Miss, while they lost to VCU. Obviously the win over Minnesota is credible, but this doesn’t compare to what Butler has done.

The Bulldogs have not one, but TWO wins over Villanova, the defending national champions and also the #1 overall seed in this tournament. On top of that, they beat Vanderbilt, like Middle Tennessee did, and also hold victories over Arizona, Northwestern, Cincinnati, Xavier and Marquette. That is quite a resume, and it is much as we see this as a reasonable impost, we will go with the more battle-tested Bulldogs, who still play like they are an underdog, as the Charles Jay / America’s Bookie Challenge continues on Saturday.

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