Blue Raiders surging at 20-2 in best start ever
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are enjoying the results of their chemistry experiment.
Coach Kermit Davis had built a roster featuring four transfers from other Division I programs and three junior college players to a group returning three starters from a .500 team.
LaRon Dendy sat out last season as a transfer from Iowa State and says they swapped phone numbers followed by lots of texts. By the time the Blue Raiders hit campus, nobody felt like a stranger as they started playing pick-up games.
''Everybody wanting to win. That's where it all started off at,'' Dendy said.
And the Blue Raiders have been winning.
They are off to the best start in Middle Tennessee history at 20-2, winning 12 straight going into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt. It's their first 20-win season since 1990-91, and their 71-58 win over Troy on Thursday night for a 9-0 start in the Sun Belt Conference that is their best since 1974-75.
A mid-August trip to Calgary, Alberta in Canada for four games also helped speed up the new teammates figuring each other out on the court.
Junior guard JT Sulton, who has started 33 straight games, points to the Canada trip helping the Blue Raiders learn what each could and couldn't do. He said the players simply took ownership of the team then with NCAA rules limiting how much time coaches could be with them.
''We had to take it upon ourselves to become a better team,'' Sulton said.
Now only No. 11 Murray State (20-0), No. 3 Syracuse (21-1), No. 2 Kentucky (20-1) have better records this season than Middle Tennessee.
''It's a lot of fun,'' said Davis, who became the winningest coach in Middle Tennessee history earlier this season, passing Jimmy Earle, and now has 173 wins. ''Our guys are a fun group to coach. They've got a great personality. They just work really hard, and it's a team that you can have a lot of fun with off the court. But on the court, they really play and have great effort, so it's been a fun time so far.''
Middle Tennessee gave a strong hint of what this team might be capable of with a win at Loyola Marymount, then the Blue Raiders stunned UCLA in an 86-66 rout hitting 10 of 11 3-pointers and set a school record shooting 71.4 percent. The Blue Raiders also won at Mississippi 68-56 in December and avenged their first loss in double overtime to Belmont with a 65-62 home win in December.
Of their 20 wins, 16 have come by double figures including eight straight, which helped Middle Tennessee received votes for the first time Monday in The Associated Press' rankings.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Belmont coach Rick Byrd warned him Davis had a team that wasn't just good by Middle Tennessee's standards or the Sun Belt Conference.
''He said they're really good, and they've certainly proven him to be 100 percent correct,'' Stallings said.
Davis has a team filled with size with seven Blue Raiders taller than 6-foot 4 with 6-9 Dendy averaging a team-best 13.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. They share the ball well with 10 players scoring in double figures at least one game this season, and Middle Tennessee ranked eighth nationally through Monday, holding opponents to 37.5 percent shooting.
Sulton said this group loves playing defense first since everyone can have off nights offensively.
''But you can always defend, so we try to preach that a lot and practice and stay on it,'' Sulton said. ''Our goal is to keep our opponents under 30 percent, so ... we try to stick to that goal. We let our offense come to us.''
Words every coach loves to hear, and the timing is great for Davis, who had his critics after going 16-16 in his ninth season. Middle Tennessee has a proud basketball history with NCAA tournament wins over Kentucky in 1982 and Florida State in 1989. But the Blue Raiders haven't been in the tournament since then, and patience had been waning.
Davis focuses on coaching his team. He grew up in the coaching business and remembers people hollering at his dad, Kermit Davis Sr., from the stands.
A win Saturday could clinch an at-large NCAA tournament berth for Middle Tennessee in case the Blue Raiders don't win the Sun Belt tournament and automatic berth.
That is something Davis wants to keep control of himself.
''In my mindset, we have to win the conference tournament. I think that's always got to be your mindset at our level. If the season ended today, would we be considered for an at-large? No question about it. Whether we get in, it's up to those people, but we're right in that mix. But at our level, you have to go in thinking you're trying like heck to win your regular season championship and understand more than likely you're going to have to win three games in March,'' Davis said.
''And if you don't have to, great. But that's our mindset right now.''
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker