Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Last year the MTSU Blue Raiders appeared to finally break through with a 27 win season. Can they sustain that success after losing their best player, or will the creeping tide that is North Texas and South Alabama finally catch them?

After regularly being a good-but-never-great squad in their first nine years under Kermit Davis' leadership, the Blue Raiders were strong last season.

They earned Davis his second Coach of the Year honor in the Sun Belt Conference with a 27-win season that petered out at the end, with MTSU dropping their regular season finale to eventual conference tournament champion Western Kentucky, and then losing to Arkansas State in the conference tournament - though they did come back to upset Tennessee in the NIT.

The Blue Raiders lost their best player, LaRon Dendy to graduation, and he was both their best and one of the best in the whole conference. Does MTSU have what it takes to repeat that performance and wind up back in the Mid-Major Top 20 this season, or are they due for a fall? Let's take a closer look.

I was curious how Middle Tennessee stacked up within their conference last season, so I started with some very basic information - what was their overall record, their conference record, and their road record?

Overall Record Conference Record Road Record
MTSU MTSU MTSU
Denver Arkansas Little Rock Denver
South Alabama Denver South Alabama
North Texas Louisiana Lafayette North Texas
Louisiana Lafayette North Texas Louisiana Lafayette

The Blue Raiders come out on top, and after we ignore Denver since they went and left the conference this off-season, on the very surface it would appear that at the very end of last season, with very basic info, the four best teams in the conference were MTSU, South Alabama, North Texas, and Louisiana - Lafayette (the latter three being a big step behind the former. According to KenPom, South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette actually rated lower than Arkansas-Little Rock - perhaps too low for this conversation?)

Let's do some more digging - record is nice, but what about the players themselves? I know HOOPWAR has its flaws and so forth, but it's Ben's stat, and if I'm writing with him I'm damn sure going to use it as the valid tool I think it is. What does that say? I ranked each team's starting units by HW30 (adjusted HOOPWAR) and here is what I found:

MTSU UNT USA LLU UALR
LaRon Dendy (6.14) Tony Mitchell (9.46) Augustine Rubit (7.03) Josh Brown (2.36) D'Andre Williams (2.63)
Marcos Knight (3.27) Chris Jones (5.01) Antoine Lundy (3.58) Kadeem Coleby (1.30 ) Will Neighbour (2.13)
Bruce Massey (1.32) Jordan Williams (1.57) Javier Carter (2.43) Darshawn McClellan (0.55) Chuck Guy (1.09)
JT Sulton (0.91) Roger Franklin (0.98) Mychal Ammons (2.32) Elfrid Payton (0.37) Michael Javes (-0.15)
Kerry Hammond (0.51) Alzee Williams (-0.44) Freddie Goldstein (-0.63) Bryant Mbamalu (-2.05) Courtney Jackson (-1.13)
Ray Cintron (-1.30) Brandan Walton (-1.0) Trey Anderson (-3.60) Raymone Andrews (-2.58) Taggart Lockhart (-1.58)

Yes, all those strike-throughs are guys that, like DU, won't be returning to the Sun Belt this season. So what does this tell me? Well, it tells me that the Raiders will miss LaRon Dendy, that's for certain. It also tells me that there could be as many as three to four players in the conference better than MTSU's best player, Marcos Knight.

It is certainly possible that the returning rotation (all seniors save for Hammond) could take one last step forward and be a very formidable squad - they are also one of the deepest and most experienced teams in the conference. Dendy is one of four players to leave the squad from last season, but the second most important of those four players was #8 in the eight-man rotation last season.

Bottom line: The Blue Raiders will not drop off a cliff. Between their coaching, their depth, and their experience I'd consider them a virtual lock to at least toy with, if not surpass, 20 wins. Unfortunately, with the arrival of Tony Mitchell and the continued presence of Augustine Rubit, there is a much more intense battle at the top and it is unclear to me whether MTSU has the chops to hold off both the Jaguars and the Mean Green for the top of the pile and a space in our Top 20.

Is a handful of good but not great players who know each other and the system more successful than a top-notch talent and a good-but not great supporting cast? This season shall let us know.

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