DAYTON, Ohio — An extra trip to start the NCAA Tournament? Not a problem. Middle Tennessee 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.
And, ultimately, it won them a place on the tournament’s opening night, matched against St. 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 winner of the First Four game gets another quick trip — to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play Memphis on Thursday.
St. Mary’s (27-6) is 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. St. 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 school 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.”