Scouting Report: Middle Tennessee
Villanova is a shell of its former self. Xavier scored just 45 points the other night against Cincinnati. Alabama A&M and Cornell were impotent from the word go. It's been a December to remember only if you love defense. Now, though, Kevin Stallings will bring his team into a matchup against an opponent that can put the ball in the basket. Middle Tennessee's veteran lineup and playmaking skill will force VU to shift gears and display the kind of adaptability that good basketball teams possess. A welcome test marks the Dores' final game before Christmas.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE
Last year, the Blue Raiders had the team they were waiting for, the group that was supposed to bring an NCAA tournament berth to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for the first time since 1989. When you realize that 1989 was also the last year the Blue Raiders won a game in the Big Dance (the only other occasion being 1982), this program placed a lot of emphasis on returning to the NCAAs. However, Middle Tennessee – 14-2 in the Sun Belt Conference during the regular season – got knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The Blue Raiders' at-large tournament lacked the heft needed to get MTSU into the round of 64 through the back door, and so this team settled for an NIT bid, losing in the quarterfinals to Minnesota.
This year, therefore, is a make-or-break season for Davis, the head coach in Murfreesboro since the autumn of 2002. No, Davis's job isn't on the line, but this is quite realistically the best chance the basketball lifer will have to get his program over the top. MTSU's starting five is comprised of four seniors, players who were core contributors on last season's squad, which won 27 of its 34 contests. Next season, the Blue Raiders might not be starting from scratch, but they'll definitely lose a lot of ground… much like Vanderbilt from last season to this one.
It's a rather poignant narrative: Davis, a veteran coach who hasn't been able to crack the top tier of Division I or move upward in his profession, is trying to get his team to cross the threshold at this advanced stage of his career. Davis will be able to look back on his coaching journey with a particular degree of satisfaction if he can push his team across the altar this coming March. Vanderbilt wants to stop Middle Tennessee on Friday night, but the Blue Raiders will be supported in the state of Tennessee when they venture into Sun Belt competition.
The Blue Raiders already know that if they are going to make this year's NCAA tournament, they won't be able to get in as an at-large team. They haven't won a signature game and won't get the same boost out of beating Vanderbilt that they could have gained last season against the Dores.
Yet, don't allow MTSU's resume to lull you into thinking that this is a soft team. The Blue Raiders' only losses have come against quality opposition: Florida, Akron (the MAC runner-up last year and a tournament team in 2011) and Belmont. If Middle Tennessee had not challenged itself more in non-conference play, Davis might own a 10-1 record instead of an 8-3 mark at this point in time. This will not be an easy team for Vanderbilt to play; not with all that veteran experience in MTSU's starting five.
Forward – Shawn Jones – Junior, 6-8, 236 2012-13: 10 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game
Jones hits 51 percent of his shots, which is due in part to the fact that he doesn't attempt three-pointers. Jones has a body that enables him to pound opponents near the basket. He's a force on the glass, enough to be the best rebounder on the Blue Raiders' roster. There's not a lot of subtlety in his approach.
Guard/Forward – Jason Jones – Senior, 6-6, 202; 2012-13: 6.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg
Jones averages just 12.5 minutes per start, while J.T. Sulton, at 19.1 minutes per game, logs more minutes than any other bench player on the Blue Raiders' roster. Sulton averages 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. The Blue Raiders' frontcourt is active and aggressive, but ultimately undersized and capable of being overpowered by a taller, more muscular set of low-post players. Vanderbilt can do damage to Middle Tennessee within 10 feet of the basket.
Guard – Bruce Massey – Senior, 6-3, 197; 2012-13: 4.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.5 assists per game
Massey is conspicuous on the MTSU roster in that he hits just 27.5 percent of his field goal attempts. Many of the Blue Raiders hit at least 40 percent of their shots, so Massey becomes a player the Commodores can cheat against, taking away his dribble and his passing lanes while giving him extra room on 17-foot jumpers.
Guard – Marcos Knight – Senior, 6-2, 216; 2012-13: 12.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.5 apg
Knight has the best basketball body of anyone in the Middle Tennessee lineup. He uses his agile but chiseled frame to get to the basket and create opportunities not just as a ballhandler, but as a rebounder. VU shouldn't worry about Knight's three-point prowess; he has made just eight treys in the first six weeks of the 2012-2013 campaign. Knight, at 6-2, is one of the best small-guard rebounders the Commodores will see this season. Matching his energy level and keeping him off the offensive glass will be foremost priorities for Vanderbilt.
Guard – Raymond Cintron – Senior, 6-0, 198; 2012-13: 8.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.8 apg
Cintron is the best high-volume long-distance shooter the Blue Raiders have. His .439 percentage on threes is a legitimate mark, the product of 25 makes in 57 tries. Teammate James Gallman (see below in the "Bench" section) has hit 13 of 26 triples for a clean 50-percent success rate, but on a number of shots that's less than half of what Cintron has attempted this season. Cintron's best attribute is his 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. MTSU does not commit many turnovers. It's assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.11 is second-best in the Sun Belt Conference and a very solid 87th in the United States. MTSU dishes out 14.2 assists per game and coughs up the rock only 12.7 times per game. This is a team that wins by being efficient in its halfcourt sets. The Blue Raiders make few mistakes and take smart shots. Cintron is at the heart of both of these favorable statistical realities.
In Davis's 10-man rotation – which includes Sulton as a primary reserve – four other players gain at least 13 minutes per game: Trantell "Tweety" Knight, James Gallman, Neiko Hunter, and Kerry Hammonds. Eight of the ten primary players Davis uses are veterans from last year's team. The Blue Raiders can put any number of roster combinations on the floor and not lose much experience.
As noted above, Gallman is an effective three-point shooter, but part of that effectiveness lies in the fact that he's not a high-volume shooter. Restraint is a quality that makes MTSU's offense work. In this group of reserves, it's also worth noting a few other significant statistics: Trantell Knight has a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best on the team; Hunter hits 47.5 percent of his field goal tries; Hammonds averages just under two assists per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Use muscle and hustle. This is a game in which Vanderbilt needs to outmuscle an opponent in the low post. Alabama A&M and Cornell did not challenge VU in the paint, but on Friday, Rod Odom and Josh Henderson will need to stand tall and own the six feet near the rim. On offense, Vanderbilt has to establish a low-post game so that it can power the ball at weaker, thinner MTSU defenders. On defense, the Dores must seal out on the glass and make sure that Middle Tennessee doesn't get into any kind of offensive rhythm. Kevin Bright's rebounding from his guard spot will be crucial in giving both Odom and Henderson the support they need.
2) Match Middle Tennessee's discipline. The Blue Raiders do not beat themselves. Therefore, if Vanderbilt commits lots of turnovers and does not give itself enough shot attempts on Friday, Middle Tennessee can dictate the tempo of this contest and create a situation in which Vanderbilt trails in the second half and panics on many of its possessions. Vanderbilt has to be conscious – acutely conscious – of the need to value the ball at the start of this game. Even five or six minutes that aren't very alert could cost the Commodores over the course of 40. Vanderbilt could get away with lulls versus Alabama A&M and Cornell, but this is a different – and much better – opponent. The Dores have to act like it, especially when they handle the ball in their halfcourt sets.
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