In his four years as a starter for Billy Donovan's Florida Gators, All-SEC guard Kenny Boynton has seen his share of battles.
Nine NCAA tournament games. Six of them decided by 10 points or less. Three of those in overtime.
Yet it was a victory earlier this year over one of those anonymous-sounding mid-majors that left the 6'2" dynamo gasping for air.
"This," Boynton told the press afterward, "is one of the most physical teams I've played against in a long time."
Even in a 66-45 defeat, the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders left an impression.
MTSU went on to finish one of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules, with victories over Vanderbilt, Central Florida (on the road) and Ole Miss. And although AP voters have been slow to embrace the Blue Raiders, multiple computer models place MTSU firmly within the nation's Top 40.
That resume has experts like CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein taking notice:
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Middle Tennessee State has won 11 of 12 and 7 in a row. The Blue Raiders have also beaten Vandy + Ole Miss. Put em in BOLD.1/29/2013, 6:28:45 PM
Amid a swirl of anecdotal and statistical evidence, Kermit Davis Jr.'s team has emerged as one with enticing postseason potential.
Why They're Dangerous
1. The Blue Raiders Get After It on D
Davis may not have contrived a catchy buzzword for his team's strategic preferences, but Middle Tennessee's defense shares a lot in common with the "Havoc" system installed by Shaka Smart at VCU.
The Blue Raiders, like the Rams, are deep and aggressive, with a relentless style of on-ball defending designed to create turnovers. Through the season's first 27 games, MTSU ranked 19th nationally in turnover percentage and 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
And unlike VCU—a team whose lust for turnovers tends to compromise its field-goal defense—the Blue Raiders are equally adept at contesting shots. Through the first 16 games of league play, MTSU led the Sun Belt Conference in effective field-goal-percentage against and defensive efficiency, both by gaping margins.
The key to Davis' defense is numbers, and MTSU's rotation runs 10 men deep. According to KenPom.com, the Blue Raiders rank 15th nationally in percentage of bench minutes used.
That combination of personnel and tactics produced some remarkable numbers during MTSU's non-conference schedule.
Over 11 games, the Blue Raiders allowed just three opponents to shoot better than 45 percent from the field, forced at least 10 turnovers in every single contest and had just two games where a player logged more than 30 minutes.
Davis explained his strategy to ESPN's Jason King:
We're trying to pressure people all over the court. We've got good depth. We play 10 guys double-figure minutes. It allows us to absorb foul trouble and stay fresh. That's probably our biggest strength right now.
By the time the Blue Raiders were set to face rival Western Kentucky on Jan. 26, opponents were well aware of MTSU's defensive hallmarks. Still, there was little the Hilltoppers could do to neutralize the Blue Raiders' aggression.
David Climer of The Tennessean reports:
“They’re 10-1 in this league for a reason,” Western coach Ray Harper said.
And the biggest reason is MTSU’s backcourt. With quick, aggressive guards setting the tempo, the Blue Raiders rattled Western into 18 turnovers and 39 percent shooting.
“For half-court defense, they’re the best we’ve played,” said Harper, whose Hilltoppers have faced such teams as Louisville, VCU and Iowa this season. “Their guards are the strength of their team.”
Havoc it is not, but according to one coach, what the Blue Raiders do is even more vexing.
2. Middle Tennessee's Backcourt Will Make You Sweat
What the Middle Tennessee State backcourt lacks in star power, it more than makes up for in quantity. The Blue Raiders have five guards receiving regular rotation minutes: Marcos Knight, Raymond Cintron, Bruce Massey, Tweety Knight and James Gallman.
Marcos Knight, a junior college transfer now in his second year with the program, is the leader of the bunch. No MTSU player averages more points or minutes.
Knight has been joined this season by brother Tweety, also a JUCO transfer. Marcos' usage and efficiency rates are up from last year, a spike ESPN's Myron Medcalf attributes to the sibling rivalry.
The duo practices with an intensity that's defined the entire Blue Raiders program. The goal, years later, remains the same: Prove that one is better than the other while pursuing their collective goals.
And while Tweety isn't quite his brother's equal as a scorer, the 6'1" junior plays a vital role in MTSU's pressure defense. In comments to CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein, Coach Davis labeled Tweety and senior Bruce Massey as his defensive catalysts.
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Kermit Davis on Tweety Knight + Bruce Massey "I can't think of a better pair defensively to use on an opponent's back court."1/29/2013, 6:27:09 PM
But to focus on one guard over the others obscures this group's greatest strength: its depth. The Blue Raiders play a kinetic brand of basketball made possible by their capacity to distribute minutes and fouls.
Not surprisingly, teams that play two guards exclusively struggle to keep pace.
3. The Blue Raiders Are Experienced, with a History of Beating Good Teams
According to KenPom.com, Middle Tennessee State is the second-most experienced team in college basketball. As ESPN's Miles Simon explains, not all of that time together has been rosy, but at the very least, it's kept this group motivated.
This is a team not many people are going to want to play come tourney time. After dominating the Sun Belt last year with 25 wins, they got upset in the first round of their conference tourney and were left out of the Big Dance. The Blue Raiders returned four starters and eight of their top nine scorers, making for a very hungry group of players that wanted to create some noise in March.
Last year's Blue Raiders ended up in the NIT, where they scored wins over Marshall and Tennessee before suffering a six-point loss to eventual runner-up Minnesota.
Tournament success included, this particular group of MTSU players has built an impressive resume against schools from the Power Six.
Here's a closer look at how the Blue Raiders have fared against high-major competition over the past two seasons.
That's a .625 winning percentage against Power Six teams over the last two seasons. And even that seemingly lopsided loss against Florida was a three-point game at halftime.
Perhaps more than anything in this team's profile, it's MTSU's track record against quality opponents that augurs best for postseason play.
Oftentimes, we wonder whether a mid-major's statistical dominance will translate against tournament-level competition. With the Blue Raiders, there are no such hang-ups.
Teams Middle Tennessee State Could Beat in the NCAA Tournament
If Middle Tennessee State ends up with a No. 12 seed, it could draw a high-major bubble team in the first round. The Terps have been a mess in the backcourt all season, making them one of Division I's most turnover-prone teams. The Blue Raiders are well-designed to exploit that weakness.
If MTSU can avoid the pseudo play-in game, it could see a team like Oregon in the second round. The Ducks have been thin at point guard since losing freshman Dominic Artis to a foot injury. If Artis doesn't make a full recovery, Oregon could fall victim to MTSU's attacking style.
Note: All statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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