Tuesday night will mark the end of a tough road trip for the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2-1) as they travel south once more to the Sunshine State of Florida to take on the undefeated University of Central Florida Knights (3-0). The Blue Raiders will be looking hand the Knights their first loss of the season after MT suffered their first loss just one day ago at the hands of Florida. Tipoff is set for 6:00 PM.
MT looked to do what they did last season in their third game of the season, and that was pull off a major upset. Unfortunately for MT, the Gators had other plans. Middle Tennessee would start the game slow just like they have the last two, but their defense was able to slow down Florida to keep the game close in the first half, as the Blue Raiders went into halftime trailing 29-26.
Coming out of halftime Middle Tennessee coaches and fans were hoping to continue the trend of heating up in the second half, but if anything they just got colder on both sides of the ball. Florida would end up using their stellar defense to shut down Blue Raider offense, holding them to just 19 second half points. Middle Tennessee was dominated down the stretch and took their first loss of the season, losing 66-45.
Central Florida also played on Sunday, going up against Savannah State, a team that the Blue Raiders are familiar with after pulling out a close win just last week. This game would look a lot like Middle Tennessee's game. The Knights dominated Savannah State early and were too much for the Tigers, leading 31-18 at half.
Savannah State, however, would not give up as they chased down the Knights after a 26-6 run and actually took the lead with less than five minutes left. From that point on the two teams would trade the lead back and forth in a thriller, but UCF would survive to stay unbeaten after four free throws in the last 13 seconds of the game sealed the 53-50 victory.
In the last two games, the Middle Tennessee offense has lost their mojo as they have only scored an average of 52 points, while only shooting a dismal 37 percent from the field. The offense seems as though it takes a half to find their groove, which is a recipe for disaster as it often forces your team to be make up deficits. A lot of this is due to forcing shots - the team has only averaged 11 assists in their last two games after having 27 in their first game. For a team that is known for having tremendous assists to baskets ratios, this is a disturbing trend.
For as bad as the offense has been, the Blue Raiders have been pretty stellar on defense - only allowing an average of 61 points and 44 percent shooting over the last two games. Defense is a big reason why this team was able to compete against Florida early and edge out a good Savannah State team.
However, MT's physical style of play has landed them in some foul trouble, and they will have to improve as they have committed 24 in each of the last two games. This is a double edged sword - it allows teams to get to the free throw line for easy points while also forcing head coach Kermit Davis to sit players for extended time due to foul trouble. This can also be pointed to as a reason for the offensive struggles - players are being forced to sit which could be directly impacting their offensive performance.
When it comes to Central Florida, their offense has scored an average of 71 points in the last two games while shooting 49 percent from the field - a vast improvement from the 32 percent they shot in their season opener. The team might be a good shooting team, but they have been terrible at the charity stripe, connecting on only 60 percent from the line in their last two games.
While the Blue Raiders are good on defense, the Knights might be even better as they have only gave up an average of 53 points in their last two games while holding teams to an average of 39 percent shooting. A big contributor to their stellar defense is their ability to contest shots, which has led to an average of six blocked shots per game. The Knights also like to control the boards - over the last two games they have grabbed a total of 64 rebounds.
Just like MT's last game, the key to this game will be the Blue Raiders offense going up against a good Central Florida defense. Middle Tennessee has come out flat early in every game this season, forcing their defense to play perfect to keep them in the game. Marcos Knight has stepped up as the go-to-go guy on offense the last couple of games, so utilizing screens and pick-and-pops to get him in a flow early on will be crucial.
It will be interesting to see if the Blue Raiders can find their shooting stroke early to make the defense's life easier on the other end of the court. If Middle Tennessee can find their shooting stroke early in this game, they will have a good chance at getting their third win on the young season. However, if MT suffers another slow start, this one may get away from them before too long.
G Marcos Knight - Coming off a 12 point, five rebound performance against Florida. Has been the Blue Raiders best scoring option in the last two games with an average of 17 points, even though he has been coming off the bench. He is also second on the team in rebounding - averaging almost six boards a game.
G Isaiah Sykes - An exciting player to watch, Sykes put up 14 points, five rebounds, and nabbed two steals against Savannah State. Sykes is the go to player for the Knights. He leads the team in scoring and assists with averages of 21 points and five assists per game. He is also second on the team in rebounds, averaging almost seven a game.
This game is a tossup game between the two teams as both are fairly even, but I have to give the nod to Central Florida. Home court will play to their advantage against the Blue Raiders, and I see that as a big difference maker in this game.
The shooting woes of Middle Tennessee will likely continue against the Knights due to UCF's outstanding defensive prowess, but the output should be better than the Blue Raiders previous outing. Look for Marcos Knight and JT Sulton to pace the way for the Blue Raiders, while others struggle to find a rhythm.
The game will be very physical and could very well come down to who can hit the most free throws at the end of the game - in that case I'd favor the Blue Raiders.