For the second consecutive season, there are no Georgia or South Carolina teams in the NCAA Tournament. Our only local connection on the road to the Final Four in Atlanta was sitting on the Middle Tennessee State bench Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
Jacquez Rozier, the former Burke County star, should have been starting in Tuesday’s 67-54 loss to St. Mary’s in the Blue Raiders’ return to the NCAA Tournament after a 24-year absence. Only a broken hand in the first two minutes of the season opener derailed that plan.
“I’ve never been injured before,” said Rozier, a 6-foot-7 power forward. “It’s pretty frustrating but as long as my team’s doing good I’m fine with it. I just enjoy cheering them on.”
Rozier sweated out the previous week in Murfreesboro, Tenn., along with the rest of his teammates after Middle Tennessee lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and blew the automatic berth that everyone assumed would be theirs. But the Blue Raiders’ 28 wins, top-30 RPI and stellar road record (11-3, including overtime losses at Akron and at Arkansas State) got their name called during Sunday’s selection show.
Rozier was in the room when everyone erupted as the school’s name popped up in the Midwest Regional.
“It was a tense situation, I guess you would say, but we had a pretty good feeling we should be there,” Rozier said. “It was just a nervous situation not winning our conference tournament like we should have, but everything worked out for the better. It was just a big sigh of relief. It was amazing. Everybody in the room was happy and cheering.”
Some critics questioned whether Middle Tennessee deserved a bid over programs from power conferences like Kentucky or Virginia. But the Blue Raiders had a better RPI and their 28 wins would have been the most ever by any team excluded from the field.
Even though Middle Tennessee tied its highest seeding (11th) in seven NCAA appearances, it’s status as one of the last at-large teams selected placed it into one of the “First Four” play-in games. St. Mary’s advances to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play No. 6 seed Memphis on Thursday.
“The play-in didn’t bother us,” said Rozier. “We’re in the tournament, so we can just prove to everybody that we deserve to be here. We felt honored to have the seed that we got. I think it worked out for the best for us.”
The only thing that could have worked out better for Rozier was getting to play. He was thrilled in 2011 when he got to sign with a Division I school hoping to have a chance to eventually participate in what is popularly called “The Big Dance.”
“For a lot of us it’s like a dream come true,” he said. “This is what we all wanted to do growing up and what we all watched on TV. Now we’re finally going to play in something that most people don’t get to do in life. Everybody is excited about playing.”
As a sophomore on a team laden with six seniors and seven juniors, Rozier earned the starting job. That lasted all of two minutes in the season opener against Alabama State.
“I don’t even know what happened to tell you the truth,” Rozier said. “The first couple of possessions went up and down once or twice and I somehow figured out that my hand was hurting. I didn’t really think too much of it and thought it was just jammed. So I pulled it. I got fouled and was shooting free throws and when I was on the line it bothered me so I told the coach I needed a sub.”
Rozier left the game with 18:05 left in the first half. X-rays revealed a crack through a bone in the middle of his left hand.
“Hate it for Jac,” said coach Kermit Davis after the game. “Played so good and earned his starting spot, and he breaks his hand.”
Rozier had surgery three days later and returned to the lineup Dec. 2 against Akron. But he reinjured the hand against Ole Miss and played sparingly in 11 games until they decided to shut him down for the season on Jan. 13. He hopes to be granted a medical redshirt.
“He was basically one-handed when he came back,” said Rozier’s father, Efrem. “After the Ole Miss game everything started going down for him.”
But not so for the Blue Raiders, who won 17 consecutive games before the Sun Belt tournament loss.
Even though Rozier didn’t get to play Tuesday, he was on the bench in warmups as his school sought its first NCAA Tournament victory since their last appearance when it beat Florida State in the first round in 1989 – four years before Rozier was born.
“He’s stoked,” said Rozier’s father of his son just being a part of the NCAAs. “He really wants to play because there’s no guarantee you’re going to get back, but he can’t chance it.”
Rozier hopes to make it a program habit despite losing six key seniors.
“Next year we should have a pretty good team,” he said. “The chemistry is still going to be here next year, just have to adjust to a few new players. We’ve got something to follow-up on and look forward to.”