By Steven Johnson | Contributing Writer
As the final buzzer sounded on Middle Tennessee’s men’s basketball season last Wednesday, it brought to an end a disappointing season for the Blue Raiders. They finished only two games above .500 (19-17) and barely earned a bid to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, which is college basketball’s third postseason tournament below the NCAA tournament.
Aside from a near-miraculous run in the Conference USA tournament that almost saw the Blue Raiders acquire an NCAA tournament bid by winning three-straight games in Birmingham, Ala., the 2014-2015 season was a rather forgettable one. Just two years removed from a Sun Belt title and NCAA tourney appearance, and just one year removed from their impressive inaugural season in C-USA, the Blue Raiders took a step back in their fight to become a respected mid-major program, finishing 9-9 in league play this season.
What exactly went wrong for MTSU? There are few answers to that question, starting with the lack of a dynamic scoring option. The Blue Raiders did not have a single player that averaged double-digit points, with sophomore forward Reggie Upshaw coming the closet at 9.9 points per game. That simply is not good enough for an offense that was anemic at best during the season.
The Blue Raiders finished 272nd nationally in scoring offense at a mediocre 63.5 points per game.
Turnovers proved to be the team’s Achilles heel as it struggled to find a consistent floor general to direct the offense. MTSU ranked 225th in the nation in turnovers per game, losing the ball 13.0 times per game. The Blue Raiders actually averaged more turnovers per game than assists, which paints an even greater picture of MTSU’s woes on the season.
The team faced an uphill battle from the start though, having to replace six seniors from last season, including former C-USA Player of the Year Shawn Jones, who went on to sign contracts with both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat in the NBA. Along with Jones, the Blue Raiders had to deal with the loss of steady point guard Tweety Knight, do-it-all forward Neiko Hunter and the scoring punch of Kerry Hammonds II. Those four players alone accounted for nearly 50 points a game last year, and simply put, the current crop of Blue Raiders struggled without their production and their leadership.
The lack of quality offensive play, and the replacing of six seniors, were ultimately the larger reasons the team could not continue its momentum from the previous two seasons. However, despite all of that, the Blue Raiders were still only one game away from making their 8th NCAA tournament appearance all-time.
There should be optimism heading into next season though, as the team should only be losing two seniors: Marcus Tarrance and Jacquez Rozier. While replacing those two will be a challenge, MTSU Head Coach Kermit Davis will have another experienced group primed for what will hopefully be another successful stint in C-USA. All eyes will be on rising stars such as, junior Jaqwan Raymond, junior Perrin Buford, Upshaw and a crop of young players that will look to be even better next season.
While it is a stretch to assume MTSU is a favorite for the C-USA crown next season, it is reasonable to expect another 20-25 win season, and a postseason berth with the wealth of experience returning. The adversity faced by a young team this year will hopefully be lessons it can lean on next year as it looks to regroup and improve upon an underwhelming season that ended with a double-digit loss to Kent State in the first round of the CIT.
For more Blue Raiders sports, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Sport.
To contact sports editor Connor Grott, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.