Trae Golden looks ahead to MTSU
Tired of getting sand kicked in its face, the Middle Tennessee State men's basketball program has done something about it.
The Blue Raiders — beefed up with three Division I transfers and three junior college starters — appear ready to come into Knoxville and try to settle old scores.
It's hard to imagine revenge not being on the mind of MTSU (26-6) when it takes on Tennessee (19-14) today (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.) in Thompson-Boling Arena in the second round of the NIT.
First-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin will tell you he fears no opponent, particularly with the Vols riding an eight-game home win streak. But even Martin knows to beware this in-state foe.
"I think the thing we overlook is the fact those guys expect to win the game,'' Martin said. "The advantage they have, they've seen us play all year. It's one of those deals, you got guys there (saying) 'I can play at Tennessee, I can play for that guy and do what they're doing.'
"I wouldn't say they are more hungry (than UT), but they have something to prove from that standpoint.''
It will be easier for Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year Kermit Davis to prove it if Tennessee junior forward Jeronne Maymon doesn’t play.
But Maymon, who missed the NIT opener against Savannah State last Tuesday with a bruised right knee, practiced Sunday and has been upgraded to probable.
Junior center Kenny Hall, suspended on Feb. 15, also won’t play, Martin said.
Davis doesn't expect his team's mindset to waver, either way.
"The biggest thing is mentally, having the guys ready to play, and I know they are really, really looking forward to Monday night,'' Davis said in a Friday interview.
"I think we'll see a lot of blue in Thompson-Boling Arena.''
All seats are general admission, tickets cost $10 apiece and parking at the game is free. UT is expecting such a high demand from MTSU and Vols' fans that it's encouraging fans to purchase tickets online and use the "print at home" function to avoid long lines at the will-call window.
The Vols have won nine straight against the Blue Raiders, including a 69-point win in 2007 (109-40) and last season's 86-56 victory. MTSU's only win over UT came in NIT action in the teams' first-ever meeting, 85-80, in Murfreesboro in 1988.
Of course, this is a different Blue Raiders team and a different time for both programs; MTSU has four new starters since last season and is in the midst of the most successful season in school history with a record number of wins.
Players like Iowa State transfer turned Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year LaRon Dendy and second-team junior college transfer Marcos Knight were brought in to win games at UCLA (86-66) and against Ole Miss (68-56).
The Blue Raiders have found a potent formula that has led them to the fourth-best field goal percentage in the nation (.497) and the 18th-best assist total (15.7 per game ).
"When that floor gets spread and we're running and our bigs are running and playmaking, that's when our team is very good,'' Davis said.
"We've won 26 games for a reason ...''
Indeed, MTSU was up by as many as 22 points last Tuesday en route to an 86-78 NIT win over Marshall, which was the highest RPI team (No. 44) not to make the NCAA tournament.
After closing the regular season with eight wins in nine games, UT has faded, struggling in an SEC tournament overtime loss to Ole Miss (77-72) and allowing a 17-point lead to shrink to two before surviving its NIT opener.
The Vols' bench had been outscored in five of seven games since Hall was suspended before edging Savannah State's reserves 18-17.
And while Tennessee was battling Savannah State to a 28-28 standoff in points in the paint, MTSU was out-scoring Marshall in the paint 50-36 on the inside.
UT fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum said he's doing all he can to let his younger teammates know what they'll be up against.
"There's no mystery this (MTSU) is a good team; they have some really good pieces,'' Tatum said. "It's going to be an NCAA tournament-type of atmosphere, and we have to be prepared for a dogfight.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitterhttpcom/MikeGriffith32