Expectations soar for MT basketball after historic prior season
The Middle Tennessee men’s basketball team is looking to keep the momentum of last year’s historic season going as they prepare to enter this season as the unanimous selection to win the Sun Belt East Division.
The Blue Raiders’ historic 27 wins in 2011-2012 marked the most wins in a season in school history, earning them a spot in the National Invitation Tournament. MT went on to make a deep tournament run, falling only one game short of a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals. The team has won two Sun Belt Championship in three years overall.
This year, expectations are again sky high, as MT was unanimously elected to win the Sun Belt East Division by the Sun Belt Men’s Basketball Preseason Coaches’ Poll. The Blue Raiders have even received votes in a pair of national Top 25 preseason polls.
“We’ve got 11 of our top 13 back. We lost two seniors . . . but I feel really good,” said Head Coach Kermit Davis.
One of the two seniors lost was LaRon Dendy, the 2012 Sun Belt Player of the Year who joined the Washington Wizards’ summer league team and is currently playing for the Greek team Kolossos, a member of Europe’s A1 League.
The returning group is led by Marcos Knight, a senior guard and the only returning player to start every game last season. Knight averaged 11.8 points a game last year, making him the Blue Raiders’ top returning scorer. Joining Knight is senior forward JT Sulton and senior guards Bruce Massey and Raymond Cintron. The four seniors also represent Middle Tennessee on the preseason All Sun Belt team.
“We’re going to need a lot of those guys to make up for Dendy,” Davis said. “Dendy’s got this ‘it’ factor. He just has this swagger that, you walk into an arena and are playing UCLA, Ole Miss or Tennessee, he just brings that ‘we’re fixing to win the game.’ Bruce Massey has it. Marcos Knight has it. We’ve got a lot of toughness on our team and they play with . . . personality and . . . enthusiasm.”
Also looking to bolster the team’s success this season will be University of Texas El Paso transfer Jason Jones, who returns after an injury-plagued 2011-2012 season. Jones was hampered in preseason practice by a hamstring injury, but will look to return the form that saw him finish eighth in the Sun Belt in scoring his sophomore season.
After last year’s victories over UCLA, Ole Miss, and Tennessee and a hotly contested loss against Vanderbilt in Nashville, the Blue Raiders have March Madness in their sights.
“For me, the biggest thing is making, and winning, the NCAA tournament,” Knight said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Junior guard Kerry Hammonds expressed his expectations to win a third conference championship in four years and earn a NCAA tournament berth.
“If you don’t get that, it’s a bust,” Hammonds said.
Although, like many other coaches, Davis does not necessarily buy into preseason projections. The all-time winningest coach in school history received a new five-year contract earlier this year and welcomes this season’s expectations.
“Our expectations are obviously to get a little bit better every single day,” Davis said. “We just got picked to win our league, which doesn’t mean anything, but it’s always great to have expectations.”
While many seasoned Blue Raiders return to the court, MT has a pair of newcomers in juniors Neiko Hunter and Trantell “Tweety” Knight, who are ready to make an immediate impact similar to the way that Marcos Knight, Dendy and Massey did after transferring in last season. Tweety, the younger brother of Marcos, is likely to add some chemistry to the team in joining his brother on the court and in the locker room.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen two brothers that are so much alike. And they just like to be around each other,” Davis said. “They’re just good. They really enjoy playing with each other on the court.”
Davis said that the junior has been challenging Massey at the guard position.
“Tweety brings a lot to the table as a point guard Bruce (Massey) is a great defender and Tweety is just as good, if not a better defender, than Bruce,” Hammonds said.
Knight will have to prove himself on the court in order to take the starting job from Massey, who had 131 rebounds and 134 assists last year.
The Blue Raiders do not just play to win; they play for their fans.
“One of the most pleasing things for our players and I was seeing the student body come back in great numbers, and we had one of the best student sections in college basketball last year,” Davis said.
Last year, MT fans helped the team post the sixth largest increase in college basketball attendance in the nation. Davis said that one expectation for this season is to see the fan base and the support of the student body increase and continue to grow. Davis also said that he wants to run a student-friendly program that encourages attendance.
“We hope [attendance] picks up on Nov. 9 where it left off,” Davis said. “The student body is absolutely the most exciting thing in that arena. It helps our players win games.”
The Blue Raiders have a tough, non-conference schedule this year. MT will face the 10th-ranked Florida Gators in addition to again playing Ole Miss and Vanderbilt this season. The Florida and Vanderbilt games will be held at a neutral location and the Ole Miss game will be held at the Murphy Center.
MT will host its first exhibition match at home against the Auburn-Montgomery Senators Nov. 5 at 7 pm. The Blue Raiders’ first game of the regular season will be against the Alabama State Hornets Nov. 9 at the Murphy Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:45 pm.