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November 9, 2012

Preview: Blue Raiders vs Alabama State

The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are getting national recognition in every major sport this year. While the women's basketball team is used to the acclaim, the men's team finds themselves catching the eye of national analysts this year as well - and for good reason.

Coming off of a historic 27-7 campaign in 2011, the Blue Raider basketball team tips off their season Friday night against the Alabama State Hornets. Tipoff is schedule for 7:45PM following the Lady Raiders contest against Kennesaw State.

Despite their regular season success last year, the Blue Raiders were snubbed from the NCAA Tournament after stumbling in the SBC Tournament against Arkansas State. However, the Blue Raiders were able to make a run in NIT Tournament, reaching the quarterfinals before falling to Minnesota. On the flip side, the Hornets had a sub .500 record.

MT won 20 of their first 22 games during the 2011 campaign, which included a massive winning streak that spanned 12 games as well. MT went on to win the Sun Belt regular season title and senior forward LaRon Dendy garnered Player of the Year honors. Their 27-7 record was the best mark that the Blue Raiders have ever had.

The Alabama State Hornets finished 5th in the South Western Athletic Conference last season going 9-9 in conference and 12-19 overall during the season, but made the NCAA Tournament by winning the SWAC Conference Tournament. This was the fourth appearance in the "Big Dance" but the Hornets they yet to win a match. They lost to Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners last year in the opening round, 70-61.

BREAKING DOWN THE BLUE RAIDERS

The Blue Raiders return most of their major faces from last season, including six seniors and 10 players overall. The only true starter that left the Blue Raiders was LaRon Dendy, who is now playing overseas.

The strong core of returning players from last year's team include seniors Marcos Knight, JT Sulton, Raymond Cintron, and Bruce Massey. Knight averaged 11.8 points per game while snatching 5.2 rebounds per game. Knight also shot 50 percent from the field and 30 percent from the 3-point line while playing almost 28 minutes per game. He also led the team in scoring six times last season and his season high was 19 coming against Minnesota and North Texas.

Forward JT Sulton averaged 25 minutes while netting 10.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 2011. Sulton also shot 53 percent from the field and 74 percent from the charity stripe. Sulton led the team in scoring four times last season and produced a season-high 17 points against Florida International.

Sharpshooter Raymond Cintron had a great year from long distance, connecting on 43 percent of his 3-point attempts and 90 percent from the free throw line. Cintron finished 2011 averaging 8.4 points per game with an average of 22.5 minutes of action. Cintron led the team in scoring four times last year with his best being an 18-point output against the Ole Miss Rebels.

Finally, Bruce Massey started nearly every game last year and played an average of 28 minutes per game. Massey averaged 6.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and a team-leading 3.9 assists per game, but his defensive prowess is where he made a name for himself. While not known for his offensive output, Massey did lead the Blue Raiders in scoring four times with his best performance coming in the NIT Tournament against in-state rival Tennessee in Knoxville where he had 20 points.

While the Blue Raiders have plenty of firepower in their starting lineup, the depth of this team shows no drop-off, whatsoever. Reservists Jason Jones, Kerry Hammonds, James Gallman, Shawn Jones and Torin Walker will all see their fair share of playing time this year, including some starts of their own whenever head coach Kermit Davis sees fit.

Perhaps the most intrigue surrounding this team revolves around the two newcomers - Trantell Knight and the highly touted Neiko Hunter. Hunter will be looked to as Laron Dendy's replacement, but his game is will not mirror Dendy's. Whereas Dendy was a bruiser in the paint, Hunter can work off the ball and create his own shots - which includes a lethal mid-range game and above average long range touch.

As for Knight, he will push Massey for minutes at the point. A gifted defender, Knight also possesses quick hands on defense and will be a nightmare for guards around the Sun Belt to deal with.

BREAKING DOWN THE HORNETS

The Alabama State Hornets return a few members from last year's NCAA Tournament team, but only a handful of them have much experience from last season.

Stephawn Brown, Ryan Watts, and Luther Page are some key returning players who played in, and started most of last season.

Brown averaged 4.4 points while playing 24.4 minutes per game last year. Watts averaged 6.1 points in 18 minutes.

Page averaged 3.1 points on 17 minutes of action per game, but shot a paltry 37 percent from the charity stripe.

JUCO transfer Josh Freelove has been impressive in both of ASU's exhibition matches this season. The junior average 15.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3 assists in those two contests.

The Hornets will have 11 freshmen on their squad this year and only four total players returning from last year so this appears to be a rebuilding year. Their peers seem to think so, too, as ASU was picked to finish sixth in the SWAC.

PREDICTION: MT 105, ASU 68

Looking at things on paper, it appears that MT should be able to easily win this game, but as we can all know - looks can be deceiving.

However, I see the Blue Raiders winning this game, and winning big. The starters will get the ball rolling early, and I expect the reserves to keep their foot on the gas down the stretch.

I know this prediction is a major blowout, but there just are not any areas where I would give ASU an advantage in this matchup.

Look for the Blue Raiders to come out hot, and knowing that they need this win with a tough schedule coming up, they will not mess around with Alabama State.



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