It is finally time for some Blue Raider basketball as Middle Tennessee tips off their season Sunday against the Southern University Jaguars (0-1) in the Global Sports Tournament. The Blue Raiders are looking to build of their impressive 2012-13 campaign where they finished (28-6, 19-1), while punching their first ticket to the Big Dance in 23 years. MT will have a tougher road back to the tournament this season, however, as they introduce a refreshed roster that will be competing in a better league.
The Jaguars enter the Glass House already having a mark in the loss column, but it only came after they gave No. 17 ranked Marquette all they could handle Friday night, falling 63-56. Malcolm Miller led the way for the Jaguars with 14 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals.
This will be the seventh meeting between these two programs. MT holds the series advantage by a 5-1 margin, and the Blue Raiders are 3-0 against Southern inside Murphy Center, although this will be the first meeting between the two for head coach Kermit Davis.
Tip-off is set for 4:00 p.m. CT.
G Jaqawn Raymond
Raymond enters his first season at Middle Tennessee. A redshirt sophomore, Raymond sat out last season while satisfying NCAA transfer rules. The lengthy guard transferred from NC State after his freshman year, where he did not get much playing time. In high school, Raymond was a dynamic player and averaged 20 points per game for Statesboro (GA).
Raymond was off in his debut for the Blue Raiders in an exhibition game against Truman State, shooting just 1-of-8 from the field and 1-of-4 from the three-point line. Raymond finished the game with just three points, but was able to pull down seven rebounds. Despite the slow start, do not be surprised to see some big numbers out of Raymond this season as he will get plenty of looks.
Guard Kerry Hammonds has been nursing an injury, and if he is held back, Raymond will get the starts in his place.
G Tweety Knight
In his first season at Middle Tennessee, Knight averaged 4.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game, and while his numbers were not jaw dropping, he is the type of player that runs the offense on the floor and can provide a spark on offense when needed.
Knight is the floor general and the do-all guy for the Blue Raiders. He will not put up the big numbers, but he can do anything you need him to do and that is why he is valuable to this team.
Now entering his second season with MT, look for Knight's numbers to say about the same, but the offense will continue to begin and end with him.
F Reggie Upshaw
The Blue Raiders biggest grab in the 2013 recruiting class, Reggie Upshaw will look to make his name known early and often at Middle Tennessee. The 6-foot-7 true freshman played his high school ball at Baylor High in Chattanooga where he averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks per game as a senior, earning All-State and All-City accolades in the process while also being named the runner-up for Mr. Basketball. As a junior, Upshaw averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game.
Do not expect those types of numbers out of Upshaw early in the season, but the early reviews of him have been glowing, and given some time later in the season, the Blue Raiders could have a potential double-double machine. Against Truman State, Upshaw was 2-of-3 from the field and 1-of-1 from behind the arc, finishing the game with five points and two rebounds in just 15 minutes of action.
F Shawn Jones
Entering his senior season at MT the 6-foot-8 big man was named to the Conference USA Preseason Watch List, and for good reason. Jones can average double figures in points and can be a monster on the glass. Jones started last season off hot by posting back-to-back double-doubles, but cooled off down the stretch to finish the season averaging 8.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
In each year as a Blue Raider, Jones as increased his points and rebounds per game averages, but has not been as consistent as some would like to see, and has dealt with his fair share of injuries along the way as well.
If Jones can continue that trend of year-over-year improvements and stay healthy, he could be looking at an impressive season where he averages close to a double-double for the campaign.
F Neiko Hunter
Now with a year under his belt at MT, Neiko Hunter enters his second season in great shape and looks poised to potentially be the Blue Raiders top scoring option this season. In his first season, Hunter averaged 7.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field. He saw action in all 34 games that MT played.
Hunter's points per game average ranked fourth on the team and second among the returning players this year, trailing only Shawn Jones.
If the exhibition game against Truman State told us anything, then Hunter could be in for a huge year after posting 15 points and 15 rebounds in that game. Hunter came in to the season receiving rave reviews for his work ethic in the gym during the offseason. We shall see how it all translates on the court this season, but early indications tell us that Hunter is the guy to watch this year.
I look for this to be a very competitive game as Southern University is a team not to be taken lightly, especially after giving Marquette all they could handle. Southern was also picked second in their league, and arguable could have been picked first.
That said, Middle Tennessee does have something on their side that is hard to beat - home court advantage. The Blue Raiders have the nation's second longest regular season home winning streak, which stands at 28 straight games inside the Glass House with a win.
I expect that streak to continue on Sunday, but it will not come easy against a very game opponent.
Prediction: MT 75, SU 67