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December 29, 2008
What do the trends say as league play arrives?
Middle Tennessee has had a 1-0 Sun Belt record since beating Troy at Murphy Center earlier this month.
With all due respect to the Trojans, the Blue Raiders begin the real conference grind Wednesday night at North Texas.
The meat of the Sun Belt Conference schedule greets the Blue Raiders with a tough two game road swing that will take them to South Alabama after visiting Denton.
With hopes of a conference title still high in Murfreesboro, what are the trends saying as league play gets set to tip off?
We break down three positive trends and three negative trends heading into the Denton-Mobile road trip.
1) DEFENSIVE FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
In the low point of the season so far, Middle Tennessee surrendered better than 50 percent shooting to both UT-Martin and Belmont in back to back losses. In the three game Basketball Travelers TipOff Tournament at Missouri State, the Blue Raiders significantly tightened the defensive screws. Against UC-Irvine, Norfolk State, and Missouri State, Middle Tennessee never allowed an opponent to shoot better than 40.5 percent and combined held the three foes to less than 38 percent shooting.
2) FREE THROW SHOOTING
Missed free throws were terribly costly to the Blue Raiders in close losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt in late November. The loss to the Volunteers was due almost entirely to MT's inability to hit the freebies. Since those two losses, the Blue Raiders have been trending upward at the foul line. Other than a disappointing 5-of-10 shooting effort from the line against Belmont, MT has been pretty consistent at the line since dropping the Tennessee and Vanderbilt games. In the just completed three game swing through Missouri, the Blue Raiders hit an even 75 percent of their free throws. MT still has work to do to overcome some of its early season struggles at the line (the Blue Raiders currently rank eighth in the Sun Belt in free throw shooting), but the free throw shooting in the pre-Christmas tournament suggests improvement.
3) FORCING TURNOVERS
Middle Tennessee's defense has been good all year at forcing turnovers and the Blue Raiders show no signs of slacking off in that area with point guard and defensive standout Nigel Johnson getting healthier after a knee sprain. The Blue Raiders lead the Sun Belt by a wide margin in turnover margin, thanks in large part to forcing a league 205 turnovers by opponents. Opponents are turning the ball over more than 17 times per game against the Blue Raiders. Over the last seven games that number has inched slightly higher.
1) LONG RANGE SHOOTING
With Kevin Kanaskie primed to potentially become the program's all time leading 3-point shooter and other deep shooting threats in the backcourt, this season was expected to be a good one in the perimeter shooting department. But the Blue Raiders have struggled mightily in this area. Even in the three game winning streak in Missouri, MT shot just 32 percent from 3-point range. That is including an efficient 5-of-11 effort against Missouri State. Despite some recent signs of improvement shooting the ball, Kanaskie struggled to a 3-of-14 combined performance from downtown in the three game tournament. Newcomer Eric Allen, who was expected to provide an immediate shooting presence, has yet to find his stroke. Overall, the team ranks 10th in the conference in 3-point shooting, at least 2.5 percentage points behind each top five team in the category.
MT was expected to be a deep team this season but that depth has taken a hit due to numerous factors. Senior center Theryn Hudson is still fighting the effects of offseason foot surgery and played very sparingly in the three games in Missouri. Redshirt freshman guard Antwaun Boyd is out indefinitely after sustaining a shoulder injury in Missouri. Junior Darren Avery was indefinitely suspended earlier and has yet to make a reappearance. Dino Hair, Eric Allen, and DeMario Williams all still have work to do to become consistent rotation factors. As the situation currently stands, what was thought to potentially be a 10 or 11 man rotation is down to a core group of six with some X-factors lurking on the periphery. More consistent performances from Allen and Hair would help the Blue Raiders considerably.
3) OFFENSIVE BALANCE
Desmond Yates has led MT in scoring seven of the last eight games, a testament to his recent high level of play but perhaps a troubling sign that the Blue Raiders are becoming too reliant on his individual contributions. When and if he has an off night, will MT be able to find the needed answers to fill in the gaps? Demetrius Green has been somewhat hot and cold in recent games while Kanaskie is still searching for his normally consistent outside shot. With Hudson very much a question mark for the rest of the season, Yates may have to carry more of the load on both ends of the court. Whether or not the Raiders can absorb that for the rest of the year could be a major concern.