The Middle Tennessee men's basketball team (5-1, 1-0) will be looking for their fourth victory in a row as they play the last game of their road trip Sunday afternoon against the Akron Zips (3-2). Tipoff is set for 1:00 PM.
Middle Tennessee last played on Thursday night against Louisiana-Lafayette in what was their first conference game of the year. The Blue Raiders came out strong thanks to solid play from guard Marcos Knight, but the Ragin Cajuns stormed back late in the first half, hitting a late three to shrink the halftime lead to six points. MT would enter the break leading 38-32.
At the start of the second half, ULL would tie the game up within five minutes, but from that point on the Blue Raiders picked up the intensity and completely took the game over. With seven minutes left in the game, Jason Jones would hit an easy bucket to stretch the Blue Raider lead to 10. From there, MT kept their foot on the gas, going on to win 72-58.
As for the Akron Zips, they will be coming off of a long layoff, having last played on Nov. 18th against Penn State in Puerto Rico. At the beginning of the game, Akron had their hands full as the Nittany Lions led for most of the opening half, taking a four point lead into the locker room, 36-32.
The second half, however, would be a whole different story as the Zips looked like a new team, taking control early and not letting up from there. Within six minutes of the second half, Akron had already erased their deficit and controlled a 10-point lead. They would not stop there as they would go on to outscore Penn State 53-24, leading to a 85-60 win for the Zips in dominating fashion.
Offensively, the Blue Raiders have somewhat found their stroke in the last two games, connecting on 45 percent from the field. The biggest improvement though would have to be the early success in games, which is something that they struggled with at in the beginning of the year. In the last two games, MT has been able to average almost 40 points in the first half. This will have to continue against the Zips, as they are a strong second half team who you do not want to be playing catch-up with.
Defensively, in the last two games the Blue Raiders have been dominate on the boards, totaling 78 rebounds in their last two games, while also winning the rebounding battle in their last three games. All of those games have resulted in wins.
In the last two games, MT's defense has held opposing offenses to just 40 percent shooting from the field. On the season, Middle Tennessee has held opposing offenses to under 60 points scored in all but two games.
Offensively Akron is very stout, averaging right at 80 points per game, ranking them 27th in the nation. It is easy to score points though when you can shoot like the Zips are capable of shooting. In their last two games, Akron has averaged 53 percent shooting from the field, while also hitting 50 percent of their three pointers. The Blue Raiders will have to find a way to cool down their hot hands if they want to win this game.
As for Akron's defense, they are fun to watch at times, but at times they can struggle as well. In the last two games they have given up an average of 62 points per game. They are not the best rebounding team even though they have a pretty big frontcourt. In their last two games they have averaged less than 30 rebounds a game, but they do average 38 per game on the season.
One player to watch on the Zip defense for Middle Tennessee will be Zeke Marshall, who averages 4.4 blocks per game. MT is familiar with Marshall, having played the Zips last season, but the 7-footer is a force to be reckoned with.
The key to this game will be how Akron comes out to play. Will they be a well-rested team that has had two weeks off and running on fresh legs, or will they be a team that has some rust on them after having such a long layoff? Either way, the Blue Raiders will have to watch out for the Zips hot shooting so the game does not get out of hand. It will be an interesting battle to watch how Akron's high scoring offense stacks up against MT's shutdown defense.
F Shawn Jones - Coming off a bad performance due to foul trouble where he scored only three points and snagged four rebounds - how will Jones respond against Akron?. A week removed from winning Sun Belt Player of the Week honors, the Blue Raiders will need that type of performance as Jones' physical style will most likely have him matched up against Zeke Marshall. Jones averages 10.5 points and seven rebounds per game on the season.
C Zeke Marshall - Coming off a dominant performance against Penn State where he produced 17 points, seven rebounds and six blocks, the 7-foot, 235-pound senior averages 11.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. Middle Tennessee might have to depend on shooting from outside, unless they can get the big man in foul trouble early.
This game will be pretty even throughout, but I think it comes down to the team that can shoot the ball the best, and that team is the Akron Zips.
I expect the Zips to come into the game well rested, but eager to get the game started and pick up where they left off - and definitely eager to settle the score with the Blue Raiders after MT routed them in Murfreesboro last year.
MT did a great job of shutting down Marshall last year, but a lot of that was due to LaRon Dendy's physical play in the post. I expect Marshall to have a big game as he looks for some retribution.
Look for Middle Tennessee to struggle getting anything going in the paint due to Akron's size and strength in the frontcourt. Also, the Blue Raiders have played on the road in four of their last five games, which could very well catch up with them Sunday afternoon. It's hard not to give the fresh legs the advantage over the road weary legs.