MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Coach Kermit Davis watched his team start the season 3-6, but after getting healthy and finding the right combinations in his starting lineup, the Blue Raiders have won four straight to move to 7-6. More importantly, MTSU has won its first two games in the Sun Belt Conference and trails only South Alabama and Troy (both 3-0) for the league lead. Manhattan and Southern Miss offered token resistance, but this team could make things intriguing for at least a little while against the Dores.
NOTE: Middle Tennessee does not play a center in its currently-aligned starting five. Center Theryn Hudson, a 6-10, 245-pound senior, will be out through the first two weeks of January with a foot injury.
Forward – Desmond Yates – Senior, 6'7", 220; 2009-10: 15.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg
This is the man the Dores need to prepare for. Yates missed his team's first seven games with a knee injury, preventing Middle Tennessee from establishing a better record in the non-conference portion of its schedule. Yates is a two-time all-Sun Belt honoree who will become MTSU's all-time leading scorer as long as he remains healthy for the rest of the season. Muscular, agile, and in possession of a true scorer's mentality, Yates can do damage from many different places on the floor, which will make him a load for Vanderbilt at the defensive end of the court. Just to make sure Mr. Yates gets respect from Vandy fans and (more importantly) players, consider this: The senior stud threw down 26 points against Tennessee on 11-of-19 shooting when the Blue Raiders faced the Vols on Dec. 11 at Nashville's Sommet Center.
Forward – Trevor Ottley – Junior, 6'9", 210; 2009-10: 3.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg
Ottley is in the starting lineup because Blue Raider center Theryn Hudson – who had hoped to be ready for a Dec. 31 game at New Orleans – was kept on the shelf for two extra weeks. Ottley is a junior college transfer from Garden City (Kansas) Community College who – upon entering the starting lineup – posted 10 points and six rebounds in MTSU's 69-51 win over Howard on Dec. 22. He's not a primary threat, but the fact that he's relatively new to the Blue Raiders' starting five means that he has fresh legs and an extra measure of energy. The Dores will need to match – if not exceed – Ottley's intensity on the glass.
Guard – James Washington III – Junior, 6'0", 170; 2009-10: 12.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.8 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game
Washington is what one would refer to in basketball parlance as a "glue guy," a performer who stitches a team together by doing things no one else does. The stat line above indicates that the St. Louis native can impact a game in many different ways. Washington is the third-leading scorer on the Blue Raiders, but he leads the team in assists and steals. No one on MTSU sees the court or feels the flow of action better than Washington, so the VU backcourt of Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley need to clog passing lanes on defense and protect the ball when this pesky guard is lurking nearby.
Guard – Rod Emanuel – Junior, 6'3", 180; 2009-10: 6.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg
The native of Orlando doesn't ring up big numbers for an MTSU backcourt that tries to set up the game for its wings and post players. Emanuel rebounds well for a player of his size, and he doesn't give away possessions at the offensive end. Middle Tennessee wants Yates and super sixth man Montarrio Haddock (more on him in the "Bench" section of this preview) to carry the scoring load. Emanuel tends to other chores for Kermit Davis.
Guard – Calvin O'Neil – Senior, 6'4", 190; 2009-10: 4.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg
O'Neil, a product of Newark, N.J., is a clone of Emanuel. Not inclined to score, O'Neil passes up opportunities so he can set screens and allow MTSU's halfcourt sets to find rhythm and flow. O'Neil plays a clean, intelligent brand of basketball; as long as he can defend, he makes himself a valuable presence on the floor for the Blue Raiders.
The Blue Raiders boast a better bench than the other teams Vandy has faced over the past two weeks. Montarrio Haddock, a 6-5, 230-pound senior, is a tough "tweener" for Vandy to guard. Haddock – a combo player who can be a guard or a forward – combines power and quickness in a package that's noticeably similar to Yates. Coming off the pine, the North Carolina-born Haddock has become MTSU's second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game (with 5.9 rebounds per contest as well). He must command VU's attention when he enters Monday's game.
Another valuable reserve for Davis and the rest of the Blue Raider coaching staff is James Gallman, a 5-11, 190-pound freshman guard who averages nine points per game. Whereas Emanuel and O'Neil provide top-shelf defense for the men from Murfreesboro, Tenn., Gallman offers instant offense. The sharpshooter is a 3-point threat who hits 36 percent of his long-range tries. He's capable of posting big offensive numbers in any game, and he's scored at least 18 points in three separate games this season.
A third option off the pine for MTSU is J.T. Sulton, a 6-7, 205-pound freshman forward. Sulton receives more than 17 minutes a game, so he's considered a core cog in the Blue Raider machinery. He posted 14 points in the first two games of the season, but has tailed off since then. However, the young man averages 4.5 rebounds a game, so he still provides considerable value for Middle Tennessee.
Keys to the Game
- Close the gates to Yates, and put Haddock in the paddock. Sometimes, it's important to shut down complementary players and allow a team's scoring stars to get their share of points. Sometimes, it's fine to allow a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James to post insane numbers, while the other four players on a team stand, watch… and take their team out of any offensive flow.
This is not one of those games.
Vanderbilt needs to realize that with Emanuel and O'Neil on the floor, Middle Tennessee doesn't possess reliable secondary or tertiary scoring options. VU can double-team Desmond Yates and (off the bench) Montarrio Haddock with impunity, and force lesser-skilled MTSU role players to beat them. When James Gallman brings his 3-point shot off the pine for Middle Tennessee, the Commodores will then have to adjust their defensive approach, but when Emanuel and O'Neil are in the game, VU should focus on stopping the Blue Raiders' most prolific scorers.
- Distribute minutes, as well as the ball. In the final game before SEC play, Kevin Stallings needs to give minutes to his bench and see what his less-proven players can do. The Dores didn't handle quick turnarounds all that well in the earlier part of December, so as they depart the softest stretch of their schedule, they need to see if they can lengthen their rotation for the coming three months. If Stallings can identify an emergent force from his baseline perch at Memorial Gym, VU could gain a small but meaningful edge when the SEC season begins.
Another reason why it makes sense to extend the bench in this game is that MTSU has tough-to-guard tweener players. More substitutions will allow Vandy to experiment with matchups on Yates and Haddock. The VU crew could learn more about its defensive capabilities if more players see at least 8-12 minutes on Monday night in Nashville.