When Vanderbilt scheduled Middle Tennessee for a home-and-home series back in 2010, Kevin Stallings probably didn't anticipate the Blue Raiders being one of Vandy's highest rated opponents. When the Commodores traveled to Murfreesboro last season, they left with a 19-point win over a .500 team that ended up missing the postseason.
One year later, that same MTSU team is now a RPI Top 50 team and is undefeated against BCS conference opponents. The Blue Raiders toppled UCLA and Ole Miss en route to a 19-2 record and some major NCAA Tournament buzz. If they can extend this record with an upset win in Nashville, they'll not only post their 20th win, but land a hallmark victory by which the tournament selection committee can judge them.
Middle Tennessee has run off a perfect 8-0 record in Sun Belt play behind a combination of size and experience. LaRon Dendy and JT Sulton lead a proficient inside scoring attack that has the Blue Raiders shooting over 49 percent from the floor. The big men have shown off their defensive talents in 2011-2012 as well, combining for 13 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. On the outside, junior guard Marcos Knight can do a little bit of everything. He scores from inside and out, rebounds, passes well, and is a disruptive defender who averages 1.7 steals per game. These three players drive an MTSU that boasts a balanced rotation behind them.
Vanderbilt's defense will be tested by an efficient offense that doesn't miss often. Four of the team's top five scorers shoot over 50 percent from the field. Part of this can be attributed to their preference for inside shots. MTSU has attempted under 14 three-pointers per game and is hitting less than 35 percent from long range. Comparatively, Vandy - one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the country - is averaging nearly 23 attempts and has made over 40 percent of them this season.
UAB was ultimately successful in shutting down Middle Tennessee's offense, holding them to just 56 points in a home win. So what was the strategy that dealt the Blue Raiders their only loss in the past three months? Let's take a closer look.
Middle Tennessee State (19-2, unranked, #31 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Isolate LaRon Dendy on Defense: Marcos Knight got his against UAB, scoring 16 points on 7-13 shooting to lead the Blue Raiders. However, the team was hurt by Dendy's disappointing performance at center. Dendy, a 6'9" center, was stymied by the Blazers' small-ball lineup. A rotating mix of defenders kept the big man in check, keeping him on an island and limiting him to just six shots. Dendy only made one of those.
Vanderbilt will throw a different look at Dendy, hitting him with one of the most physical centers in the NCAA. Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang will be tasked with keeping the 230 pound center from being effective in the paint. However, if they can't limit him in heads-up coverage, then strong help rotations and pestering off-the-ball defense will go a long way in stopping Dendy's efficient scoring attack.
- Get to the line and make your damn free throws: UAB was able to squeeze out 25 shots from the stripe in their win. If season averages hold up, Vanderbilt can expect about 22 free throws in Saturday's game. The Commodores will have the more athletic team and a size advantage against an opponent that isn't conservative with their defense in the paint. Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor will get plenty of opportunities to score from the line. However, both players have struggled with their shots in recent games. They'll have to take advantage of these free points in order to fend off MTSU.
- Work the offensive glass: Middle Tennessee tends to shift their focus to offense once an opponent's shot goes up, opening up some fast break opportunities and creating mismatches back on their end of the court. However, this leaves opportunities for teams like Vanderbilt to create second chances through offensive rebounds. If Vandy sends an extra player into the paint after shots go up, they'll be able to exploit this, similar to how UAB pulled down 13 offensive boards in their win over MTSU. It's a strategy that Kevin Stallings has pulled out before, and thanks to this team's athleticism at all positions, it's a risk they can take without ceding ground to the Blue Raiders' offensive attack.