One of my favorite things about college basketball is the team that comes out of nowhere. I’m not talking about true Cinderella’s, though they can certainly be fun. I am talking about the teams with a direction or two in their name that don’t win a game or two in the NCAA tournament because they got lucky or got hot at the right time, but because they actually are pretty good. Gonzaga was never a Cinderella, and neither was Davidson or Butler. Underrated, sure, but that was the raters’ fault, not the teams’. Last season, Murray State was almost that team. They weren’t in large part, thanks to Minnesota’s opponent on Thursday night, the Tennessee State Tigers.
Blessed are the low-majors, for they will inherit lots of fans until they lose a couple of games. Murray State was 23-0 heading into their game at Tennessee State last February, and there was reason to believe that they could garner a number one seed, and at worst a three seed. They lost their only game of the regular season to the Tigers, and suddenly became a bubble team. If they failed to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, they could have been headed to the NIT. They did manage to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, beating the Tigers by two in the conference championship game. Murray State, because of their lone regular season loss, the damage was already done. They slipped to a six seed, losing to Marquette in the round of 32, a team essentially a better version of Murray State.
I bring all this up because these early season games do matter, and innocuous seeming losses make or break a season. The Tigers ability to compete with, and ultimately ruin the season of one of the best under the radar teams in recent seasons, will provide a much better test than either American or Toledo could muster. And, the Tigers return everyone of consequence from last season.
Tennessse State hasn’t won a game yet this season, which is somewhat surprising considering their experience and last season’s success. They started the season with a road loss at BYU and a road loss to South Dakota State. Both BYU and SDSU will be headed to the NCAA tournament, but if the Tigers want to join them, they’ll need to starting winning a few basketball games. To do that, they’ll need to try to play some defense. Tigers opponents are shooting 36.1% from behind the three-point line and nearly 60% inside the three-point line. The Tigers have also been sending opponents to the free-throw line at an alarming rate. The only thing keeping them in games is their ability to limit opponents’ second chances, but when the first shot goes in, second chances are not important. The Tigers offense has been nearly as bad because they just can’t make shots. They take care of the ball very well, but when possessions result in missed shots, limiting turnovers doesn’t matter either.
All their problems seems strange since this is essentially the same team as last season when they finished 20-13 overall. Robert Covington was the star of that team, and he has picked up where he left off averaging 16 points per game despite a career worst 37.5% from behind the three point line. Yes, his worst his still very good. Last season he made 45.3% of his three-point attempts. At 6’9” he could be a match-up nightmare if he gets lost on switches and ends up guarded by Elliot Elliason or Mo Walker. If Rodney Williams can keep track of him, things should be okay. Joining Covington in the front court is Kellen Thornton, a 6’7” senior and the team’s second leading scorer. Thornton is much more of a traditional big man at 243 pounds, and should be a good test for Elliason. Minnesota needs to utilize their front court size advantage and avoid getting burned by potentially quicker players.
Minnesota’s back court should enjoy a significant size advantage against the Tigers, whose real strength is their front court. Patrick Miller is scoring 12 points per game, but his 29% shooting does more harm than good. He isn’t afraid to shoot, hoisting 18 shots against SDSU and making only five. Jordan Cyphers is a versatile guard and the team’s most consistent three-point shooter, but can be turnover and foul prone. No one else on Tennessee State is much of a scoring threat.
The home non-conference schedule doesn’t have any big name programs, mostly as a bi-product of the diabolical road non-conference schedule that includes Duke, USC, Florida State, and could also include Memphis and Louisville. While it would be nice to have a marquee home game, the ultimate goal is for the team to make the NCAA tournament, and the schedule should allow that. Leading up to the Duke game there is an incremental ramping of the quality of teams. Toledo was better than American, Tennessee State is better than Toledo, and Richmond, Sunday’s opponent is the best of the lot. Thursday’s game is the first potentially loseable game of the lot, which can only prepare the Gophers for the gauntlet that lies in front of them.