MTSU seniors cherishing NCAA Tournament appearance

Perrin Buford attacks the rim in 67-66 win over FIU on Saturday February 6, 2016 at the Murphy Center. (MTSU Sidelines/Meagan White)

Photo by Meagan White // Sidelines Archive

The Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders were bequeathed a No. 15 seed on Selection Sunday, drawing a matchup with No. 2 seed Michigan State in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

MTSU has three senior players that have been irreplaceable cogs in Kermit Davis’ system in JaQawn Raymond, Perrin Buford and Darnell Harris.

“It’s still surreal to me right now,” Harris said. “It’s a dream come true to play in the NCAA Tournament and to be playing Michigan State, a team we all watched a lot. It’s exciting going into Friday.”

Harris’ versatility has made him a mismatch all season long for opponents. He has the athleticism to guard any team’s center, and the ability to spread defenses out with his three-point efficiency, ranking third on the team with a 39.7 three-point percentage.

Both Raymond and Buford expressed their team’s accomplishment is a childhood dream and a goal that’s finally reached.

“It’s a real big deal, just because growing up playing basketball, you dream of playing Division I basketball,” Buford said. “Then after that, you dream of going to the ‘Big Dance’ and doing well. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m just going to enjoy the moment.”

Buford has aided his teammates in achieving that dream by leading the Blue Raiders with a 51.5 field goal percentage and ranking third in points per game with 12.

“My first year here we were in the tournament, but I wasn’t able to go,” Raymond added. “I told myself that I had to get back there, and be able to play in it myself. So as a senior, it means a lot because you want to go out on top. Win or lose, we know we made it, and most teams didn’t make it. So this is a big accomplishment for our senior class.”

Raymond has been the most vital part of the Blue Raiders as of late, due to injuries to guards Ed Simpson and Jacob Ivory. One element that Raymond has provided to MTSU is his perimeter defense. Raymond was able to shut down Old Dominion’s leading scorer, Trey Freeman, who dropped 42 points against Western Kentucky in the C-USA semifinal game.

Raymond made the transition from the two spot to running point guard, and he’s exceeded expectations in his short time as the floor general. In the last five games, Raymond is averaging 10.6 points per game, and has become a reliable outside defender that the Blue Raiders have been searching for.

Michigan State has been a consistent powerhouse in college basketball, but MTSU’s seniors aren’t worried about playing an opponent like the Spartans in the first round.

“We’re preparing for this game the same way we prepare for every other game,” Raymond said. “We’re preparing the same way we did for Old Dominion. We’re getting our work in, we’re going to go through the scouting report Wednesday and we’ll be prepared for Friday.”

“I’m approaching this just like any other game,” Buford agreed. “I know a lot of people, when they’re playing a bigger school, they feel like they have to get out of character. But at the end of the day, every Division I school is playing for the same goal.”

The Blue Raiders have been playing their best basketball down the final stretch of the regular season and post season, but they still have areas that need to be improved in order to contend with MSU.

“I’m going to really lock in on defense and do whatever my team needs me to do, whether that’s defend, score, or whatever it is. Whatever my team desperately needs, that’s what I’m going to bring,” Buford said.

Buford’s defense and rebounding ability has been just as important as his offensive production this season, as he leads the Blue Raiders with 38 blocks and is second on the team with 194 rebounds.

“One of the biggest things we need to do is rebound the ball at a high level. [Michigan State] out rebounds their opponents by 10 or 11 a lot. We have to match their physicality in rebounding the ball,” Harris said.

Whether it’s scoring, defense or rebounding, MTSU will rely on its three seniors come Friday.

Tip off for Friday’s game between MTSU and the Spartans is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. CT at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

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