TOP 25 THIS WEEK: Blue Raiders play with 1st AP ranking
By AARON BEARD
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Middle Tennessee has upset power-conference teams in the past two NCAA Tournaments and reached 20 wins for the third straight season. Now the Blue Raiders have another milestone: their first appearance in the AP Top 25 poll.
Middle Tennessee checked in at No. 24 in Monday's latest poll and will play as a ranked team for the first time Saturday at home against UAB as part the week's national Top 25 schedule.
"The sustainability part is what you strive for," coach Kermit Davis said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I just think it's the culture of it. Since I've been here, you're just striving to kind of get your brand like a Gonzaga or a Butler or schools that just kind of do it every year."
The Blue Raiders (22-5, 14-1 Conference USA) are certainly doing that these days.
Two seasons ago, they won 25 games and pulled the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament by beating Final Four favorite and second-seeded Michigan State in the opening round. They followed that by winning 31 games last year and beating fifth-seeded Minnesota in the first round in 2017.
Along the way, Middle Tennessee has gone 23-3 in road games over two seasons, including a 12-1 mark after Saturday's win at Louisiana Tech.
The Blue Raiders are led by Alabama graduate transfer Nick King, who started his career at Memphis. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 21.4 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Middle Tennessee is trying to maintain its hold on the Conference USA lead with Old Dominion and Western Kentucky sitting a game back in the loss column. The Blue Raiders have three home games left, including March 1 against the Hilltoppers.
Davis said he doesn't think that the ranking will be a distraction - "If we get beat, that's not going to be the reason why," he said - but it is something Davis said the Blue Raiders plan to savor with a few days off before playing again.
"It's great for our players, it's great for our fan base," Davis said. "You're trying to grow your fan base, so it is (important). We all understand that we've got a lot of work ahead of us and big games. But you better believe it, the Middle Tennessee faithful around the country will love seeing their name in the AP poll."
Top-ranked Virginia (24-2, 13-1) can wrap up the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season race this week. They lead fifth-ranked Duke by three games in the loss column and own the head-to-head tiebreaker from their win at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 27 , so they can clinch at least a share of the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn by beating Georgia Tech on Wednesday.
Win that one, and they travel to Pittsburgh - now 0-15 in the league - to claim the regular-season race outright Saturday.
There's a top-10 matchup in the Big 12 this week with No. 8 Kansas visiting No. 6 Texas Tech on Saturday, with the Jayhawks seeking to avenge an 85-73 home loss to the Red Raiders on Jan. 2.
That's part of a test-filled weekend for some top-tier teams, with No. 2 Michigan State (at Wisconsin), No. 3 Villanova (at Creighton) and No. 6 Gonzaga (at BYU) all playing on the road.
Baylor (17-10, 6-7 Big 12) has vaulted itself into NCAA Tournament contention with five straight wins. Now the Bears are on the edge of the AP Top 25 with a couple of chances to play their way into next week's poll - and strengthen that postseason resume.
The Bears host No. 21 West Virginia on Tuesday then travel to TCU - which has been ranked earlier this season - on Saturday.
And in the Southeastern Conference, both Kentucky and Arkansas are within reach of the rankings entering Tuesday's matchup. The Razorbacks also visit Alabama on Saturday.
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
Updated February 20, 2018