Middle Tennessee (26-6) at Tennessee (19-14)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, March 19, 7:00 p.m. (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) -- Knoxville, Tennessee. Television: ESPN. NIT Record: Middle Tennessee 3-2 Tennessee 13-11. Series Record: Tennessee leads, 9-1.
GAME NOTES: The top-seeded Tennessee Volunteers take on the fourth-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in an in-state skirmish in the second round of the 2012 National Invitation Tournament, tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
Tennessee played well to end the regular season, winning eight of its last nine games. However, a first-round exit in the Southeastern Conference Tournament derailed any hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Still, the Volunteers earned one of two top seeds in the NIT this year, and in the first round defended that seeding with a 65-51 win over eighth-seeded Savannah State.
Middle Tennessee appeared to be the odds-on-favorite to represent the Sunbelt Conference in the NCAA Tournament, and finished the season as the league's regular-season champs with a 14-2 mark. The Blue Raiders were then stunned in the conference tournament quarterfinals by Arkansas State, and while that was certainly disappointing, the season has still been largely a successful one for MT ,which after a first-round victory over Marshall in this event, is now 26-6 overall.
This game marks the 11th time these two squads from the Volunteer State have met in men's basketball, and Tennessee has dominated the first 10 matchups (9-1).
Middle Tennessee was efficient on offense in the first-round win over Marshall, converting 52.5 percent of its field goal attempts. The team's offense was aided by impressive ball movement, as the Blue Raiders racked up 23 assists in the game while turning it over just nine times.
Effective scoring built on ball movement is exactly how Middle Tennessee has played this season. The Blue Raiders finished the season ranked at the top of the Sun Belt in scoring (72.4 ppg), assists (15.7 pg) and field goal percentage (.497), with the latter also ranking fourth in Division I overall. The Blue Raiders' top scorer is LaRon Dendy (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) who ranked third in the Sunbelt in scoring and fourth in rebounding this season. Dendy put together a stellar performance in the first round by scoring 18 points and bringing in 13 rebounds to pace the Blue Raiders. Marcos Knight (11.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) is the team's second option, but had a more subdued game against Marshall in netting only eight points. Bruce Massey (5.6 ppg, 4.0 apg) is MT's assist leader and after handing out seven helpers in the first round, has now had at least six assists in five of his last seven games. J.T Sulton (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is also a reliable scorer in the paint.
Tennessee wasn't overwhelming offensively in it's first-round win over Savannah State, as both teams had 21 field goals in the contest with each shooting below 45 percent from the field for the game. The Volunteers' advantage came from their ability to get to the free-throw line where they outscored Savannah State, 19-6.
In comparison to the rest of the SEC, Tennessee was an average offensive team this year, averaging 68.9 ppg and shooting 44.0 percent from the floor. The team's defensive effort wasn't much better, yielding 65.0 ppg for a +3.9 scoring differential. Trae Golden (13.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) has done a good job all season running the point, and while the sophomore led the team in scoring, he also made sure to get his teammates involved by finishing fourth in the SEC in assists. Golden managed to reach double figures in the first round by scoring 11 points but didn't pass well handing out only one assist. Junior forward Jeronne Maymon (12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), the teams second leading scorer, was absent in the first round due to a lingering knee injury and it is uncertain if he will play in this matchup. Freshman forward Jarnell Stokes (9.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg) stepped in for Maymon and showed some flashes of what could be a bright future by leading the team with 13 points, while bringing in five rebounds and blocking three shots.
If Maymon can't go Tennessee will need another strong performance out of Stokes, especially with Dendy showing no signs of slowing on the other side. Middle Tennessee was one of the better mid-major programs this season and with the Volunteers possibly losing one of their better players, the Blue Raiders might be able to knock off UT for only the second time in history.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Middle Tennessee 73, Tennessee 70
03/19 10:36:53 ET