Feeding Giddy Potts the ball - instead of ranch dressing - leads to victories for MTSU

Long before Giddy Potts led Middle Tennessee to an upset of Michigan State in last season’s NCAA Tournament, the junior sharpshooting guard doubted whether he had what it took to play college hoops.

That all changed when Troy was the first Division I program to offer Potts a scholarship after his junior year at Athens (Ala.) High School. He added several other small-school offers but ultimately signed with the Blue Raiders following an all-state senior season.

“After I got my first offer, I knew I could play in college, so I just kept working on my game and playing basketball,” said the 6-2, 220-pound Potts, who has grown an inch and lost 20 pounds since high school. “I think I got overlooked because I was too short and college coaches didn’t think I could play against the bigger guys.”

Potts, built more like a linebacker than a basketball player, has proven his doubters wrong. After making the 2015 Conference USA All-Freshman Team, Potts splashed on the national scene last March when he scored 19 points as MTSU beat Michigan State to become only the eighth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 since seeding began in 1985.

“It was really special,” Potts said of beating Michigan State. “We just came out and played our game. We weren’t surprised at all. We knew we could do that.”

The Blue Raiders fell in the next round to Final Four-bound Syracuse to end what was a breakout season for Potts. He finished as the national leader in 3-point field-goal percentage at a school- and league-record 50.6% (79-for-156) and averaged a team-high 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

Potts, also a third-team all-conference selection, is only the second D-I player in the last 12 seasons to convert at least 50.6% of his threes in a single season. His numbers were a big jump from his freshman totals (6.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 37.7 3PT%) under coach Kermit Davis.

“Coach Davis told me I could basically take any shot I wanted, and my teammates kept feeding me the ball around the 3-point line,” Potts said. “I knew I could shoot. To be honest, I didn’t really think about my shooting percentage until after the season.”

Davis had a simple explanation for the transformation of Potts from unknown recruit to college star. According to Davis, Potts is as good of a shooter as he’s ever seen.

“Well, we tried to get him to go to only one bowl of ranch with everything he eats instead of two bowls, so that was a start,” Davis said after beating Michigan State last March. “His eating habits were just poor. And he had never really trained. We walked into the weight room, he’s as strong as any football guy on our campus. I mean, as we use in the South — and I’m from Mississippi — he’s just country strong. He’s built like that.”

MTSU (9-1) has carried over last season’s success as it has won seven straight games going into Wednesday’s contest against Belmont (4-3) on ASN. It’s the best start for the program in 36 years.

After beating Ole Miss 77-62 in Oxford on Nov. 30, the Blue Raiders rolled past Vanderbilt 71-48 last week. Potts came up big against both Ole Miss (20 points) and Vanderbilt (27 points, nine rebounds, three steals).

His 3-point shooting percentage this season has dipped to 40.4%, but he’s averaging 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game — all career-highs. He’s also shooting a career-best 52.3 percent from the field.

“I know most of the guards are smaller than me, so I use my power to get to the goal,” Potts said after the Vanderbilt win. “My mid-range game is coming a lot better than it was in the beginning of the season. That’s what’s helping my game.”

Potts started slow this season, averaging 10.5 points and making just three of 16 3s in the first four games. But he’s bounced back to average 18.8 points and go 18-for-36 from 3 in the last six games.

With Potts contributing on both ends of the floor, MTSU is seventh in the nation in turnovers per game (10.2) and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.55). The Blue Raiders are also holding opponents to 40.8 percent shooting from the field and 29.4 percent from 3.

“We just come out and play hard on both sides of the ball,” Potts said. “We know what we need to do to win. Our team is tough. Coach Davis wants everybody to be on the same page and worry about rebounding and playing defense.”

Potts, whose real first name is Nathanial, also has one of the best nicknames in sports. He said Giddy came from a doctor pointing out that his mother, a single parent who raised four children, was laughing as she gave birth to him.

After a somewhat unexpected recruiting process, Potts is grateful to be playing for the Blue Raiders.

“My first choice was Middle Tennessee because it was close to home, and I fit how coach Davis likes to play. It’s been the best place for me,” he said.

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