Men’s Basketball: Blue Raiders look for focused play against UTSA, UTEP


Junior Karl Gamble takes a free throw against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Jan. 20, 2018, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Joi Williams / MTSU Sidelines)

Photo by Joi Williams / MTSU Sidelines

After splitting last week’s Conference USA road trip against Marshall and Western Kentucky, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (14-5, 6-1) sit at the top of the conference in a three-way tie with Western Kentucky and Old Dominion.

This week, the Blue Raiders have a chance to potentially distance themselves as they have two favorable match-ups against the University of Texas-San Antonio and the University of Texas-El Paso.

Preparing for UTSA

On Thursday night, the Blue Raiders will take on the Roadrunners of UTSA. They are 10-10 overall and currently sit in seventh place in C-USA with a 3-4 conference record. They are also coming off a 65-61 victory against in-state rival UTEP.

The Roadrunners are led by two freshman guards in Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, both of whom can score the ball at an efficient rate. They lead an offense that averages 82.7 points per game, a mark that makes them the 29th-best unit in the nation.

“They have two of the best freshman guard combinations in all of college basketball,” said head coach Kermit Davis. “(Jackson) is a poor man’s Trae Young. He scores at all levels. His three-point percentage hasn’t been as good in conference play, but he can score mid-level shots and he can take it to the rim … he’s just a really aggressive offensive player.”

The concern for guarding Jackson is definitely warranted. Even though he mostly comes off the bench, Jackson still averages 18.5 points per game while only playing 24.7 minutes per game. His lethal scoring ability has been on full display in a couple of the Roadrunners biggest games this season.

Jackson scored 31 points on 11-17 shooting in an early December showdown against Oklahoma. He’s followed that up with a couple other outings in which he scored 30 and 28 points respectively.

“They have guards that can really score the ball,” said sophomore guard Tyrik Dixon. “We need to do our best to lock down on their best scorers. We know that they are going to hit some tough shots, but we need to try to stay in front of them the best that we can.”

Another factor in Thursday night’s game is the potential hangover following the emotionally charged win at Western Kentucky on Saturday. Davis believes that the best way to avoid these type of trap games is to focus and keep looking forward.

“We just have to be good in practice,” Davis said. “We had a good practice Monday and had a physical practice on Tuesday…you just have to come right back to work and repeat the process all over again.”

Preparing for UTEP

The UTEP Miners have certainly faced more adversity than UTSA, and a team in search of their identity. With an overall record of 7-12 and a conference record of 2-5, the Miners currently sit at 12th place in C-USA which puts them ahead of only Rice and Charlotte.

After a 66-52 home loss to Lamar in their sixth game of the year, head coach Tim Floyd abruptly retired and long-time assistant Phil Johnson was named as the interim head coach.

Despite the coaching change and the less-than-stellar-record, UTEP has done something that only two C-USA teams have done in the last two regular seasons: beat MT in a regular season C-USA game.

Last season, the Miners gave MTSU their only conference loss in a 57-54 slugfest in El Paso last February.

This year’s team holds some similarities to the 2016-2017 squad, as they return three starters from the group that upset the Blue Raiders.

“They have three or four starters from the team that beat us last year,” Davis said. “They have Omega Harris, Matt Willms and a reliable four-man (Paul Thomas). They’ve been competitive in a lot of games this season.”

One of the keys to beating this UTEP team will come in the form of excellent post play. Senior forward Nick King will have to continue his great play as of late and follow up from his 28-point performance against Western Kentucky despite his ankle not being fully healthy.

“I feel like my ankle is still not 100 percent,” King said. “I’ve still been doing rehab and going to treatments for it … if we let the offense flow and I can let the game come to me and not forcing any shots, we will be alright.”

This two-game stretch against weaker opponents will be an opportunity for the Blue Raiders to pick up wins and further their lead in C-USA. It will be vital for MT to win both of these games to put them at 8-1 in conference play before squaring off against Old Dominion on Feb. 1, a game that could potentially determine seeding at the top of the standings for the conference tournament.

Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

For more sports stories, follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter and Periscope at @Sidelines_Sport.

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