Photo by Joi Williams / MTSU Sidelines
Coming into the 2017-2018 season, the experienced backcourt unit was expected to be the strength of the Middle Tennessee basketball team. Early in the season, however, it’s been the frontcourt tandem of Brandon “Big B” Walters and Nick King that has been the main difference between winning and losing big games.
King is the more experienced of the two, as he has played for two other programs and spent more time at the Division I level. With that being said, Walters is making the most of his opportunities in his final season of eligibility and has proven himself to be the big boost needed to get the Blue Raiders over the hump in some important games.
Against Vanderbilt and Mississippi, Walters set career highs in scoring (16 against Vandy and 20 against Ole Miss), and shot the ball at an impressive 71.4 percent clip. Those two games have been a result of the improvements and patience that Walters has displayed since he first stepped foot onto MT’s campus in 2015.
Academics, conditioning haunt Walters early in career
Before he arrived in Murfreesboro, Walters received many offers from other Division I programs. Coming out of Chattanooga, he scored nearly 20 points per game to lead Howard Tech High School to a 28-6 record and an appearance in the TSSAA state semifinals.
As impressive as he was, Walters played his first two seasons of collegiate basketball at Walters State Community College due to some academic concerns. While at Walters State, the man known as “Big B” averaged 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He was also efficient, as he shot over 66 percent from the field in his freshman season.
The next year, Walters started in 22 of 27 games and averaged 13.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in only 18.1 minutes per game. While his performance at the community college level was impressive, it did not ease academic concerns, such as grades.
At the very least, it was enough to scare other universities away.
“I feel like I was overlooked (coming out of Walters State), but other schools thought I would have a problem with grades,” Walters said. “(Head coach Kermit Davis) was the only one who would take a chance with me.”
Davis certainly saw the potential that Walters displayed at the high school and community college levels, but he did initially have some worries of his own.
“I just saw a guy who had a lot of talent, soft hands and ran really easily, but was just in terrible shape and about 50 pounds overweight,” Davis said.
Even with these issues, Davis knew that Walters could be great if he could get in legitimate basketball shape.
“You just saw the talent was there if he could get his body right,” Davis said. “Conditioning was the first thing he improved on, as well as the academics.”
As good as Walters was when he entered Davis’ program, there was still some learning he had to do and some patience he needed to display. He was required to sit out during the 2015-2016 season due to academics so he could improve his grades.
According to Davis, that was the first big step in Walters’ maturation process.
“(The year he sat out) was the best thing for him,” Davis said. “He couldn’t practice with us or do anything with us. He concentrated on school … (He also) transformed his body in the weight room … That year was really going to tell us if Brandon was going to make it as a player at this level.”
After improvements, Walters proves to be productive on court
Once Walters improved academically and was actually able to get on the floor for the Blue Raiders, he saw a limited role in front of him. He only logged 11 minutes per game and played in all but two games. That season posed another learning experience for Walters as he served as a back-up for MT’s all-time wins leader Reggie Upshaw and former Arkansas transfer and C-USA player of the year JaCorey Williams.
Playing behind those two exceptional basketball players was a valuable experience for Walters.
“They taught me how to hold myself accountable and know my role,” Walters said. “Coming off of the bench and giving good minutes as a big man was my role. That was just who I was, and those two led me and helped me become a player who could play at this level.”
While only seeing 11 minutes of action per game, Walters made the most of his opportunities. This included coming off the bench to score 11 points and grab six rebounds in a win against C-USA foe Marshall. The biggest opportunity that Walters got to prove that he could play in big games came against the Butler Bulldogs in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
In that game, Walters came off the bench and tied his career high with 11 points on 3-4 shooting from the field and a perfect 5-5 from the free throw line with five rebounds. Even though Middle Tennessee lost in that game, it gave Davis and the Blue Raider fans a reason to be optimistic for what Walters could bring going into the season.
“He was a big part of our NCAA tournament run,” Davis said.
In starring role, Walters provides excellent second option
As for this season, Walters is taking full advantage of being the full-time starting center. His scoring numbers have made a dramatic improvement, increasing from 4.9 points per game last season to 13.3 so far this season. He’s also shooting at a more efficient rate as his 62.7 shooting rate is over two percentage points higher than last season (60.3).
As much success as Walters is having this season, he attributes his success to the play of his teammates.
“The guards do a great job of just moving the ball,” Walters said. “They keep finding me open in the post and from there, it’s my job to finish it and score … I would say our guards make a big difference.”
Walters’ teammates have also taken notice of his offensive improvements, specifically King.
“He’s practicing a lot harder,” King said. “He’s been a lot more consistent at practice and has been working a lot harder on defense and offense.”
King sees Walters as a great mismatch for many teams on the offensive end and has been complimentary of how he uses his 6’10” height and 250-pound build to his advantage.
“He’s an aggressive big man in the paint, and he’s one of the hardest bigs in the nation to guard,” King said. “Once he gets rolling, it’s really hard to slow him down.”
After spending time at Memphis and Alabama, King believes that Walters is one of the more impressive big men he has played with or against at the collegiate level.
“I rank him as one of the best players I’ve played with,” King said. “It’s hard to stop (such a large) center in the paint who knows how to use his strength and size.”
Walters has not only made an impact on the offensive side of the ball, but on defense as well. He is averaging 1.7 blocks and one steal per game.
In the game against Ole Miss, Walters tied his career-high in blocks with four and set a new career-high in steals with four.
“In practice, I’ve emphasized moving my feet on defense,” Walters said. “As a big man, I’ve got to move my feet because guards are going to try to run pick-and-rolls, and I have to be able to move my feet quick enough to step out of the paint and be able to defend guards.”
With all of the strides he has made in his game, Walters believes that the biggest change he has made comes in the form of becoming a leader and becoming an influential voice for his teammates.
“I’d say I have become more of a leader in practice and in games,” Walters said. “I’ve done a better job of being more talkative, being more active and being more present with helping the new guys and showing them their roles.”
Walters has certainly made a big jump this season, and his consistent and efficient play has helped the Blue Raiders get two important wins against SEC opponents. If Walters is able to score at an efficient rate and continues to become a force on the defensive end by blocking shots and making opponents shoot over his lengthy frame, the Blue Raiders can dominate C-USA play and make another run in March when it matters most.
Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.
To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email firstname.lastname@example.org.