Hoops Out of Conference Preview

We've turned another page on the calendar and the weather outside is starting to take notice that that 2012 is coming to a close. While most sports fans around the country are tuned in to the gridiron at this point, we're only a few weeks away from tipping off in college basketball. With that in mind, BRZ is giving you an in-depth look at some key out of conference matchups this coming season.

The Big
November 18 will be the biggest opportunity Kermit Davis and his team have to stun the nation. That's because they'll be taking on the Florida Gators in Tampa, Fla.

Yup. Those Gators.

The ones who won back-to-back national championships just a few years ago and who won went 26-11 last season before making it to the Elite Eight. Florida will be led by Kenny Boynton, who's 15.9 points per game made him the Gators leading scorer a year ago. As if Boynton wasn't enough to worry about, the Gators will also have big man Patric Young back a year after he averaged better than 10 points and six rebounds per game.

Oh yeah, and let's not forget the fact that they're an extremely well coached team that also reloaded with the number five point guard in the nation in Braxton Ogbueze and 4-star shooting guard Michael Frazier.

I'm not going to lie: this is going to be the best team Middle Tennessee faces in the regular season. If they're able to put on a good show it could be a good sign that Kermit has his team raring to go after last year's dream season. And if nothing else, it's at least a game that will provide a solid RPI bump that was lacking from last year.

The Local
After a close game last season, the Blue Raiders will have another shot at Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, this one comes on a "neutral" court in Nashville at the Bridgestone Arena. That could be another post in and of itself, so we'll save it for later …

That said, Middle gave Vanderbilt all they wanted and more last season in a Jan. 28 game that resulted in an 84-77 Commodore win. It was a tough loss to stomach for Middle Tennessee at the time and the squad is surely seeking revenge and a big opportunity to make a statement about the program to the local media.

They'll have the advantage of taking on a Vandy team that is looking to re-define itself after the loss of core players like John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli. You can really get a glimpse of just how important those players were to this Vanderbilt team when you look at the box score from last year's game where the trio combined to score 64 of Vandy's 84 points last season.

Commodore head coach Kevin Stallings has a lot of holes to fill and roles to define as his leading returning scorer Kedren Johnson averaged only 3.1 points per game last season. The nicest possible way to describe Vanderbilt's situation this season is that they're in a rebuilding phase – which could be a big advantage for the Blue Raiders when it comes to regional perception.

While Vanderbilt got the lead in this section, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Belmont game eight days earlier on December 13. Last season, the Blue Raiders split a two-game set with the Bruins last season with BOTH games coming at the Murphy Center. This year the matchup will take place in Nashville, so a change of venue could serve the Raiders well.

Belmont is a solid basketball team who return their top two scorers in guards Kerron Johnson (13.8 points per game) and Ian Clark (12.7 points per game). That said, they're also losing three long-time players in Drew Hanlen, Scott Saunders and Mike Hedgepeth. That trio represented two starters and better than 30 of Belmont's average of 81 points per game.

Even with that in mind, this is a must-win game for the Blue Raiders. Head Coach Rick Byrd will be entering has been at Belmont for over 25 years and has built an impressive program that plays disciplined, fundamental basketball. This year's team shouldn't be any different and honest, Kermit hasn't fared well against the Bruins lately and this is a hump his team needs to get over – both for regional perception and post-season implications.

The Winnable
Just two days after taking on Florida, the Blue Raiders will take on another team from the Sunshine State, this time in UCF. Middle Tennessee will head to Orlando for a game that will act as a more accurate gauge of what the season holds in store.

Last season, UCF was an NIT team that went 22-11 and upset the fourth-ranked UConn Huskies early in the season. They return their top three scorers from a year ago in Keith Clanton, Marcus Jordan and Isaiah Sykes, who combined for an average of more than 40 points per game.

The Knights definitely had an up-and-down season last year, including several games they had no business losing like Rice, Tulsa and Sun Belt foe Louisiana-Lafayette. Still, head coach Donnie Jones has a lot to work with in his second season at the helm. This one is set up to be a great matchup.

On December 8, Middle Tennessee will host Ole Miss in what is arguably the biggest home game of the season. The Blue Raiders used last year's 68-56 win over the Rebels to prove that the UCLA game was no fluke. During a televised game on a neutral court (neutral is a bit strong … a court 20 minutes from the Ole Miss campus), four Middle players scored in the double digits, led by Raymond Cintron's impressive performance.

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy led the team to a streaky season in 2011-12, but they started to get things figured out as they won five of their last six games before making the NIT Tournament as a two seed.

Even though they lost the game to seventh-seeded Illinois State, the Rebels seemed to have found an identity – something they lacked during the time of the last matchup. That identity will revolve around their two returning big men: Murphy Holloway who averaged 11 points and nine rebounds per game last year and Reginald Buckner, whose 6.9 points and eight rebounds per game make a nice compliment to Holloway. In addition to those two, the Rebels have several highly-touted freshman who will be vying for playing time early and could have found their niche by the time they head to Murfreesboro.

The Must Wins
Savannah State is a crucial early game for Middle Tennessee. It's only the second game of the season (not counting the exhibition) and it's the first one on the road. . The Tigers went 21-12 and were an NIT team last season. They actually had a 13-game win streak before dropping the final game of the year to Tennessee in the first round of the NIT.

A quick glance up and down Savannah State's roster shows quite an anomaly from last season … they had no seniors on a team that won more than 21 games. That's impressive AND scary for Middle Tennessee, but it's balanced out by the fact that the Tigers didn't win a single non-conference game against an opponent with a winning record last year.

On December 2, the Blue Raiders head to Akron, Ohio to take on the might Zips. While Middle Tennessee came out on top in last year's matchup at home, the Zips still had an impressive 22-12 season that featured wins over Mississippi State, Marshall and Detroit.

The Zips' only significant loss from last season came from Nikola Cvetinovic, who averaged a solid 10 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. This one will definitely be interesting to see, especially when you consider the next game on the schedule … UAB. For most Blue Raider fans, the Blazers of UAB represent the bane of the 2011-12 season. In a game that was completely out of character – and as a result one that made many fans completely lose their minds – Middle Tennessee fell to UAB by a final of 66-56 in Birmingham last season.

At the time, the victory gave the Blazers a whopping 2-6 record on the season. While they would end up with better than a .500 record in C-USA play, their final record of 15-16 was a blemish on an otherwise excellent Blue Raider season.

Ideally Middle Tennessee can rectify things this time around. It helps that the matchup is in the Murphy Center this year and that the Blazers are going to have to replace their leading scorer from last season in Cameron Moore (16.1 points per game).

Finally, the Blue Raiders will host Tennessee State one December 18. I don't have to tell any long-time BRZ regulars about the animosity that exists between the two schools … and as a result, there could be no better early Christmas present for a lot of Blue Raider basketball fans than to beat the in-state Tigers.

I realize they're in Nashville, but I went ahead and listed them here because this is a game you can't lose if you're Middle Tennessee. Besides all of the local flavor that goes into this one, Tennessee State's 20-13 record from a year ago is misleading. Their lone big win came over Murray State in mid-February last year – a game the Racers would go on to avenge twice during the final weeks of the season.

Just because it's a must-win doesn't mean that's it an easy task. The Tigers return each of their top four scorers from a season ago and have the benefit of being sandwiched between Belmont and Vanderbilt on Middle Tennessee's schedule.

All in all, this is one of the better non-conference schedules that the Blue Raiders have played in recent years. Three SEC teams, tons of local opponents and plenty of teams with name recognition should give the fans something to cheer for after last year's dream season.

Now all we have to do is wait until tip-off . . .

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