Story by Timothy Carroll / Contributing Writer
Photo by Darwin Moore / MTSU Sidelines
With Blue Raider basketball a few months away, Middle Tennessee is looking to return to the NCAA Tournament and continue building the program into a national brand.
The 2016-17 season was a banner year for the Blue Raiders, as they finished 17-1 in C-USA play and finished the season with a solid 31-5 overall record. Heading into the 2017-18 season, this year’s group will face much stiffer competition from their in-conference foes. Here is a list of the top match-ups to look for in the upcoming C-USA season.
1) Western Kentucky University
Middle Tennessee beat WKU handily in both contests last season, defeating the Hilltoppers in Murfreesboro 91-76 and dominating them in Bowling Green, Kentucky by a score of 78-52. They are the Blue Raiders’ biggest rivals, which means the atmosphere will be electric and the game will be hard-fought no matter the circumstances. Western is returning several key contributors from last season, such as forward Justin Johnson. Johnson led the team in scoring at a 14.5 clip per game and was named to the All-Conference USA Second Team. They also have a strong recruiting class, headlined by five-star center Mitchell Robinson. Fans should expect any games between these two teams to be as competitive as ever.
2) University of Texas-El Paso
UTEP got off to rocky 2-13 start last season, but rallied together and managed to finish their season with a 13-4 record in conference play. The Miners were also the only team to defeat the Blue Raiders during conference play, snagging a 57-54 home win over Middle Tennessee. Although the Blue Raiders ended UTEP’s season in a 82-56 fashion, the third-place finishers in C-USA will be back for revenge. One of their best returning players is senior guard Omega Harris. Harris led the team with a 17 point per game average and was named to the Third Team for Conference USA. With his returning leadership and seven new additions to the team, UTEP will be a team to watch this coming season.
3) Louisiana Tech University
The Blue Raiders defeated the Bulldogs last season by a score of 71-61, although they still finished second in C-USA with a 14-4 record in conference play and a 23-10 record overall. This team can be expected to be a contender again this season, as they bring a young and capable roster into the new season. The team will be led by senior guard Jacobi Boykins, who was second on the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game and was given All-Conference Third Team honors. Their recruiting class brings in several promising players that will make this team a challenge for Middle Tennessee for many seasons to come.
4) Old Dominion University
The Monarchs finished last season tied with UTEP for third place in the conference and posted a C-USA record of 12-6. They fell to the Blue Raiders last season by a score of 64-51, but head into this coming season with a young, talented roster that also brings back some key players that will keep them in contention for the conference crown. None will be more key than Third Team All-Conference USA guard Ahmad Caver. Caver led the team in scoring last season at 13 points per game and will be a big contributor again this season. They do have a few bold faces that will help bolster the ranks, so look for this team to be a contender again next season.
5) Rice University
The Owls finished in fourth place last season with an 11-7 conference record and a 23-11 record overall. They lost to Middle Tennessee in a close contest by a final score of 80-77 and are returning several experienced players from last year’s squad, although they have to replace their top three scorers. They are bringing a large group of graduate transfers students and underclassmen together to compete for the C-USA title. Look for them to be a top five team in the conference again this season.
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