Little brother?

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Matchups between Tennessee and in-state mid-majors such as East Tennessee State, Chattanooga and Tennessee Tech typically follow the standard big brother/little brother script: Big brother prevails due to superior size and strength.

That may not be the case Monday night, however, when Tennessee hosts Middle Tennessee in second-round National Invitation Tournament action at Thompson-Boling Arena. You can make a pretty good case that little brother (the Blue Raiders) should be favored.

Exhibit A: Middle Tennessee has a 26-6 record, compared to Tennessee's 19-14 mark.

Exhibit B: The Blue Raiders twice beat Austin Peay (80-71 Nov. 11 in Murfreesboro and 90-70 Nov. 26 in Clarksville), a team the Vols lost to 70-74 Dec. 10 in Knoxville.

Exhibit C: Middle Tennessee dumped Ole Miss 68-56 Dec. 21 in Southaven, Miss. This is the same Ole Miss team that beat Tennessee eight days ago in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on a neutral floor.

Exhibit D: The Blue Raiders gave Vanderbilt a much better game in Nashville (77-84 loss) than Tennessee did (47-65 loss).

Big Orange fans are counting on the Vols' home court advantage to be the winning edge Monday night but that is hardly a given. Middle Tennessee posted a 10-4 road record in 2011-12, including an 86-66 beat-down of UCLA on Nov. 15 at Pauley Pavilion.

Bottom line: Little brother just might kick big brother's butt.

Fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum has seen first-hand how fired up Tennessee's little brothers get when playing the Vols, having been part of Big Orange squads that edged Chattanooga (76-70) in 2007, Belmont (79-77) in 2008, Belmont (66-65) and UT-Martin (68-62) in 2010. And, of course, he was part of the team that lost to Austin Peay earlier this season.

"They get live and hyped for us," Tatum said. "It's a big game for them to make a statement."

Junior Skylar McBee has played in enough little-brother games to know Middle Tennessee will go all-out against the Big Orange.

"They're definitely going to bring energy," he said. "They're going to be ready to come in here and try to beat us. Hopefully, we'll bring the energy, too."

Simply put, beating Tennessee would make MTSU's season. Vol sophomore Jordan McRae concedes as much, noting: "I'm sure it means a lot to them, being in-state rivals."

Although Middle Tennessee is sure to show up Monday night with the determination of a little brother, the Vols insist they won't show up with the arrogance of a big brother.

"We can't look at it as little brother/big brother," Tatum said. "We're looking at it as just another good team coming in here trying to get to Madison Square Garden (for the NIT semifinals), just like we are."

Sophomore point guard Trae Golden conceded that the Blue Raiders will be pumped up Monday night but says the Vols will be pumped up, too.

"It's not just another game for us because we want to get to New York and win the NIT," he said. "But I definitely know they're going to come in here with a lot of fire. And we've got to match that intensity."

Middle Tennessee projects to be one of the best teams to visit Thompson-Boling Arena this season. The Blue Raiders went 14-2 en route to winning the Sun Belt Conference's regular-season title and would've made the NCAA Tournament if they hadn't stubbed their toes in the league tournament.

"I was kind of surprised," Tatum said. "I thought they were going to make The Tournament with the season they had and the record they had. We know this is a good team. It's going to be an NCAA Tournament-type atmosphere and an NCAA Tournament-type game."

Two more factors could help fourth-seeded Middle Tennessee's bid to upset the top-seeded Vols:

One, several Blue Raiders undoubtedly draw added incentive from the fact they were passed over by Vol recruiters.

Two, thanks to their imposing record, Middle Tennessee's players aren't just hoping to win; they're planning to win.

"The thing we can't overlook is the fact those guys expect to win the game," Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They've seen us play all year and they're thinking, 'I can play for that team, I can do what he's doing.'

"I wouldn't say they're hungrier but they have something to prove."

The Vols are determined that Middle Tennessee won't prove it Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. That's why they're bracing for the Blue Raiders' best shot.

As Tatum put it: "We're preparing for a dogfight."


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