Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis doesn’t need any convincing. To him, Vanderbilt is an elite team, perhaps Final Four bound.
“That team last night for 20 minutes was the best team in college basketball,” Davis said on Wednesday, one day after Vanderbilt thumped rivaled Tennessee 65-47.
“Nobody can beat them like that,” Davis continued. “Nobody — Duke, [North] Carolina, Kentucky. ... That team is good. They can go to the Final Four.”
Therefore, Davis is well aware what a win over Vanderbilt (15-5) on the road at historic Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday (1 p.m.) would mean for his Blue Raiders.
“That would be unbelievable. Yeah, unbelievable,” Davis said. “Do our guys think we’re going to win when we go over there? Sure. Our guys play with a lot of confidence. We’ve been a good road team. But the Vanderbilt game, whether we win or lose, is not going to define our season.”
A win certainly wouldn’t hurt an already impressive résumé.
Prior to Thursday night’s game against Troy, the Blue Raiders were riding an 11-game winning streak and a 19-2 record — the best start in program history. They also were undefeated in Sun Belt play, with an 8-0 mark, poised to win their first league championship in two years. More importantly, they seem to have the makeup to end a long drought and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989.
Along with an unblemished conference record, MTSU has a road win at UCLA, a neutral-site victory over Ole Miss and home wins against Belmont and Akron. Besides UCLA, which was ranked in the preseason top 15, the other three teams rank in the RPI top 100.
“[Belmont coach] Rick Byrd told me earlier in the year after he played them the first time, ‘I’m telling you, they’re not really good for Middle or really good for their league, they are really good,’ ” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team has won nine of 10. “They’ve certainly proven him to be 100 percent correct.”
With seven newcomers, including two Division I transfers and three junior college transfers, the Blue Raiders have come together to play staunch defense. Out of a man-to-man base, they allow just 59.2 points and keep opponents to 37.5 percent shooting, eighth-best in the nation.
“It starts with defense,” junior guard Bruce Massey, who has a team-high 36 steals, said. “We’ve been talking about defense since the Canada trip [in August], pressuring the ball, denying first-side ... it started with defense, this long winning streak we have been on so far.”
Davis sees the 6-foot-3 Massey as the team’s best on-the-ball defender, so he’ll matchup against Vanderbilt point guard Brad Tinsley. But he might rotate over to help on sharpshooting John Jenkins, who leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring (19.6 ppg) and 3-pointers (74).
Jeffery Taylor also concerns Davis, perhaps more than Jenkins. Davis will put 6-foot-2 Marcos Knight on the 6-foot-7 Taylor, at least at the start. Taylor creates problems with his athleticism, as he displayed once again on Tuesday. He scored 23 points against Tennessee, beating them off the dribble and draining all three of his 3-pointers.
“Right now, Jeffery Taylor might be the best player in college basketball,” Davis said. “Who is playing better right now? He is averaging 17 [points] a game. He is shooting like 64 percent from 3 and at his position he is the most athletic guy in college basketball. There maybe is not a better player in the country right now. At this particular time, the last three weeks, I don’t know who is having a better year than him at that spot.
“Every tape you turn on, he just makes shots.”
MTSU couldn’t miss early on, leading the country at one point in field-goal percentage. The Blue Raiders currently rank 14th as they’ve made 49.1 percent of their shots.
Three players average double figures: 6-foot-9 LaRon Dendy (13.2 ppg), Knight (12.1 ppg) and 6-8 JT Sulton (11.5). The Blue Raiders have a deep bench, with 10 players averaging 12 minutes.
“All of their guys are capable of scoring and all of them seem to pass the ball pretty well,” Stallings said. “Because they share it so well together it makes them much more difficult to guard. ... As I look at their roster, all of the guys that played against us last year are their subs. Those guys are coming off the bench this year. And we thought that was a good team last year, too.”
Last year’s Blue Raiders couldn’t do what this squad hopes to — beat Vanderbilt.
MTSU has lost four straight to the Commodores, last picking up a win in 1995. Vanderbilt leads the overall series 28-4 and has never lost to the Blue Raiders in Memorial Gymnasium.
“When Saturday comes, we’re going to be real excited,” Dendy said. “I’m pretty sure everybody is going to be pumped to play. For us, the fans, our program it would be a big-time win.”