Chip Walters is the color analyst for Middle Tennessee basketball on the Blue Raider Radio Network. He sat down with GoMiddle.com's Ryan Mudd earlier in the week to answer some questions about the Blue Raiders following MT's five game winning streak away from Murfreesboro.
Ryan Mudd: Middle Tennessee is nearly halfway through the season as hard as that is to believe. What are your overall impressions so far?
Chip Walters: My overall impression is that this is the best overall team Coach Davis has had in his tenure at Middle Tennessee. Excellent guard play gives you a chance every night, and the Raiders have that with Nigel Johnson, Kevin Kanaskie, and Demetrius Green. The same goes for an elite player like Desmond Yates. There will be nights when he simply has to put the team on his shoulders ... and can. The complementary players have seemed to learn their roles and the pieces are coming together. The emergence of Montarrio Haddock gives Middle a physical presence that it needs. Calvin O'Neil seems like the Calvin of two years ago (before a devastating knee injury). His energy level and experience are serving this team well.
As I write this, the team has just returned from South Alabama and is riding the crest of a five-game winning streak. Their level of play over the last five games has been outstanding on both ends of the floor. The wins AT North Texas and AT South Alabama come against teams that are expected to be right in the mix when the season is over.
Bottom line ... I think Blue Raider fans have a great opportunity to come out and cheer this team on to something very special this year.
RM: What were your feelings on MT hosting the Tennessee game and the atmosphere at the Murphy Center that night?
CW: My first thought is that I wish we had hit a few more free throws to be in a better position for the last few minutes of that game and see how it would have played out. I would also have loved to have had Boogie Yates for more than 1:20 in the first half. Other than that, I'm always very proud to see that building full. It's just a beautiful sight to me. The atmosphere was really good and our fans need to remember how much fun that was ... and how much fun that can be every night when they come to Murphy Center and make it a great home court against ALL of our opponents, not just Tennessee.
I also have to tip my cap to the ticket plan that was put together for the game. It was nice to see the orange-clad folks relegated to Section J (visitor's section) and the last few rows of the bleachers.
RM: How is the team cohesion of this team with a starting five that has been shuffled around a few times during the season?
CW: I've been on the road with this team for 11 of the last 15 days and cohesion is not a problem. When you mention inconsistency (with the lineup), I have to disagree a bit. The core of that lineup has been the same all year. Johnson, Kanaskie, Green, and Yates have consistently been in the starting lineup. The other spot has rotated between O'Neil, Haddock, and Hudson.
I think most coaches in the country will tweak their lineup during the non-conference season to find out which combinations work best before coming up with a consistent five and a shortened bench. You're seeing that with the Blue Raiders. O'Neil has been the fifth starter the past few games and Haddock seems to really give the team a boost of energy when he comes in.
You also can't dismiss the contributions Dino Hair has made. Go all the way back to the Tennessee game and you'll find that Hair has been a pretty consistent player and has played valuable minutes in just about about every game since.
RM: How do you think Coach Davis managed this team through the suspensions and injuries that caused some adversity early on?
CW: It's interesting. As fans we sometimes spend way too much time worrying about players that aren't there ... for whatever reason. Being around the team on a daily basis, they (coaches and players) are only worried about the ones who are there. You never hear anyone say, 'I sure wish ole' so-and-so was still here.' They are completely focused on improving as a team. Sometimes you get addition by subtraction.
Injuries are a little different animal. It's easy to look back and see what Nigel Johnson's injury did to this basketball team. He really came a long way during the tournament at Missouri State and a few days of no practice at Christmas really seemed to help him heal. At UNT and USA, he seemed be getting that other gear back that makes the Blue Raiders nearly "unpressable."
RM: What has Desmond Yates meant to this program, especially now that he has reached the 1,000 point club?
CW: Reaching the 1,000 point club is something special, but to do it as quickly as he has done it is really incredible. Use whatever term you want to use ... bellcow, go-to guy, or whatever. He's that. He's the player our fans have coveted from other teams over the years. He's the player that fans from other teams wish they had. On top of that, he's gotten better as this season has gone along. He's learned to play without getting in foul trouble and to be there for his teammates.
How good is he? Not sure yet ... that's up to him. He can be as good as he wants to be. Is he the best player ever at Middle? He's working his way into the conversation, but I still think of guys like Jerry Beck, Greg Joyner, Kerry Hammonds, Randy Henry, Larry Stewart, and Tim Sisneros. Beck's two OVC MVP trophies (when the OVC was a much better league) give him a slight nod in my book. What Yates is, and will solidify in the next 15 months or so, is that he is unquestionably the best pure scorer to ever wear a Middle Tennessee uniform. He just has the ability to score with such ease that he almost makes it look easy.
Besides Boogie being in the 1,000 point club, don't forget that Kevin Kanaskie has recently had his ticket punched for entrance into the club. That makes Yates and Kanaskie the first 1,000 point club teammates since Robert "Cateye" Taylor and Warren Kidd.