On a great many afternoons this season, the Middle Tennessee State men’s basketball players have visited elementary schools in and around Murfreesboro to read to kids.
Prominent among the Blue Raiders has been junior forward Reggie Upshaw Jr. — so much so that earlier this month he was nominated for the National Association of Basketball Coaches Good Works team. It is comprised of those players whose philanthropic endeavors stand above the crowd.
Upshaw does that in a literal sense, too. He goes 6-7, and wears his hair in a distinctive high-top fade — the result, he said, of a bet with his younger brother Gage — that adds three or four more inches. And when he enters one of those classrooms, youngsters tend to react in one of two ways.
“Some of them will be awe-struck that you’re there,” he said, “but then there’s some that are kind of just sitting back, just trying to enjoy the time we’re with them.”
Those in the latter group remind him of himself at that age. So whenever he gets a chance, he takes a moment or two to huddle with those kids, just to let them know that they’ve been noticed, that they matter.
Similarly, Upshaw is helping to bring the best out of the Blue Raiders, who are off to a 6-2 start heading into Thursday’s home game against Belmont on ASN. That includes a three-game run to the championship of the Great Alaska Shootout in late November, as well as an overtime victory over Auburn last Saturday.
It helps that MTSU has a wealth of experience back from a club that reached the Conference USA championship game last season. And it helps that guys like Upshaw want to go the extra mile.
“I feel like I’ve evolved more as a leader this year,” he said, “just being more vocal, by telling guys where to line up whenever they look confused or something like that, or just getting a tough basket or making a tough play for the team whenever we need it.”
Upshaw is averaging 12.1 points, which is third on the team, and 8.3 rebounds, which is first. He also leads the Raiders in steals with eight, and is tied for second in assists, with 18.
He notably provided 17 points and seven rebounds against Toledo in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout, which earned him a spot on the all-tournament team, and against Auburn collected season highs of 21 points and 13 boards, as well as four assists.
There have been adjustments to make along the way – especially in Alaska, a place he had never before visited. He recalls waking up in Anchorage at 8 or 9 in the morning, only to discover that it was still dark outside.
“You just kind of get used to not seeing the sun as much,” he said. “It was kind of new for me.”
Yet he and his teammates have managed to shine a light on themselves.
His dad once played defensive end on MTSU’s football team, and growing up in Chattanooga, Reggie Jr. took part in that sport as well. So accomplished was he as a wide receiver at Baylor School that he attracted scholarship offers from Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Lafayette as well as MTSU.
A couple problems, though. For one thing the schools recruiting him to play football wanted Upshaw, who then weighed 215, to added 40 or 50 pounds, so he could make the transition to tight end. For another, he broke his ankle his senior year.
“I couldn’t really see myself gaining that much weight over a (short) period,” said Upshaw, now a sleek 232 pounds. “Then with myself getting hurt my senior year, I just felt more comfortable being able to come back and play immediately after surgery, with basketball.”
He started the majority of the Raiders’ games each of his first two seasons, averaging 6.4 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman, 9.9 points and seven rebounds as a sophomore.
And now he’s just trying to bring the best out of everyone, wherever he goes.