Belmont’s Handling of MTSU Raises Questions About Blue Raiders Going ForwardPosted by rtmsf on December 14th, 2012
David Changas (@dchangas) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after tonight’s Middle Tennessee State – Belmont game in Nashville.
Kermit Davis has won 187 games in just over 10 seasons as the head coach at Middle Tennessee State. He has only suffered through one losing season during his tenure, and led the Blue Raiders to a school-record 27 wins and a Sun Belt regular season championship last year. It was his second league title in three years, and despite losing 2011-12 Sun Belt Player of the Year LaRon Dendy, MTSU returned the majority of a roster that disappointingly lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, costing itself any chance of an at-large bid. And this is the problem for Davis. Despite being a a consistent, steady, and well-liked leader for the Blue Raiders for the past decade, he has never taken the school to the NCAA Tournament. With so much returning from last year’s squad, expectations are high, as MTSU is the prohibitive favorite to win the league championship. Anything short of a trip to the Big Dance will be an unqualified disappointment. And because the Blue Raiders are so senior-laden, this may be their last best chance to win the conference for a while.
MTSU was 7-2 entering Thursday’s contest at Belmont, with wins at Central Florida and over Ole Miss being the most impressive on its resume, but after a back-and-forth first half that left them trailing by only four at the break, the Blue Raiders fell apart quickly in the second half and trailed by as many as 18 on their way to a 64-49 defeat. Entering the game, MTSU seemed to have the quickness on the perimeter to slow down Belmont’s dynamic backcourt duo of Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, and also had a significant edge on the interior, where the Bruins are especially limited. Johnson dominated the second half, though, and Belmont neutralized Blue Raider big man Shawn Jones, who despite having a significant size and athletic advantage, was a complete non-factor after being relegated to the bench with foul trouble for nearly the entire first half. It was a disappointing effort for a team coming off a win over SEC foe Ole Miss on December 8. “I didn’t think we competed at all in the second half. Our size should have been a big factor in the game. We couldn’t take advantage of it. We missed some balls around the rim,” Davis said. “Their bigs were so much more effective than our bigs around the goal.” Davis also was critical of his team’s lack of “physicalness and toughness,” and was clearly disappointed in MTSU’s overall effort in a game that matched programs of similar stature that can use every quality non-conference win they can get.
Despite the fact that the contest was never in doubt after the early minutes of the second half, Belmont coach Rick Byrd seemed genuinely surprised at the way the Bruins dominated the game. He clearly does not think too much should be read into the result, though. “I think they’re really good. I think they’ll win a lot of games, so it’s a good win,” Byrd said. “They’ve got a season to play, and this wasn’t their best night. But I’ll be real surprised if they aren’t a team that wins 27 or 28 games, and I think they’ll win their league and their tournament this year. They’ve got all the pieces.”
MTSU is an athletic and balanced team that, though it has three first-, second-, and third-team preseason all-conference performers (senior guard Marcos Knight, sixth man JT Sulton, and senior guard Raymond Cintron), it has no superstar. The Blue Raiders have the ability to beat their opponents in numerous ways, however, as they are, despite Thursday’s 28.6% shooting performance, a proficient offensive club that also defends well. With the depth the Blue Raiders have comes balance. Ten players are averaging double-figure minutes thus far, giving Davis significant flexibility with his lineup. While he expressed disappointment in the lack of leadership Knight and fellow senior guard Bruce Massey displayed against Belmont, their experience should beneficial as MTSU tries to punch its ticket to March Madness.
As the Blue Raiders’ time in the Sun Belt comes to a close (they move to Conference USA in 2014), Davis knows this is his last best chance to take the league’s automatic bid. He hopes that no more efforts such as the one given at Belmont are in the offering, or this preseason conference favorite may face another disappointment in March.