MTSU squads enter C-USA tourney on an upswing

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MTSU senior point guard Tweety Knight helped lead the Blue Raiders to a share of the regular season Conference USA title this season. The Blue Raiders will be the No. 3 seed in this week's C-USA tournament in El Paso, Texas. Photo courtesy Bradley Lambert

The MTSU basketball teams are in a different conference, yet are looking for the same results in March.

Both teams are set for their first ever Conference USA tournament, which begins Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. The Lady Raiders are the No. 1 seed, while the men's team clinched a share of the C-USA title last Thursday night with a thrilling 55-53 win at UAB. The Blue Raiders (23-8, 13-3) will be the No. 3 seed.

The Lady Raiders are coming off their eighth win in a row to end the regular season on March 5 at Tulane, 64-52. MTSU, ranked No. 22 nationally, finished the regular season with a (26-4, 15-1 C-USA) record and its first ever C-USA regular season title.

Their performance earned them a double-bye in the 16-team bracket, and their first game will not be until Thursday in the quarterfinals.

MTSU head coach Rick Insell, who just picked up career win 1,000 (including wins at Shelbyville High School) last week at Tulane, likes the team's chances, but knows it will be a tough road ahead to win the title.

“Going in we were picked to the win the conference,” Insell said. “The tournament is a different animal because a lot of times it is not the best team that wins the tournament. It is the team that is playing the best. We are playing pretty good right now, and we got a little momentum going in.”

However, it could be a tough road for the Lady Raiders in a deep and talented field of 16. The other three teams which received double-byes in the tournament include Southern Miss (24-5, 13-3), UTEP (23-6, 12-4) and Tulane (20-9, 11-5), and they could stop MTSU in the tournament. USM was the only squad to defeat MTSU in C-USA play earlier this season, 68-56, on Feb. 5. Currently, the Golden Eagles head into the tourney on an 11-game winning streak.

Insell believes C-USA could get two teams in the field of 64, including the Lady Raiders, because of the league’s quality wins against non-conference foes this season.

“There is no doubt about it,” Insell said. “I feel like we have done enough to get a bid regardless, and I think there is a couple of teams on the bubble, including Southern Miss.”

Once again, the rest of the nation has taken notice of the Lady Raiders impressive performance this season. ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Crème currently has MTSU as a No. 7 seed in the Stanford Region. He believes even if MTSU does not win the C-USA tournament, it will get into the field of 64.

“I think they are in, and they hold the key to a lot of other teams trying to get in,” Crème said. “I think their play in the C-USA tourney will be watched very closely by the rest of the country, and it could have some ripple effects to some other teams.”

As for the men, it has been a logjam at the top of the standings with four teams -- MTSU, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Tulsa -- tying for the C-USA title. The Blue Raiders lost to everyone in the foursome, except for USM during the regular season. MTSU opens tourney play as the No. 3 seed against either Marshall, FAU or Old Dominion on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the quarterfinals.

Even with the tight race in the standings, most experts believe C-USA will be a one-bid league in the field of 68. However, MTSU head coach Kermit Davis disagrees with the experts, and he believes the league should get more than one team in the Big Dance.

“I do not think there is any question about it,” Davis said. “We’ve got to do a lot of work to get in the tournament, but I think a team like Southern Miss with a RPI of 36, and 26 wins is no doubt deserving of a at-large bid.”

The last time, the Blue Raiders won a conference tourney was 25 years ago, when the program was in the Ohio Valley Conference. MTSU feels good about its chances, but Davis hopes to see more improvement out of the players.

“We still got to play to our identity, defending and rebounding,” Davis said. “We are not in a great spot offensively right now. We’ve got to do a better job of moving the ball, and play inside out. Those are some of the things we will try to work on.”

The semifinals and finals of the women's tourney will be televised on the CBS Sports Network, with the championship game beginning at 7 p.m. The men’s semifinals will be televised also on CBSSN on Saturday, and the title game will be played on Sunday at 10:30 am on CBS.

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basketball, blue raiders, c-usa, insell, mtsu, tweety knight
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