|Tonight is the night for the MTSU men's basketball team, when they play host to Florida International at 7 p.m.
Tonight’s game kicks off the Sun Belt Conference schedule.
Of course, you already know about the Blue Raiders’ 11-2 incredible start, which is the best since former President Jimmy Carter's era in 1980. For the past two decades, fans have been hoping this would be the year MTSU earns a spot in the NCAA tournament. MTSU’s Blue Raiders haven’t seen the "Big Dance" up close since 1989.
So far, so good with road victories at UCLA and Ole Miss, and they split two highly contested games with another top school in the state, Belmont.
Now comes the hard part with SBC action beginning this week.
History has shown that by the time the brackets are announced in March, only one SBC team will be one of the 68 chosen to participate in the NCAA tournament. Obviously, players and coaches will tell you every conference game is key toward winning the SBC conference tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. The conference champion gets the automatic bid into the field of 68.
So tonight is the first step for the Blue Raiders as it faces a Golden Panthers team that is in last place in the SBC Eastern Division. However, FIU has one of the leading scorers in the league; senior DeJuan Wright is averaging 15.9 points per game, which ties him as the top SBC shooter. He is also number one in the league from behind the arc, shooting 52 percent.
On defense, FIU leads the SBC in steals averaging about 8.4 a game. Golden Panther senior Jeremy Allen is first in the conference in steals with three per game. Both Wright and Allen are one-two in the SBC in minutes played per contest.
Before the season started, the Blue Raiders wanted to become one of the best defensive teams in the conference. They’re right on track -- the team ranks in the top five in all defensive categories in the league. That includes being number one in field goal percent defense (.392), three-point percent defense (.308), and second in scoring defense (62.6).
The offense has not been too bad, either, as MTSU has used a balance attack to lead the conference in scoring offense (76.1 points per game) and field goal percentage (53 percent per game). Senior LaRon Dendy leads the way for the Blue Raiders scoring 14.5 points per game to place him fourth in the SBC rank.
However, most of the stats mentioned are somewhat skewed because of the quality of the non-conference schedule with the SBC teams. Some teams have played a tough schedule, while others have been weak. Starting tonight, we will see which teams to look out for as we head towards March.
The Blue Raiders are on the right path, and I know they want to be a factor come tournament time to break the NCAA drought.
It all begins tonight -- they need to make a good first impression.