MTSU relies on experience, not record in pursuit of NCAA berth

Friday, March 8, 2013 at 2:34pm

Kermit Davis believes Middle Tennessee State has constructed a foolproof NCAA Tournament résumé.

The Blue Raiders are 27-4 and Sun Belt Conference champions for the second straight year with a 19-1 record. They have an RPI of 26, a non-conference strength of schedule ranking of ninth and currently the second-longest winning streak in the country at 16 games. Only No. 1 Gonzaga has more wins (29).

MTSU’s only three non-conference losses were to Akron, Belmont and Florida — all conference champions. And its lone Sun Belt loss was on the road in overtime to Arkansas State.

Yet, Davis, in his 11th year at MTSU, doesn’t want to leave the Blue Raiders’ fate up to the NCAA Tournament committee again. Therefore, the Blue Raiders are determined to secure an automatic bid by winning the Sun Belt Tournament championship, which begins on Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark.

“The message to our team is control your own destiny. Don’t let the selection committee control that,” Davis said. “The only thing we want them to control is seeding. I think our team has played with a little chip on their shoulder because of the tournament game last year.”

The Blue Raiders had a similar résumé last year and headed into the league tournament as the No. 1 seed with a 25-5 record. Then they lost a stunner to Arkansas State in the opening round. With an RPI of 56, they were left out of the Big Dance and instead headed to the NIT.

MTSU advanced to the quarterfinals of NIT — getting a rare win over Tennessee along the way — and finished with a school-record win 27 wins. Still, the disappointment of missing out on the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 1989 lingered.

“Last year, most of us were one-year players similar to freshmen. We really didn’t know what it took to win a conference tournament,” senior guard and junior college transfer Bruce Massey said. “We thought we did enough to get to the NCAA tournament, and we found out the hard way we didn’t. We don’t want the same thing to happen this year. We know if we can win the next three games, we should have a good seed in the NCAA tournament.”

Despite losing last year’s Sun Belt player of the year, LaRon Dendy, the Blue Raiders brought back a wealth of experience. They’ve returned 11 players, including four starters, and have six seniors. Three are junior college transfers and all-conference selections — Massey, Marcos Knight and Raymond Cintron — who grew in their first year at the Division I level.

“We are a much better team this year because these guys are older,” Davis said. “We lost two good players, but we have a lot of experience on our team that has improved.”

With a deep bench — 10 players average at least 10 minutes — MTSU has been a model of consistency.

The Blue Raiders lead the Sun Belt in 12 statistical categories, including scoring offense and scoring defense. With the stingy backcourt of Massey, Knight and Cintron leading the way, opponents average just 57.4 points and shoot just 29 percent from 3-point range.

“We’re not going to lose our toughness and identity going into the Sun Belt Tournament,” Massey, the league’s defensive player of the year, said. “Playing defense and rebounding is what has got us here so far so you don’t want to lose that going into the Sun Belt Tournament.”

This will be the Blue Raiders’ last chance to win the Sun Belt Tournament title. MTSU will join Conference USA next season after 13 seasons in the Sun Belt.

Davis is the all-time winningest coach in league history. But a conference tournament championship is the only thing missing from his MTSU tenure. Well, that and an NCAA Tournament berth.

“These guys have done a lot of firsts,” Davis said. “They’ve probably broken every record in the history of the school. But there’s still one thing they haven’t done, and that’s win a Sun Belt Conference tournament championship. We have to be focused on our team and winning. That’s the complete mindset.”