Commentary

MMR: Middle Tennessee's formula

Originally Published: January 17, 2012
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Middle Tennessee State (17-2) is off to the program's best start in a quarter-century. The Blue Raiders' 6-0 record in Sun Belt play is their best opening mark in 19 years. They've won nine straight.

Players say their cohesiveness on the floor is tied to their off-court chemistry.

But the latter took a hit recently when players watched the "The Devil Inside," a horror film currently playing in theaters.

[+] EnlargeLaRon Dendy
Jim Brown/US PresswireLaRon Dendy is one of four new starters this season for Middle Tennessee State.
LaRon Dendy (13.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg), a transfer from Iowa State, and Marcos Knight (12.4 ppg, 2.8 apg), a junior college transfer, refused to name names, but they've clearly lost faith in their post players as a result of that outing.

"The majority of the big men [were] jumping and covering their eyes and stuff as the movie is going on," Dendy told ESPN.com. "I'm like, 'C'mon, man, you're too big for that.'"

Knight confirmed Dendy's account.

"It was pretty funny," he said.

The Blue Raiders can crack jokes because they're so close. And that's one of the most surprising elements of MTSU's success this season.

The Blue Raiders' 12.0 turnovers per game in conference play top the Sun Belt. They're holding teams to 36.3 percent from the field.

They have the No. 72 RPI and they're ranked 43rd by Kenpom.com. Plus, they have wins over UCLA, Ole Miss, Belmont and Akron.

But four of the team's starters didn't compete for the squad last season, including Dendy and Knight. Seven players on the roster transferred from other schools.

The merging of returning players and new faces can divide teams. But Middle Tennessee's players quashed that possibility.

"Before we even got here, some kind of way, we added each other on Facebook. We got each other's phone numbers over the summer. We began to text each other," Knight said. "We asked each other what was our strength and weaknesses on the basketball court. … We just bonded before we even got here to the school."

They built on that early connection during a preseason trip to Calgary, Alberta, to play four exhibition games. The squad also practiced 18 times during the trip.

Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said he watched his squad evolve during that trip.

"We weren't a great team leaving Calgary. We knew we had the potential to be a really good team. You could just tell, just the depth and some of the new players, they had flashes of really good play," he said. "Our team got better toward the end of the trip. One thing we really enjoyed was, during these 18 practices, we just didn't have to coach effort very much at all."

The basketball was great, Knight said. But he also enjoyed the camaraderie during their downtime.

One day, the coaching staff took the team to a fancy restaurant that overlooked the city. There, Knight said, the new guys and the returning guys found common ground.

"Everybody enjoyed it, everybody was talking and laughing with each other," he said.

Most likely, the laughter came at someone else's expense. But with this team, that's expected.

Five individual performances you might have missed

Taylor Brown (Bradley): The senior forward scored 28 points and had 12 rebounds in Bradley's 82-74 loss at Drake on Tuesday. He recorded 23 points and eight boards (10-for-11 from the free throw line) in his team's 78-67 victory against Northern Iowa.

[+] EnlargeKeith Wright
Debby Wong/US PresswireKeith Wright has been a force on offense and defense for Harvard.

Keith Wright (Harvard): The senior forward finished with a monstrous game in his team's 70-61 win at Monmouth on Tuesday. He recorded 18 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. He's averaging 1.8 blocks per game for Harvard.

James Fields (Georgia State): The senior guard finished with 21 points, four assists and seven steals in Georgia State's 75-61 victory over UNC Wilmington on Thursday. He was 9-for-13 from the field.

Scott Machado (Iona): In his team's first MAAC loss (75-72 against Manhattan on Thursday at home), Machado finished with eight points and a ridiculous 16 assists. He's leading the nation with 10.3 assists per game.

Alec Brown (UW-Green Bay): The 7-foot-1 sophomore contributed 11 blocks, nine points and eight rebounds in his team's 57-56 victory over Wright State on Saturday in Horizon League action. He's ninth in the country with 3.24 swats per game.

Five recent scores you might have missed

Saint Mary's 83, Gonzaga 62: The Bulldogs tumbled out of the national polls after this loss Thursday. Saint Mary's was 30-for-59 from the field and only recorded five turnovers. Matthew Dellavedova's 26 points led all scorers. The Bulldogs didn't help themselves with their 11-for-18 mark from the free throw line.

