Respecting the Raiders

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders aren't supposed to be a big problem for ninth-ranked Tennessee tonight in Nashville. Of course, they weren't supposed to be a big problem when they faced a 14th-ranked Vol team last year in Murfreesboro, either.

That one, in case you've forgotten, saw Middle give the Big Orange a good scare before falling 76-66. And the Vols had to play a pretty good basketball game in order to win by 10.

Consider:

Tennessee shot 55.3 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 and 76.9 from the foul line. The Vols also dominated the backboards 38-23. So, how did the Blue Raiders manage to hang so tough? They played harder and smarter than UT, committing just 9 turnovers while forcing 16 by the Vols.

Tennessee (6-1) can expect the same level of passion from the Blue Raiders (3-4) in tonight's rematch (6 o'clock Central tipoff at the Sommet Center).

"You know you're going to get their best shot," Bruce Pearl said.

The Vols' head man hasn't forgotten what a tough test Middle Tennessee provided last season, and he hopes his players haven't, either.

"Middle has played us tougher each time we've played," Pearl said. "Last year was a great game. We went up there and won by 10 in a pretty hard-fought battle. We were up maybe four points at half."

He's exactly right. The halftime score last year was 36-32, Tennessee. The Blue Raiders did a nice job handling the Vols' fullcourt pressure and stopping the Vols' transition offense that night.

As Pearl noted: "They've got great familiarity with what we do."

Middle Tennessee also has a great player in 6-7, 225-pound senior Desmond Yates. He averaged 17.2 points per game last season and shot 57.9 percent from the floor. A two-time first-team All-Sun Belt pick, he has been injured this season, which is a big reason Middle Tennessee is off to a 3-4 start.

"Desmond Yates is the preseason Player of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference," Pearl noted. "He's been hurt but he'll certainly play Friday against us."

The Blue Raiders have a big body on the inside in Theryn Hudson, a 6-10, 245-pounder who was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to injury. He's averaging 6.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game this year.

"He's been there six or seven years now, so we'll see him again," Pearl said, grinning smugly. "Last year he was a senior when he played against us, then he got a medical redshirt after our game."

Montarrio Haddock, a 6-5, 230-pound senior forward, leads Middle Tennessee in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (5.6 per game).

James Washington, a 6-0 junior point guard, averages 14.3 points and 4.3 assists per game.

"James Washington looks like a really strong lefty point guard that's leading them in a lot of ways," Pearl said, adding that 6-4 senior guard Calvin O'Neil, who averages 4.6 points per game, is "a tough matchup."

Pearl's respect for the Raiders is understandable. They gave his Vols a competitive game last season, and Tennessee's coach is expecting more of the same tonight.

"They're picked in the top three in the Sun Belt," he said. "They play man, play zone, do a little pressure. They're smaller and quicker than us at four of the five positions."

Tonight's game will be televised by CSS.


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