Mick Cronin isn’t unfamiliar with Conference-USA foes. After all, he served as an assistant under both Bob Huggins during his time at UC in the late 90′s as well as Rick Pitino in the early 2000′s. But Conference-USA isn’t the basketball power it was over a decade and a half ago with the league boasting strong programs in Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, and Marquette. No, with realignment sending tremors through college athletics, that conference is a shell of what it once was.
But that’s not to say some of the Conference-USA’s teams aren’t going to make waves this season. It won’t produce the swath of NCAA Tournament teams like in its glory days but one or two should sneak in. This includes the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders who are currently 8-3 on the season and could very well glide through the Conference-USA schedule en route to a championship.
While their lack of name recognition when compared to Xavier and Pitt might not inspire the casual fan, believe you me this is a tough opponent UC faces tomorrow night.
In many ways, the stats the Blue Raiders are putting up offensively mirror the Pitt Panthers who Cincinnati beat on Tuesday night. They seem to be very efficient with the basketball (48% field goal percentage), gather in a good amount of offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive (13.2 per game), and don’t turn the ball over a whole heck of a lot (13.1 per game). Plus Middle Tennessee State is extremely adept at getting points every time they touch the basketball. They are currently second in the conference scoring 1.12 points per possession. That’s efficiency, yo.
The most concerning part for me is the variety of weapons MTSU head coach Kermit Davis Jr has at his disposal. Three players are averaging over 10 points per game with three more averaging over 7 points per game. In this sense, the Blue Raiders mirror the Bearcats is being able to get contributions from the bench as well as the starters. UC plays great defense which should help stymie this team but I don’t foresee Cincinnati wearing Middle Tennessee State down like the other teams on their schedule.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Shawn Jones (#12): This 6’8″ 234 lbs senior is the focal point of the Blue Raiders and is having his best season of his four year career at MTSU. He not only paces the team in points and rebounds per game but does a nice job at the free throw line, shooting over 70% from the stripe. As a big man, it’s extremely advantageous that he can draw fouls down low and make the opponent pay by hitting free throws. You don’t see too many power forwards who are as well-rounded as Shawn Jones.
Justin Jackson v. Jones: This one’s pretty obvious. Jones is Middle Tennessee State’s biggest threat in the low post and Cincinnati will have to counter with their best option in the frontcourt Justin Jackson. The good news is that the Blue Raiders’ power forward isn’t that drastic of a mismatch compared to who the Bearcats’ last three opponents threw at JJ. In fact I’d say the matchup is basically equal physically. But, again, that doesn’t make Jones any less of a threat. He’s very confident in his scoring abilities and Jackson’s prevalence to get himself into foul trouble by making stupid mistakes could be costly on Saturday afternoon.
Titus Rubles v. Neiko Hunter (#1): Jones isn’t the only Blue Raider who can get it done in the paint. Similarly-sized Neiko Hunter is equally adept at getting to the hoop. Manned up on him will be Titus Rubles*, who is certainly not the Bearcats’ best option defensively but Cincinnati will have to make do. Essentially Hunter pairs well with Jones around the rim to grab rebounds for easy buckets. Rubles needs to box out well tomorrow night as does Jackson.
*I could easily see Mick Cronin tab Shaq Thomas or Jermaine Lawrence to guard Hunter but most of the time it will be Rubles tasked with slowing him down.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTION
Middle Tennessee State’s two-headed monster of Jones and Hunter worry me after we witnessed New Mexico’s Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow decimate Cincinnati’s interior defense two weeks ago. The size disparity between Jones/Hunter and Kirk/Bairstow is noticeable and thus should provide an easier matchup for the Bearcats. But teams with a talented frontcourt always worries me. Even so, UC seems far more focused after dealing with the adversity of the New Mexico and Xavier losses. Plus Cincinnati’s defense is still as suffocating as ever and MTSU has struggled against stronger opponents this season. I’m going to give the Bearcats the nod in this tight game.
Middle Tennessee State: 59