Drexel 60, George Mason 53: Damion Lee led the Dragons with 21 points in this CAA matchup Thursday. Drexel handed George Mason its first conference loss with a 10-2 run in the closing minutes. Mike Morrison (10 points) was the only George Mason player who reached double figures.

Oral Roberts 71, Western Illinois 70 (double overtime): Oral Roberts preserved its undefeated mark in Summit League action with this victory Thursday. Dominique Morris' 27 points led all scorers. But his free throw with 1.4 seconds to play was a game winner. Tommie Tyler sent the game into a second extra period with a pair of late free throws in the closing seconds of the first overtime.

Akron 68, Ohio 63: The Zips earned their fourth consecutive win Saturday despite 16 turnovers and a 3-for-11 mark from beyond the arc. Zeke Marshall finished with 17 points, six rebounds and three blocks. The Zips, who are undefeated in MAC action, maintained a plus-10 rebounding margin (36-26) in the game.

Iona 74, Loyola (Md.) 63: The Gaels recovered from a Thursday loss to Manhattan, their first in conference play, with a Sunday win over the Greyhounds, arguably their biggest competitors for the MAAC title. They were tied atop the league standings entering this game. Lamont Jones scored 25 points and Mike Glover recorded a double-double (20 points, 15 rebounds) in the win.

Five games you don't want to miss

No. 18 Creighton at Missouri State (Wednesday): The last time these squads met, Missouri State upset Creighton on the road Dec. 28 behind an impressive performance from Kyle Weems. Doug McDermott struggled in the closing minutes. But since losing that home game, he's been on a mission. Set the DVR. Now.

Charleston at Davidson (Thursday): The Wildcats, who entered the week with a 6-0 conference record, could pull away from the field in the Southern Conference's South Division with a win over Charleston. But the latter (which had a 4-2 conference record Monday) can pull itself back into the race if it gets the upset on the road. Not an easy task against a Davidson squad that's 16th in the country with 79.6 points per game.

Denver at North Texas (Saturday): This is a battle between a pair of Sun Belt contenders. With Arkansas-Little Rock (which has defeated both Denver and North Texas on the road) starting the year at a 5-0, the gap between the Sun Belt West's leader and the loser of this game will grow. North Texas freshman Tony Mitchell (a former Missouri signee averaging 14.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is one of the better first-year players in the country. Chris Udofia (14.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.8 apg) leads Denver in rebounding and assists and is second in scoring.

Kent State at Akron (Saturday): Kent State has won four of its past five games. Akron has won four straight, a streak that includes wins over Marshall (road) and Ohio. Both MAC East contenders intend to prove this season that their big nonconference road victories -- Kent State over West Virginia, Akron over Mississippi State -- weren't flukes by emerging as the conference's rep in the NCAA tournament.

Milwaukee at Cleveland State (Sunday): The Horizon League leaders (the Panthers entered the week with a 6-1 record and the Vikings were tied for second at 5-2) face off in Ohio. Last season, Milwaukee, Cleveland State and Butler shared the conference's title. The league has been equally competitive this season, with five teams entering the week at 4-3 or better. Will one of these teams separate itself for good after this matchup?

The Mid-Major Power 15

(Conference USA, the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West are not represented in these weekly rankings)

1. Creighton: The Bluejays are on a six-game winning streak.
2. Murray State: Undefeated and zero threats before March.
3. Saint Mary's: WCC's best has wins over Gonzaga and BYU.
4. Wichita State: Winners of five straight since New Year's Eve loss to Creighton.
5. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs won't matter in March if they can't win outside of Spokane.
6. Long Beach State: Tough nonconference slate helped 49ers prep for Big West (5-0).
7. Harvard: Might win the Ivy League without suffering one loss in league play.
8. BYU: Noah Hartsock (17.3 ppg) will be a much bigger name in March.
9. Oral Roberts: Dec. 18 win over Xavier kicked off nine-game winning streak.
10. Middle Tennessee State: Blue Raiders off to a 6-0 start in Sun Belt.
11. Iona: Recovered from Manhattan loss with win over Loyola (Md.) on Sunday.
12. Akron: Four-game winning streak includes wins at Marshall and against Ohio.
13. Wagner: Danny Hurley's squad has won seven straight since a Dec. 23 road win over Pitt.
14. Davidson: Possesses the nation's 16th-best scoring offense (79.6 ppg).
15. Weber State: Damian Lillard is averaging 25.5 ppg for undefeated Big Sky leader.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN