The Sweet 16 once again proved elusive for No. 13 seed Middle Tennessee State, as the fourth-seeded Butler Bulldogs ensured the Blue Raiders would have a second consecutive exit in the round of 32 with a 74-65 South Region win Saturday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
ESPN's Lisa Kerney noted the result snuffed out the site's last remaining perfect brackets:
Middle Tennessee garnered national attention last season for upsetting Michigan State as a No. 15 seed, only to lose to an eventual Final Four team in Syracuse. The Blue Raiders showed upstart potential again this year by knocking off No. 5 seed Minnesota in their opener, but a Butler program that is no stranger to deep tournament runs proved too much to handle.
CBS Sports' Gary Parrish praised Butler head coach Chris Holtmann:
Blue Raiders head coach Kermit Davis has made it a point to make Middle Tennessee into a dangerous, perhaps even Butler-esque mid-major program. While it hasn't quite crossed that hurdle, it's clear the days of teams underestimating Middle Tennessee are long gone.
Holtmann even went so far as to call the Blue Raiders a "Final Four-caliber team," per IndyStar.com's David Woods. While the Blue Raiders didn't get close to that benchmark, they did put up a good fight.
Butler did well to pick apart Middle Tennessee's various defensive looks with crisp passing and smart shot selection. All eight Butler players scored at least four points, led by Kelan Martin's 19 off the bench.
When the Blue Raiders failed to close out on shooters from their zone defense, Butler often made them pay with a triple. The Bulldogs ended up shooting 8-of-15 from downtown.
Here's an example of Butler's ability to keep a cool head and find an open man—this time Martin—via NCAA March Madness:
Middle Tennessee's high-powered offense ran hot and cold throughout. After topping 80 points in their last five contests, the Blue Raiders' struggles on the perimeter proved to be their downfall.
Giddy Potts, who earned MVP honors in the Conference USA tournament, struggled mightily. He was held scoreless, missing all eight of his field-goal attempts.
Forward JaCorey Williams was a monster for Middle Tennessee, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds, carrying his team through several lean stretches on offense. Fellow forward Reggie Upshaw chipped in with 12, and Antwain Johnson was a sparkplug off the bench with a career-high 19 points.
There were opportunities for Middle Tennessee to keep its tournament-darling status alive. Butler had an uncharacteristically sloppy game with 10 turnovers in the first 30 minutes, but Middle Tennessee failed to convert them into points.
Butler's bigs got into plenty of foul trouble, especially backup center Nate Fowler, who fouled out with just over 10 minutes remaining. Andrew Chrabascz picked up three fouls, but he had a fine game with 15 points.
The game started slowly for the Blue Raiders, as they struggled to get into a rhythm offensively. Butler had less trouble on the offensive end, sinking six of its first seven three-pointers. But it didn't work up a double-digit lead until late in the first half.
The Blue Raiders found it difficult to get good looks against Butler's energetic defense. WTHR.com's Bob Kravitz enjoyed watching the Bulldogs play without the ball:
With the Blue Raiders down 13, Williams dragged the team back into the game, scoring six straight points to spark a 9-1 run that closed the deficit to 36-31 by halftime.
Foul trouble for Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman gave Middle Tennessee opportunities to get easy buckets, with Williams and Upshaw cooking down low.
The other three Blue Raiders starters couldn't support their forwards' efforts, and the absence of Potts' scoring prowess on the perimeter grew more glaring by the minute. BustingBrackets.com's Lukas Harkins noted Butler's sound defensive strategy on Potts:
Butler's lead swelled back to double digits by the middle of the second half, but Johnson's and Williams' efforts kept Middle Tennessee from fading. NCAA March Madness provided an example of a gutsy bucket from Johnson:
After watching their lead evaporate over several minutes, Butler broke a long scoring drought on a late three-pointer by Chrabascz, and the Blue Raiders could not get over the hump. The Bulldogs calmly sunk their free throws down the stretch and closed out the game.
Butler will take on the winner of North Carolina-Arkansas on Friday. With Martin providing plenty of points off the bench and the team playing level-headed, composed basketball, it should give its next opponent all it can handle.
Potts shouldered the blame for the loss, per The Tennessean's Joe Rexrode:
Middle Tennessee was a popular Cinderella pick; perhaps too popular. According to the Journal Gazette, Holtmann didn't appreciate some commentators picking against his team:
Should UNC advance to play Butler in the Sweet 16, it's safe to say plenty of people will be picking against the Bulldogs yet again. Against one of the best team's in the nation, its going to take more than bulletin board-type fodder for the Bulldogs to get a winning result.