Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor//Managing Editor
MTSU senior guard JaQawn Raymond has played basketball like life depended on it, starting with his days in Statesboro, Georgia.
And he continues to play with that mindset as the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders prepare for a matchup against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament.
Raymond, a Statesboro, Georgia, native, shined in his last season for the Statesboro Blue Devils, averaging over 21 points per game and leading the team to a 20-win season. His strong play over his last high school year set him up for success at the collegiate level.
“[Lee Hill] was really one of my mentors,” Raymond said about his high school coach. “Me and my high school coach got along great, and it carried on from there.”
After finishing his last season for the Blue Devils, Raymond turned his focus towards college offers and playing summer ball. Playing for the Georgia Stars, an AAU team, Raymond put up an exceptional performance in the Nike Peach Jam, finishing with 17 points and six rebounds.
“I had a couple mid-majors looking at me, and I played in the AAU tournament with the Georgia Stars,” Raymond explained. “Coach [Harris] told me to keep my head straight and there’d be a great opportunity coming. Little did I know it was NC State.”
Raymond was being courted by the Wolfpack and ultimately chose NC State, a storied ACC program who has had moderate success over the past few years.
In his freshman year, Raymond didn’t play much but spoke about what he learned in that time in Raleigh.
“I learned the ins and outs of basketball itself,” he said. “Being a freshman, I didn’t know much. When I went in I learned from players that were there, players that got drafted, players that went overseas. They taught me a lot.”
After his freshman year, Raymond decided to transfer from the ACC program and searched for a university that fit his style of play.
He spoke about how the transition to MTSU came about, and that a coach close to the program set him up with Blue Raider head coach, Kermit Davis.
“[The transition] went a lot smoother than I thought,” Raymond said. “[Rob Moxley] said he might have a coach for me that might be interested.
“The next day, he called Coach Davis.”
Moxley, an assistant coach with the NC State program, was pivotal according to Raymond, and really helped make his transition to MTSU easy.
After a visit two days later, Raymond and Davis made it official.
Raymond announced he would be transferring to MTSU, where he sat out the 2012-2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Raymond began to find his stride in his sophomore campaign, playing in all 33 games for the Blue Raiders. The guard stepped up multiple times that season when it mattered most, including hitting the game-winning three against Marshall.
That year, including his game-winning shot, stands out to Raymond, due in part to the Blue Raiders clinching a share of the regular-season title for the third straight year.
“My favorite moment would be being with all my teammates and getting a ring, with [Coach Davis] giving out the rings,” said Raymond. “I’ve learned a lot from Coach Davis on and off the court. Being here was a great experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Raymond’s role at MTSU has evolved over his last two seasons, going from the everyday marksman to a senior leader who has been pivotal in the Blue Raiders’ postseason run.
When asked about playing with current teammates such as Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw and Perrin Buford, Raymond explained how he learned a lot about being a leader from former Blue Raider guards Marcos Knight and Bruce Massey, both members of MTSU’s 2013 tournament appearance.
Knight and Massey stand out as some of the Blue Raider leaders from past seasons, and are guys Raymond said were important to his growth not only as a player, but a leader.
“They showed us the tournament atmosphere, what it’s like and what you have to do to win games in the tournament,” Raymond said.
Raymond has had a phenomenal postseason, which was originally sparked with his game-winning shot against FIU to seal a No. 2 seed in the C-USA tournament.
His defense in the Conference USA championship game against the conference’s leading scorer, ODU’s Trey Freeman, helped secure the Blue Raiders’ first conference championship since 1989, clinching an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Heading into the tournament, the Blue Raiders were massive underdogs, but took on the title of “giant killer” after an upset over second-seeded Michigan State, 90-81, in the opening round, becoming just the eighth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 seed.
Raymond was tasked with guarding MSU’s Denzel Valentine, a John Wooden Award candidate.
He held Valentine to only 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting, and added 11 points, including a momentum-changing four-point play, in MTSU’s historic victory.
Friday’s game against the Spartans could have been his final in a blue and white jersey.
Instead, the Blue Raiders are advancing to take on Syracuse in the Round of 32.
And Raymond is treating it similar to Michigan State.
“My approach is to take each game one by one like it’s our last game,” Raymond said. “I don’t want this to end, they don’t want this to end, and we’re working hard every day like it’s the last game of our career.”
To contact Sports Editor Connor Grott, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.