Photo by Joi Williams / MTSU Sidelines
Getting off to a strong start in conference play is always a crucial part of determining seeding in the conference tournament and seeing how the rest of the league stacks up. Since the 2015-2016 season, the Blue Raiders are 35-6 in Conference USA play and have been the team to beat year in and year out.
With that type of success come greater challenges and obstacles. Teams improve, get stronger and aim to work twice as hard over the offseason to accomplish their main goal of knocking off the conference champs.
The Blue Raiders will face two of their toughest opponents on the road this week to determine the top of the conference standings, as well as see who will have the upper hand in securing favorable seeding in the C-USA tournament in March.
Preparing for Marshall
First up on Thursday night, the Blue Raiders will face the Marshall Thundering Herd in a rematch of last season’s C-USA championship game. The Herd are 3-2 in conference play and are battling some injuries that include starting forward and the nation’s leading shot blocker Ajdin Penava.
Penava is likely to return to the court against MTSU, and if he does, that could pose a serious threat to the Blue Raiders. The junior out of Bosnia-Herzegovina has increased his points per game average by 10 points, his rebounds per game average by five rebounds and his blocks per game by three blocks this season. His improvements from last season to now add another dimension to the Marshall offense, which includes C-USA leading scorer Jon Elmore.
Elmore scores points in bunches and has been one of the best all-around scorers in college basketball in the last two seasons. Averaging 22.7 points and 7.3 assists per game, Elmore has become one of the front-runners to win the C-USA Player of the Year award.
Blue Raider head coach Kermit Davis believes that a week of good practices and mixing things up on the defensive end can be key in terms of slowing down the Marshall offensive attack, a unit that ranks ninth in the entire country in points per game.
“The key to it is the practice part,” Davis said. “The preparation for it is getting back defensively and trying to get your defense set up and guarding one of the best offensive teams in college basketball.”
Davis also understands that even though this Marshall team has lost some key pieces from last season’s team, they’ve had players step up this season to further their improvements.
“Ryan Taylor was a great player, and (Stevie) Browning was a great player,” Davis said. “C.J. Burks is playing like the best guard in the league right now. Penava is back and he’ll be ready to play … his stats are unbelievable with how he shoots it, so to get him back just makes them more of a complete team.”
Senior guard Ed Simpson understands that the defensive end of the floor is going to be crucial in escaping Huntington with a win.
“Elmore certainly draws a lot of attention,” Simpson said. “The biggest thing for us is team defense. Everybody coming together and having the mindset of containing him as much as we can.”
Despite the monumental challenge of holding these offenses at bay, Simpson thinks the offense still has room to improve in terms of ball movement and consistency.
“For us, we need to be more efficient on offense,” Simpson said.
Preparing for Western Kentucky
The Blue Raiders conclude their road trip in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to add another chapter to the “100 Miles of Hate” rivalry against Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers are currently 5-0 and are the only other undefeated team in C-USA play besides the Blue Raiders. Not only will this be a hotly contested matchup due to the history between the two schools, but it will be a battle for conference supremacy.
Western Kentucky returns a couple starters from the 2016-2017 season, but also landed some huge additions.
Starting point guard Darius Thompson is a transfer from Tennessee and Virginia and is having a career season at WKU so far. He is averaging 15.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game for the Hilltoppers and has already recorded one triple-double. It came against Marshall when he scored 33 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and recorded 10 assists.
The addition of Thompson hasn’t been the only key addition for WKU; the recruitment of Taveion Hollingsworth and Dwight Coleby has been crucial as well. Hollingsworth has been an energetic spark for the Hilltoppers and is averaging over 12 points per game as a true freshman. On the other hand, Coleby is taking advantage of his third school.
Coleby is one of the more elite rebounders in C-USA and will give Nick King and Brandon Walters their biggest challenges on the boards yet. He contributes consistent scoring, averaging 11.8 points and eight rebounds while blocking a little over two shots per game.
The addition of Coleby, as well as the overall offensive improvement of senior forward Justin Johnson, has turned the WKU front court into one that can give the Blue Raiders fits.
“They’re a really good offensive team,” Davis said. “They have two powerful inside guys in Coleby and Johnson. They play inside and out, and their guards are very good … They’re a really good balanced team, and if you can beat Purdue and SMU in the non-conference schedule, then you can compete with anybody.”
King still day-t0-day, expected to be ready for Marshall
The Blue Raiders’ leading scorer went down with an ankle injury on Saturday night, and though he continued playing, his status for this week has been day-to-day.
As far as King’s status for Thursday night’s game against Marshall, Davis believes he’ll certainly play even if he’s not 100 percent. King, on the other hand, feels confident he’ll be effective despite the injury.
“I’ve been rehabbing it three times a day so it’s feeling great,” King said. “I’ll be good for this weekend.”
King returned to practice on Tuesday after sitting out of practice for precautionary reasons on Monday.
Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.
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