AP Sports Writer
John Brady knows a thing or two about reaching the NCAA tournament.
The Arkansas State coach also knows how to have success once there, having reached the Final Four in 2006 while the coach at LSU.
Brady would love nothing more to make his return to the NCAA field this year, beginning with winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament. After five seasons with the Red Wolves, he also has a keen understanding of how much a tourney berth would mean at Arkansas State -- which has been to the NCAA tournament just once (1999) in its history.
"It would be great for this program and the people here," Brady said. "There's a good following of basketball here in northeast Arkansas."
Both the men's and women's tournaments begin Friday in Hot Springs, Ark., with the finals scheduled for Monday.
On the men's side, Middle Tennessee (27-4) enters the tournament as the regular season conference champion and prohibitive favorite. The Blue Raiders have won 16 games in a row and have their sights set on redemption after being stunned in the tournament quarterfinals a year ago.
Middle Tennessee appeared a lock for the NCAA tournament last season, but losses in its last two games relegated it to the NIT. This season, led by six seniors, the Blue Raiders have done their best to make amends for last season's disappointment -- setting a school record for wins and earning an RPI of 25 while playing against the nation's ninth-toughest schedule.
Lofty credentials or not, coach Kermit Davis and his players would like to take away any suspense and win the tournament to look up the school's first NCAA berth since 1989.
"We thought we did enough to get to the NCAA tournament, and we found out the hard way we didn't," senior Bruce Massey said. "We don't want the same thing to happen this year. We know if we can win the next three games, we should have a good seed in the NCAA tournament."
Middle Tennessee lost just once in conference play this season, a 66-60 setback in overtime at Arkansas State on Jan. 3. The Red Wolves, who won the Sun Belt's West division this season, were also the same team that stunned the Blue Raiders at last year's conference tournament.
"(Davis') seniors are very mature," Brady said. "They come to practice every day. ... The toughness on his team is a little more than mine, and he's been a lot more consistent getting his guys to play extremely hard throughout the course of the year."
The Red Wolves won seven of eight games late in the season to clinch the division championship, with their only loss during that run being a 73-60 defeat in at Middle Tennessee. Arkansas State then lost its final two games of the regular season, to North Texas and rival Arkansas-Little Rock.
Three players average in double figures for the Red Wolves, led by Ed Townsel's 13.2 points per game. Also, senior forward Brandon Peterson averages 10.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game -- providing an element of toughness.
While Brady has his sights set on another upset of Middle Tennessee this season, he's already started campaigning for the Blue Raiders and Davis -- his former assistant at LSU. Brady said even if the Middle Tennessee loses in the conference tournament, that shouldn't impact its NCAA hopes.
"Theirs is no question in my mind that Kermit Davis is coaching an at-large NCAA team," Brady said. "All of this bubble talk is a joke. ... The only way the Sun Belt's going to get another team is if you beat Middle Tennessee in the finals or something like that. I know Kermit doesn't want that to happen, but it wouldn't bother me in the least."
On the women's side, Middle Tennessee (22-7) enters as the top seed followed by Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans (22-7) have reached the NCAA tournament the last three seasons, and they defeated the Blue Raiders in last year's conference championship game.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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