Story by Calvin White/ Sports Editor
After being picked to finish dead last in Conference USA a season ago, the Middle Tennessee State University men’s basketball team finished third amid a 26-11 season that included a trip to the semifinals of the C-USA tournament, College Basketball Invitational championship game, and a C-USA East Division title.
In its current state, Conference USA is the best that is has probably ever been. UAB, Western Kentucky, and North Texas, are all poised to be some of the best mid-major teams in all of college basketball. All three teams are projected to finish ahead of MTSU in the conference preseason rankings, with the Blue Raiders projected to finish fourth.
Despite the departure of Donovan Sims and Josh Jefferson, MTSU returns 11 players from last year’s team, seven being upperclassmen. The Blue Raiders also return four starters in Deandre Dishman, Eli Lawrence, Teafale Lenard, and Tyler Millin. In a league as competitive as Conference USA, a steady veteran presence is vital to sustaining success.
“Particularly in league play, you’re going to lean heavily on your upperclassmen,” head coach Nick McDevitt said. “Fortunately we have a group that’s not just an older group but they’ve kind of grown old together.”
Dishman is one of the few seventh year seniors in the country. This season will be his fifth with the Blue Raiders after previously spending two years at Eastern Kentucky. Dishman is the perfect example of a player whose impact stretches beyond the numbers in a box score. Which is why McDevitt is looking for Dishman to be an even bigger leader this year than he was a season ago.
“He quarterbacks our offense,” McDevitt said. “He’s such an experienced player, he’s a good passer, has a high basketball IQ. He’s seen every defense that you can throw at someone. It’s an advantage for us to have him out there.”
After an outstanding freshman campaign where he was named C-USA freshman of the week four times and set the single season program record for dunks with 58, Teafale Lenard is a preseason all-conference selection. McDevitt expects the high-flying Snyder, TX native to make a big jump this season.
“We’re certainly counting on him to make a big jump,” McDevitt said. “He’s obviously an elite athlete and a very active player. He uses his athleticism. I think there are guys that are athletic but they don’t necessarily use it out on the basketball floor. Teafale is one that uses it during the game to our team’s advantage.”
Guard- Camryn Weston (Junior)
Weston will be tasked with filling the point guard role with the departure of Donovan Sims. Weston is an elite playmaker who can beat his defender off the dribble and finish at the rim or knock down an open shot if given the opportunity.
Guard- Eli Lawrence (Junior)
Lawrence gives the Blue Raiders another long and explosive athlete as well as another shooter on the perimeter. At times last season, there were stretches of games where Lawrence was tasked with guarding the opponents’ best player and would completely shut them down. If Lawrence can take that next step defensively and put together a 40 minute performance night in and night out, MTSU will be tough to score against.
Forward- Tyler Millin (Junior)
A capable defender in his own right, Millin has a solid build and athleticism. He can make plays all over the court while also being a solid rebounder.
Forward- Teafale Lenard (Sophomore)
Last season Lenard wowed fans with his high-flying athleticism. Seeming as if he was always coming out of nowhere for a ferocious dunk or emphatic block. He showed glimpses of it last year but if he develops a consistent jump shot, Lenard’s potential is through the roof and can take the Blue Raiders to another level.
Center- Deandre Dishman (Redshirt Senior)
Dishman is a bruiser in the paint that also has guard-like skills out on the perimeter. A lot of MTSU’s offense is run through Dishman at the top of the key and a lot of times he has the option to attack his defender off the dribble and finish at the rim.
The Blue Raiders added four new players to this year’s team. Sophomores Jestin Porter and Isiah Lightsy are junior college transfers along with junior TreVon Smith. Tre Green is the lone high school recruit on this year’s squad.
“They’ve done a nice job of transitioning into our team,” McDevitt said of his newcomers. “It can be somewhat intimidating to walk into a locker room full of returning players who won the previous year and try to find your way. I think they’ve kind of settled in waiting to see what their role is while also trying to earn a bigger role.”
Rounding out the roster is Justin Bufford, Elias King, Jalen Jordan, Christian Fussell, Jared Coleman-Jones, and Jack Jubenville.
To prepare itself for the gauntlet of C-USA play, the Blue Raiders loaded up its non-conference schedule. MTSU’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks fifth in the country based on average NET rank of D1 opponents. Taking on teams like Brescia, Winthrop, Stephen F. Austin, St. Bonaventure, Belmont, and Murray State will have McDevitt’s squad battle tested entering conference play.
The early part of the conference schedule will be a test for the Blue Raiders as they will take on Western Kentucky, North Texas, and UAB at home all in a matter of just under three weeks from Dec. 31-Jan. 16. MTSU will also see those same three opponents on the road in a stretch of games between Feb. 9-Mar. 2.
Rice, Charlotte, UTSA, Louisiana Tech, FAU, FIU, and UTEP round out the schedule for the Blue Raiders.
McDevitt’s team was knocked out of the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament last season and is hungry for a shot at redemption. The Blue Raiders had the highest year-to-year win increase in the country a season ago, winning 21 more games in 2022 (26) than it won in 2021 (5). MTSU is out to prove that last season was not a fluke and that they can build on that success.
With the veteran experience that players like Dishman, Lawrence, and Weston bring to the floor, they have just as good a shot as anybody to win the league. Experience and guard play win games in college basketball and the Blue Raiders have a healthy mix of both.
MTSU is in the perfect shape to contend for a Conference USA title once again but they will have to overcome a tough schedule and sustain the consistency that they showed last season.