DAYTON, Ohio (CBS/AP) – Saint Mary’s (27-6) isn’t complaining about traveling for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. They’re just glad to get away from rival Gonzaga, which was No. 1 in the final AP college basketball poll on Monday and got the top seed in the West Regional. Saint Mary’s lost to the Zags three times during the season, including the conference tournament.
The Gaels lost only three times in their final 22 games this season, all three of them against Gonzaga.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs are back in Salt Lake City while the Gaels are in Dayton, making an NCAA appearance for the third time in four years. They reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor, missed out in 2011, and made it back last season, losing to Purdue 72-69 in their opening game.
It’s the first back-to-back NCAA appearances in the California school’s history. They return four starters and 10 players from last year’s team.
“I think there’s a value to having been in the NCAA tournament,” coach Randy Bennett said. “There are some things that happen in the NCAA tournament that are different than the regular season. We have players that are going through the process a second or third time. That helps us.”
The Gaels were a bit travel-weary when they landed in Dayton on Monday evening for a practice, having left campus at 6:15 a.m.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” guard Stephen Holt said. “It’s pretty much get all my stuff packed and get on the plane.”
An extra trip to start the NCAA tournament is also not a problem for Middle Tennessee, which rarely loses its way when it leaves its Murphy Center home.
In a way, it’s fitting that the Blue Raiders had to pack for a couple extra days. Their prowess on the road was the overriding quality that landed them in the field of 68 as part of the First Four in Dayton.
Louisiana in Lafayette? Vanderbilt in Tennessee? Been there, won that.
And, ultimately, it won them a place on the tournament’s opening night, matched against Saint Mary’s (27-6), another team that needed an at-large bid after failing to knock off its biggest nemesis in the West Coast Conference tournament.
The Blue Raiders (28-5) were a bubble team after suffering an upset in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament, leading to a long and uneasy wait in Murfreesboro for that NCAA selection show. The committee looked them over, measured them against the other candidates for the final spots, and honed in on how they did when they were staying at a hotel.
Middle Tennessee went 11-3 on the road, including overtime losses at Akron and at Arkansas State. They were 1-2 at neutral sites, 16-0 at home. The 11 wins on the road are second-most in the country.
“Road games this year helped us out, and the committee rewarded us for playing the road games, even though we didn’t win (all) of them,” guard Bruce Massey said.
They won enough of them to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament in 24 years.
“The difference between Middle Tennessee and some of the other teams, in our mind, was their ability to win on the road,” said Mike Bobinski, Xavier’s athletics director and head of the selection committee. “The other teams you talked about really struggled to take their show on the road and win against quality teams, and that probably was the deciding factor.”
It goes back to last season, when the Blue Raiders beat UCLA by 20 points in Los Angeles at the start of the season.
“We just kind of dominated the game,” coach Kermit Davis said. “And I think that just really set our guys apart that we were a good team, and it convinced them that we were a good team and gave them the confidence that we could go anywhere in the country and win on the road.”
That wasn’t the only thing in their favor. The Blue Raiders didn’t lose two games in a row all season, a mark of consistency. They won 21 out of 22 games during one stretch, the only defeat coming in overtime at Arkansas State.
That helped them get a No. 11 seed – matching the highest in school history – and their first berth in the NCAA tournament since 1989. Middle Tennessee has one of the most experienced rosters in the tournament – 13 juniors and seniors – and a bench that provides 42 percent of the Blue Raiders’ playing time.
“That kind of helps you, that you can go on the road and win at tough places,” Davis said.
The winner of the First Four game gets another quick trip – to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play Memphis on Thursday.
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