Men’s Basketball: Blue Raider offense seems to be clicking at right time


Donovan Sims drills a three-pointer from deep to sink the Charlotte 49ers on Feb. 23, 2019 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (David Chamberlain / MTSU Sidelines)

Photo by David Chamberlain / MTSU Sidelines

All season long, the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders were plagued by turnovers on the offensive end. As a team that was hastily put together over the off-season due to departures from coaches and key players, this Blue Raider squad struggled to find chemistry and rhythm on the offensive end.

On Saturday night, during an 86-67 route of Charlotte, the Blue Raiders reversed the roles and showed signs of maturation and have seemingly found their offensive rhythm as they shot a blistering 62.3 percent from the field, hit 10 of their first 20 3-point attempts as well as finish the game with their best assist-turnover ratio of the season (17-9).

Coming into Saturday night’s game, the Blue Raiders only had two games against Division-I opponents in which they ended with more assists than turnovers. Ironically enough, one of those was the first Charlotte game back on Feb. 7.

MT has struggled with ball security more than almost anyone in the country this season. Before Saturday night’s game, the Blue Raiders ranked 348 out of 353 Division-I teams in the nation in overall turnovers, 330th in team assists, 325th in offensive rating and 269th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.

For coach Nick McDevitt, Saturday night’s exhibition of offensive efficiency seemed to be a sign of the team finally coming together to understand the offense.

“Early on, it was new for everybody,” McDevitt said. “Usually, unless there’s a change like we had here, when there’s change, you have to learn a new system. You have juniors and seniors that really can’t help the freshman too much because they’re trying to learn (the offense) themselves. Now, they’ve not only learned it, but they are picking up the small nuances of the offense and understanding the reads.”

While it might be easy to get caught up in the outlier of efficiency from one game against a lowly six-win team that the Blue Raiders have now pummeled twice this season, it’s important to note that a couple players have expanded their offensive repertoire, which can make life a lot easier on their teammates.

One of such players is Antonio Green. Before the game on Saturday night, Green was honored for breaking Giddy Potts’ single season 3-point record (astonishingly with a whole four games left to play), so it’s no secret that Green can shoot. It’s his biggest strength.

But one thing Green has failed to do this season is help distribute the ball and create offense for others and making an impact without scoring. Before Saturday, Green was only averaging a smidgen over one assist per game (1.3), while turning the ball over 3.3 times per contest. In a four-game stretch from Dec. 21 to Jan. 10, Green didn’t record a single assist while turning the ball over 10 times in said games. While his ability to light the scoreboard up on any given night can be considered his strength, facilitation can be seen as his glaring weakness.

However, that was not the case on against Charlotte. Green still shot the lights out from 3-point range, making five of his eight attempts, but what made this his best offensive performance yet was his ability to drive into the lane and make plays for his teammates. Most importantly, he made a game-changing impact on the offensive end when he wasn’t scoring.

Green’s five assists were a season high, most of which, came from drives to the basket where he attracted the attention from off-ball Charlotte defenders, which left teammates wide open for Green to find for dunks and lay-ups. Green even set this facilitative tone on the first Blue Raider bucket of the game as his drive to the basket left forward Reggie Scurry wide open under the basket where Green found him for an easy lay-up.

“I just tried to make the right play. When people got open, I just pass them the ball, and they made shots,” Green said after the game.

Green’s ability to drive also set up easier looks for himself. While his 3-point shooting forces teams to play close to him on the perimeter, his ability to use a quick dribble to get by his defender opened up the lane for lay-ups and passes to cutting teammates. When Green is able to be multidimensional on the offensive end of the floor, this Blue Raider offense becomes less predictable and much harder to guard.

Another player that really displayed an expansion of his offensive arsenal was James Hawthorne. Hawthorne was efficient, making five of his seven shot attempts and grabbed seven rebounds to go along with a pair of assists of his own. While the senior forward hasn’t exactly been known to be a lights out 3-point shooter, he is starting to exhibit signs of being comfortable shooting from behind the arc. Before the UTSA game on Jan. 17, Hawthorne connected on five 3-pointers for the entire season. Against UTSA, he knocked down five of eight 3-point attempts. Despite only hitting one triple since that game, Hawthorne knocked down two of four on Saturday.

The 3-point shot isn’t the only thing Hawthorne has worked on. Late in the second half, Hawthorne channeled his inner Hakeem Olajuwon as he backed down a Charlotte defender on the post, faked to his right and spun toward the center of the lane to connect on a short jumper.

“I call that the ‘Wes Long Workout,'” Hawthorne jokingly said, referring to the post move. When asked how long he and Long (MTSU assistant coach) have worked on that move, he responded, “All year, every day. Perimeter-post breakdown. That’s what we call it.”

On the following offensive possession, Hawthorne caught a pass from Green at the top of the key and knocked down a 3-pointer off of a feed from Green. Hawthorne then followed that play up with a hustle play, diving on the floor to create a turnover to give the Blue Raiders a new possession.

“I just love impacting the game,” Hawthorne added. “You don’t have to score to impact the game. To get myself going, I try to do all the little stuff. My job on the team is to come on the floor and change the energy.”

When Hawthorne creates that kind of offensive energy by hustling and doing the little things as well as add post moves and 3-pointers to his game, the offense becomes much more efficient and tougher to guard.

For the season, this Blue Raider offensive attack only posts an offensive rating of 94.4. When Green hits three’s at a high rate and distributes the ball better like he did on Saturday night, he makes the offense that much better (as his game offensive rating of 127.5 suggests). With Hawthorne bringing energy and impacting the offense in a variety of ways like he did against Charlotte, the offense becomes way more efficient (as his game offensive rating of 146.4 would suggest).

The offensive production MT displayed on Saturday night will be crucial to ending the season on a high note.

To contact Sports Editor David Chamberlain, 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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