Vanderbilt v Middle Tennessee

Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview

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Middle Tennessee State is far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference.

Let’s start with the obvious: they went 19-1 in league play. Their only loss came to Arkansas State on the road in overtime. Arkansas State won the Sun Belt’s Western Division with a 12-8 record. South Alabama, who finished second to MTSU in the Eastern Division, had a 14-6 record.

The Blue Raiders, in other words, won their league — which was a true, double round-robin, meaning they played every team in the league at home and on the road — by a full five games. That’s incredible. But there are two problems here:

A) It may not be enough to get the Blue Raiders an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as their impressive RPI is overshadowed by the fact that their only top 100 win came against Ole miss.

B) They now have to extend that dominance for three more games in order to earn the automatic bid for the conference.

As much as we all love upsets and excitement during Championship Week, you really should be rooting for the Blue Raiders to get that automatic bid. They are good enough to make a run in the Big Dance.

(CLICK HERE to browse through all of our conference tournament previews)


Where: Hot Springs, Arkansas

When: March 8-11

Final: March 11th, 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Favorite: Middle Tennessee State

To expand on what we wrote above, the Blue Raiders are a deep, balanced and veteran group that has experienced both regular season dominance and postseason disappointment. After running through the Sun Belt last season, they dropped a couple games down the stretch and lost in the conference tournament, winding up in the NIT. To get an idea of what this team is all about, think about this stat: MTSU dominated the league as thoroughly as a league can be dominated, yet they had just one player — Marcos Knight — get named to one of the two all-conference teams. Knight averaged 12.6 points and 5.4 boards. Six other players in the ten man rotation average between 6.3 points and 8.6 points.

And if they lose?: South Alabama has the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year on their roster and nearly took MTSU out at home back in January. But the Jaguars also lost by 35 to the Blue Raiders on the road. Arkansas State is the one team that has beaten the Blue Raiders this year, and Kenpom has then as the second-most likely team to win the tournament.

Sleepers: North Texas has been beat-up all season and as disappointing as any team in the country, but they may actually be the most talented team in the Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic lost eight out of ten at one point this season, but they have a dynamic back court that can put up points in a hurry when they get hot.


– Tony Mitchell, North Texas: He’s a lottery pick, even if he hasn’t played like one since last March.

– Augustine Rubit, South Alabama: Rubit averaged 18.9 points and 10.0 boards this season and notched 16 double-doubles.

– TJ Price, Western Kentucky: Price is a big-time scorer that dealt with some injuries during the season but seemed to hit his stride down the stretch.

CBT Prediction: Middle Tennessee State will roll. They’re not going to want a repeat of last year’s disappointment.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.