Ifs and buts won't get a team anywhere in college basketball or any other sport, but Middle Tennessee senior point guard Nigel Johnson can be forgiven for dwelling on last year's 10 point loss to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt championship game.
Johnson played just 14 minutes in that game due to foul trouble, forcing the Blue Raiders to play a majority of the game without their best playmaker and offensive catalyst.
Johnson is the engine behind Middle Tennessee's offensive attack, a fact that became more and more apparent as the season continued last year.
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The 6-foot-2 speedster is a lightning bolt with the ball in his hands and he also proved to have a lion's heart.
He returned from what looked like a serious ankle injury in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament to post a career high 12 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes in the quarterfinals against Troy.
He nearly recorded a triple-double in the final regular season game against Troy at Murphy Center and put the team on his back to help the Blue Raiders upset Louisiana-Lafayette on the road when fellow guards Kevin Kanaskie and Demetrius Green were battling illness.
Johnson is arguably the Sun Belt's best playmaker in the open floor, is a tenacious defender, gutty rebounder, and a much better perimeter shooter than given credit.
But Johnson sitting on the bench as his teammates struggled without him in the final game of last season may be the clearest image of what he means to the Blue Raiders.
"I just have to learn how to stay out of foul trouble," Johnson said of the title game loss and one of his goals for this season. "I was out during an important part of the game. I'm going to make sure I don't make those mistakes again and just try to do better. I think I can contribute more to the team and be more agressive. We have some other guards now like Eric Allen, Antwaun Boyd and DeMario (Williams) coming in, so I think we have some really good depth to our team."
Johnson dramatically improved his shooting last season, particularly in the second half of the season when he was the Sun Belt's most accurate three point shooter during conference play (54.3 percent).
He's been working on his shooting a lot this offseason as well in addition to other key elements.
"I worked on my mid-range shot and coming off ball screens," he said. "I obviously worked on my defense and trying not to put my hands on people so much (to avoid foul trouble)."
Johnson has also put in plenty of weight room work, the results of which is clearly evident in his upper body. He has strengthened his core and should be able to withstand most physical contact, particularly when driving to the basket.
But even better news for Middle Tennessee is that Johnson hasn't lost any of his explosiveness with the ball in his hand, a role he knows places him in a position of leadership.
"I take pride in being the engine (of the offense) because me being the point guard, I've got to get the ball to the open guy so he can get a shot and deliver the ball where guys can get a good look. I'm really trying to be a better leader ... We have been really into leadership (this offseason) and I think we have a lot of good leaders on our team.
"I think it will be a very special year because we play Tennessee and Vandy and we seniors ... want to go out with a Sun Belt championship and get into the NCAA Tournament."
GoMiddle.com Countdown to Tipoff
40 days-October 6th: Schedule full of challenges, opportunities
39 days-October 7th: Sun Belt newcomers to watch
38 days-October 8th: Strong memory motivates Yates
37 days-October 9th: Kanaskie in position to leave a legacy
36 days-October 10th: Johnson driving force behind MT attack