Even though junior guard John Jenkins and senior forward Jeffrey Taylor lead the Commodores in scoring it is fairly obvious that Festus Estelí is the key to make this engine run. Since his return, the VU offense and defense have been more fluid and the wins are emerging more readily for the Commodores. This game will be another good non-conference test for Vanderbilt. It's an in-state detour against a conference leader that could help the Dores beef up their NCAA tournament resume. Yes, Middle Tennessee – of all the Sun Belt teams to take an SEC breather against – will offer the smallest dent in VU's RPI numbers. For so many reasons, this is not a game to view as a "break," but as a chance to reaffirm good habits as February beckons.
In November and December, Vanderbilt's attention wandered. In January, coach Kevin Stallings has been able to get his players to focus, with the sole exception of those first five minutes in a disastrous second half against Mississippi State. As long as VU continues to lock down at the defensive end of the floor, signs of encouragement will continue to proliferate inside Memorial Gym and everywhere else the Dores lace up the sneakers.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE
Middle Tennessee had 11 players who averaged at least ten minutes per game last year. Five of those players are gone, but Coach Kermit Davis brought in a superb group of newcomers to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and the team has evidently meshed at a level few could have anticipated for a program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1989. As is true with most teams that lose so much experience, it took the new faces a little time to develop, but this team is – without dispute – the class of the Sun Belt Conference, and there's a very good chance that you will be hearing about this team when you fill out your brackets come March.
The challenge the Blue Raiders faced this season was finding a new identity. This will happen when you lose your leading scorer and starting point guard. James Washington III was the only player on Davis's deep bench that played over 30 minutes per game and led the squad with 14 points, 2.8 assists, and 1.6 steals per contest. Just as big as the numbers was the leadership Washington provided.
The backcourt also suffered the departure of Rod Emanuel, a quality guard off the bench who could handle the ball and help out on the glass. The big loss in the frontcourt is Trevor Ottley. The part-time starter was not much of a scorer, but he was the Blue Raiders' best rebounder and shot blocker. The frontcourt depth could have taken a hit with the departure of Kyle Hunt and Trevor Charles, but so far, the MTSU crew has been able to stare down each and every challenge it has faced.
Center – LaRon Dendy– Senior, 6-9, 230 2011-12: 13.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.9 apg
Dendy had to sit out last year due to NCAA regulations. Before that, he averaged 7.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game and was Iowa State's top reserve in the post. Dendy shot 60 percent from the field, which was the sixth-best single-season field goal percentage total in Iowa State history. Dendy ended his one season at Iowa State finishing sixth in the Big 12 in blocked shots. When ISU played No. 1 Texas, which was his first Big 12 game, Deny recorded 14 points and grabbed six rebounds. Also, in an upset win over Kansas, Deny scored 10 points after going 5 for 5 from the field and pulled down three rebounds. Before joining Iowa State, he spent two years at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, where he was rated as a top-60 player in the preseason 2008-09 Juco Junction rankings.
Forward– J.T. Sulton – Junior, 6-8, 230; 2011-12: 11.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg
Sulton played in all 32 games for Middle Tennessee State last year. Sulton got to start in 28 of those 32 games, averaging 9.3 points and five rebounds per game in his sophomore season. Sulton is a decent free throw shooter. Sutlon shot 72.6 from the free throw line while he shot 47.4 percent from the field. The biggest game last year for Sulton was against SIU-Edwardsville. While he took him a while to get going, he turned things completely around after halftime to record his first double-double, ending the game with 13 points and 11 rebounds. This season has only been an improvement and he continues to impress the MTSU coaching staff.
Guard– Bryce Massey – Junior, 6-3, 195; 2011-12: 5.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.5 apg
This is Massey's first season at Middle Tennessee State after he transferred from Dodge City Community College. In those two seasons, Massey lead Dodge City in assists (195) and steals (122). Both of those numbers were from his freshman year. In addition to being a well-rounded two-way point guard – demonstrated by the fact that he led in assists and steals – Maseey was also second on Dodge City in scoring. He averaged 11.7 points per game. A final note that speaks to the kind of guard Massey is is that he ranked third in the country with 3.9 steals per game.
Guard –– Marcos Knight Junior, 6-2, 210; 2011-12: 12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.0 apg
As you can see there is a reoccurring theme with players at MTSU. The coaching staff is big on players from the community college ranks. Knight played his freshman season at Middle Georgia; while he was there he was named the GJCAA Player of the Year and received player of the week honors three times. It is not hard to see why when you look at his numbers. In his one season at Middle Georgia Knight averaged 17.9 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals per game.
Guard – Raymond Cintron – Junior, 6-0, 195; 2011-12: 7.1 ppg, 1.4 apg, 1.6 rpg,
Yet another community college transfer for Middle Tennessee State, Cintron also played for the Puerto Rican National U-18 Team in 2008-09. He led all scorers at the Nike Global Games and was named to the international all-tournament team. While a freshman at Mississippi Gulf Coast, Cintron averaged 20 points and 4.7 assists per contest. It is easy to see why everyone in the Sun Belt Conference has to take notice when playing against him.
It really does not matter who starts for this team. Davis will run at least ten deep on any given night. James Gallman should play an important role. He averaged 7.5 points per game as a sophomore and provides a nice spark off of the bench. However, if any of the newcomers have trouble finding their shot, Gallman will need to be in the game more often. Jason Jones will be spark plug off the bench. The 6-6 wing is a great slasher who averaged 13.1 points and 4.8 rebounds last season. At 6-6 he can be a matchup nightmare at the three spot. Jimmy Oden is an experienced and tough guard and Kerry Hammonds is full of potential after a decent freshman campaign.
Keys to the Game
1) Take the Blue Raiders seriously. One can't say that Vanderbilt took Cleveland State or Indiana State very seriously. Enough said.
2) Use bodies. Lots of them. Every Commodore needs to play with supreme energy, but part of that need is based on rotating players so that this team can stay fresh for the long haul. This is Vandy's non-SEC moment in the long winter, so the Dores need to make this game count by getting the backups extended minutes and preserving the big dogs for what lies ahead… all within the context, however, of vigorous, no-letdown intensity from everyone in the lineup.