MTSU to host NCAA-caliber opponent in NIT opener

Monday, March 12, 2012 at 9:35pm

Kermit Davis switched on the TV and began to watch basketball game after basketball game of Marshall.

As the Middle Tennessee State coach sat there in the wee hours of Monday morning, he quickly came to a realization.

“There is no doubt they can go win games in the NCAA Tournament,” Davis said.

By the end of Tuesday night, Davis expects his beliefs to be reaffirmed. He just hopes that doesn’t means MTSU’s season has ended.

The Blue Raiders, who also had hoped for an NCAA Tournament berth of their own, open the NIT as a No. 4 seed and host No. 5 seed Marshall on Tuesday (8:15 p.m., ESPN3.com) at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro. Both teams are playing in the NIT for the first time since 1988.

Marshall (21-13) has the highest RPI (43) of any team in the NIT. MTSU, at 56, is fifth among the 32-team field.

The Thundering Herd tied for fifth in the Conference USA but reached the conference tournament championship game before losing to Memphis. They have a road win against Cincinnati on their resume, along with a six-point loss at Syracuse, which is one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They also split a home-and-home series against Belmont.

They are led by 6-foot-4 guard DeAndre Kane, who averages 16.6 points and scored 40 in a triple-overtime win against Tulsa in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament.

“They are probably the second-most talented team we’ve played all year, maybe behind Vanderbilt,” Davis said. “They are just athletic and had some great wins during the season. We’re going to have to be at our very best [Tuesday] night.”

Led by Sun Belt Conference player of the year LaRon Dendy, the Blue Raiders (25-6) set a school record for single-season wins and captured the conference’s regular-season championship. But an early-round exit in the league tournament and consecutive losses to sub-200 RPI teams Western Kentucky and Arkansas State cost them their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1989.

“We watched the [NCAA Tournament] selection show [on Sunday] together but we prepared that it was going to have to be a real, real fortunate break for us to get in,” Davis said. “We prepared them for the NIT. I think our guys are looking forward to it. I think they are just anxious about getting back on the floor and looking forward to getting back on their home floor.”

The Blue Raiders won 14 of 15 games at Hale Arena this season. Their only loss came on Nov. 20 against Belmont, which split a home-and-home tilt against Marshall.

If MTSU can win its first-round game an in-state foe most likely waits in the second round.

Tennessee (18-14) is the No. 1 seed in its quadrant of the 32-team bracket and hosts eighth-seeded Savannah State on Tuesday.

“We haven’t given it one ounce of thought — I promise you,” Davis said. “I don’t even know who else is in our bracket. I watched this tape on Marshall starting late [Sunday] night. Trust me, you watch them on tape, they’ll get your undivided attention real quick.”

• TSU opens CIT on Tuesday: Tennessee State begins the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) on the road at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mercer.

It is the Tigers’ first postseason appearance since reaching the NCAA Tournament in 1994. TSU (20-12) finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference and just missed reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers lost 54-52 to Murray State in the OVC championship game.

Third-year coach John Cooper is a finalist for three national coach of the year awards. He has garnered recognition for the Jim Phelan Award, which is presented by CollegeInsider.com. He also is in the running for the Hugh Durham Award, which goes to the nation’s top mid-major coach, and the Ben Jobe Award, which is handed to the country’s top minority coach.

Mercer (22-11) finished second in the Atlantic Sun Conference to Belmont. This is the first meeting between the schools.

Future rounds and opponents for the 24-team field are determined after the first round concludes.