We’re going to give the blog spotlight to a few quite-deserving mid-majors in the next 10 days or so. These are the dog days of the college hoops season, the finals-addled lull that comes just in time for all of us to get that free moment to procrastinate even further from buying holiday gifts.
We’re starting with Middle Tennessee State, which is 10-2 and has the best record in the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders defeated Belmont Tuesday night in a grudge match of a game, knocking off the Bruins 65-52, the most impressive win of the season so far (yes, far better than beating UCLA). It was the second time they played this year, since the two met in lower-48 bracket play during the Maui Invitational.
“It was the same game we always play against them,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “Belmont had beaten us in two straight overtime games. Every game with us is like last night.”
I caught up with head coach Kermit Davis over the summer after his team’s trip to Calgary. Davis told me Wednesday that trip is the biggest reason why his team’s been able to win 83 percent of its games to date this season. They’re deep, and they’ve needed those bodies, because the remarkable thing about Middle Tennessee State’s start: it’s done it despite some big injuries to big players.
- Torin Walker, the Oklahoma State redshirt sophomore transfer and projected starting center, was forced by the NCAA to sit three games to start the season. And he’s been out for the rest of the start to this season due to plantar fasciitis.
- Jason Jones, a preseason All-Sun Belt players and the team’s returning scorer, missed the team’s first five games with a back injury. Recently, that injury’s been inflamed, causing him to miss the team’s past two games.
- Kerry Hammonds led the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage last season. He’s missed games because of a stress reaction on the top of his left foot. He should be available for next Wednesday’s game against Ole Miss.
And what a big one that will be. It’s not a true road game (it will be played in South Haven, Miss., instead of Oxford), but nevertheless, if MTSU got a win there, it could start to make its case as possible bubble team down the road. But MTSU is used to being top dog in the Sun Belt; problem is the team’s been picked off in postseason play in recent years. This year, it looks like only Denver, which plays in a separate division in the Sun Belt, is close to MTSU’s class of team.
“It is so difficult in these mid-major leagues to get off a start like 10-2, because you play so many road games, and that’s why you see a lot of teams in our league get off to these starts,” Davis said. “But getting off to the start we’ve had, you’ve got to take advantage of that and back it up in the league.”
Davis, who turned 52 Wednesday, has been able to do this with four new players injected into his starting lineup, none contributing at a more efficient rate than J.T. Sulton, who is scoring 1.18 points per possession. LaRon Dendy, transfer from Iowa State, played great against Belmont, and he’s been big, as has junior college transfer Marcus Knight, the biggest surprise on this year’s team.
Depth is something I think is overrated in college basketball, but mid-major teams can use it to their advantage against big boys with the right schemes and truly a 10-man rotation that’s relentless. Davis’ team has seen 10 player score in double figures so far this season. He wants, needs it to keep up. Now, though: some rest.
“We need a break. We’ve really, starting with Akron, we’ve played four games in nine days,” Davis said.
Davis will give his guys the 22-25 off. He wants his player to be at home for Christmas, then come back the 26th and practice that afternoon. I said it in August: this needs to be the year MTSU finally breaks the 20-W mark under Davis (Davis’ previous campaigns, in succession, have win totals of 14, 17, 19, 16, 15, 17, 18, 19, 16). It’s already halfway there, and we’re not at Festivus yet. A great sign. Barring the unthinkable, this team is winning at least 20 games. Beyond that, it needs to shake its Sun Belt tournament voodoo, but that’s a matter that can wait another 10 weeks.Photo: AP