Conference USA

MTSU’s Ed Simpson enjoying March Madness after missing out in ’16

Middle Tennessee guard Edward Simpson Jr. (11) drives the baseline around UAB guard Nick Norton (2) on March 14, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala.
Middle Tennessee guard Edward Simpson Jr. (11) drives the baseline around UAB guard Nick Norton (2) on March 14, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. Associated Press File

Ed Simpson needed the help of four or five teammates to get up the ladder for his piece of the net when the Middle Tennessee basketball team won the Conference USA Tournament a year ago.

On Saturday, when the Blue Raiders won their second consecutive C-USA Tournament in Birmingham, Simpson had a much easier trip up the ladder for two snips of the net.

After suffering a fractured ankle just before last year’s C-USA Tournament, the former St. Martin basketball star is fully healthy as MTSU prepares to take part in its second consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Blue Raiders are a No. 12 seed and will to play No. 5 seed Minnesota at 3 p.m. Thursday in Milwaukee.

Simpson had to watch from the sideline last year as MTSU, a No. 15 seed at the time, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history in a 90-81 win over No. 2 seed Michigan State.

“It was still great,” he said of last year’s win. “I still felt a part of the team. Just to see all that hard work come together, it was great.”

After sitting out last postseason, he plans to take it all in as his team prepares to face another tough Big Ten squad.

“Even though I felt a part of the team, it’s a different experience being on the court,” he said. “I’ll appreciate this a lot more.”

Rolling Raiders

Aside from a couple of early letdowns, MTSU breezed through its schedule this season with a record of 30-4, going 17-1 in conference play.

Simpson has played in all 34 games, starting 22. After serving as the primary scorer during his high school days at St. Martin, he has shifted into the point guard role.

He is averaging 3.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists this season, regularly deferring to teammates on the offensive end and guarding the opposing team’s best player on defense.

“I played a lot of (shooting guard) in high school and barely played (point guard),” he said. “Coming in here, I’ve been working on my ball handling. It’s about making the right decisions. I think I have the mentality of more of a point guard. I have a pass-first mentality anyway. I grew into the role.”

Simpson has done his best to get the ball to a trio of Blue Raiders who are scoring in double digits this season. C-USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams, who stands 6-foot-8, averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds this season. Another 6-8 forward, Reggie Upshaw, pitched in 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. Junior guard Giddy Potts, who scored 30 points in the 83-72 win over Marshall in the C-USA title game, is catching fire at just the right time with averages of 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.

Simpson believes his team, which is riding a 10-game winning streak, is playing its best basketball headed into Thursday’s game against Minnesota (24-9).

“Since our first game in the tournament against UTSA, everybody came in and just produced,” he said. “We’re really, really dangerous when everybody is contributing.”

Model student-athlete

As he was at St. Martin, Simpson has been a positive influence on the MTSU program. He is a nominee for the Allstate NABC Good Works Team, which recognizes student-athletes for their contributions in the community.

He’s put in work with the Special Olympics; pitched in on National Reading Day; and has mentored students at Rutherford County schools in Tennessee. In Ocean Springs, he helped a group that provides Christmas presents for underprivileged kids.

“He is the standard we measure every player that’s going to come through here,” St. Martin coach Charlie Pavlus said. “The guy was a 3.8 GPA student in high school and it’s the same in college. He’s taking honors classes. He’s the guy that’s always doing the right thing.

“Somehow he was able to walk the straight line for his entire career here and he’s doing it there. He’s constantly making the right decision.”

Simpson is studying mechatronics engineering at MTSU. It’s an area that combines electrical engineering, computer engineering, mechanical engineering and control engineering.

He has a bright future on and off the court, but his entire focus at the moment is on the Golden Gophers.

“I think we just need to play our game,” he said. “We don’t need to speed up or anything. We just need to take in the moment. We might have nerves, but we have to really settle in. We can play with anybody in the country when we sit down and defend.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

Game plan

Who: Middle Tennessee vs. Minnesota

When: 3 p.m. Thursday

Where: Milwaukee

TV: TNT

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