Seasoned MTSU ready to experience an NCAA tournament game

Monday, March 18, 2013 at 11:24pm
Staff reports

No one can say Middle Tennessee State lacks experience.

The current roster includes six seniors and seven juniors. No one among them, though, ever has played in an NCAA tournament game.

That will change Tuesday when the Blue Raiders face St. Mary’s in a ‘First Four’ matchup at Dayton, Ohio (8:10 p.m., TruTV) to determine which team will be the No. 11 seed that faces Memphis in a second-round game two days later.

In fact, the closest thing they have to NCAA experience is junior guard Kerry Hammonds Jr. His father, Kerry Hammonds Sr., was a member of MTSU’s last tournament team back in 1989.

“Having a lot of experience is also great for us,” senior guard Marcos Knight said. “A lot of our guys play a lot of minutes.  We've been with each other a lot, and we know each other like the back of our hands.  We've been through a lot with each other.  We've been through the good and bad with each other.

“That's something we hang our hats on – sticking together with each other. But having a lot of experience is great also.”

St. Mary’s, for its part, has five seniors and five juniors. The big difference is that it is in the 68-team NCAA field for the second straight year and the third time in four seasons.

The Gaels went 27-6 overall this season and their last three losses were to conference rivals and one of the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds, Gonzaga.

“I think there's a value just to have been in the NCAA Tournament,” coach Randy Bennett said. “There's some things that happen in the NCAA Tournament that are a little different than a regular season game.  Whether it's the media press conferences, whether it's the 40 minutes on the main court, whether it's the pressure of – or the excitement of being in the NCAA Tournament, all those things are – just like anything else, I think experience is valuable.”

No MTSU team ever has experienced as much success as this one, which won a program-record 28 games, more than all but five Division I teams this season. It won 21 of its last 23 games, including 17 straight at one point, and was one of three teams in the country that was undefeated at home (16-0).

A year ago the Blue Raiders won 27 games, including two in the National Invitation Tournament. The last was a victory over the University of Tennessee.

History suggests there is value in that experience.

Back in 1987-88, the season before their last NCAA appearance, they went 23-11, which included two NIT wins, one of which was over Tennessee.

“Last year, when we got left out of the NCAA tournament, we beat a really good Marshall team at home [in the NIT]," coach Kermit Davis said. "We won an out game at Tennessee, a rival game, and played really well and won at Tennessee. The Minnesota game at our place was as good a college game as I've been in in 30 years of coaching, and we got beat kind of right at the end.  So I think that's great experience.

“We'll find out [Tuesday] night.”