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November 21, 2008

Tennessee prepared to face in-state test

MORE: Inside look: Tennessee-Middle Tennessee preview

Tennessee (2-0) will be playing at Middle Tennessee (2-0) for the first time in the regular season Friday night.

The Volunteers are ranked No. 14 and are the favorite to win the SEC, while the Blue Raiders are the favorite to win the Sun Belt and believe they have their best team in more than a decade. For the first time in four years, Middle Tennessee's Murphy Center is sold out, and there's talk the game could draw the biggest crowd in school history.

But you won't catch Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis getting caught up the hype. In fact, Davis sounds as if he's trying to downplay the magnitude of the matchup.

That's largely because Middle Tennessee has a game looming with another SEC opponent 72 hours later. The Blue Raiders travel to nearby Vanderbilt (1-0) on Monday night.

"Anytime you can play a nationally ranked opponent it's a big game, and the fact that it's the University of Tennessee does add some significance," Davis said. "But this is not a make-or-break game by any means. If we beat Tennessee it would be a fantastic win and I'm sure it would help in March, but we've got to turn around and play another big game on Monday night. It's only November and there is so much basketball left. Remember, Gardner-Webb had an unbelievable win over Kentucky at this time last season and ended up finishing in a tie for fifth in the Atlantic Sun."

The fact Davis is even talking about beating Tennessee is stunning. The Vols rolled to a 109-40 victory over the Blue Raiders in Knoxville last season. The Vols were up 61-21 at the half and tied a school record with 16 3-pointers. It was the first time in Davis' seven seasons at MTSU that the Blue Raiders allowed more than 100 points.

But there are reasons to believe the rematch will be competitive, which is why it has been selected as Rivals.com's Game of the Week. OK, that and the fact some matchups have yet to be determined because of ongoing tournament play.

For starters, Middle Tennessee is much improved. The Blue Raiders won 10 of their last 14 games last season. Two of those wins came against a South Alabama team that earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

All five starters are back, giving Davis the most experienced team of his tenure at MTSU. The roster includes 12 juniors and seniors, eight of whom have experience.

The Vols don't have nearly as much experience. Veteran guards Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell, who combined for 15 of those 3-pointers and 58 points in the last meeting, are gone. They've been replaced in the starting lineup by three newcomers, including two true freshmen.

Still, the Vols remain extremely talented, as evidenced by blowout wins over Chattanooga (114-75) and Tennessee-Martin (91-64) in their first two games.

"They don't have as much experience, but they are more athletic and longer," Davis said. "This is the deepest and most athletic team [Tennessee coach] Bruce Pearl has had."

The Breakdown

Middle Tennessee's Nigel Johnson vs. Tennessee's Bobby Maze
This probably will be the most critical matchup, largely because Johnson has the potential to break the Volunteers' press and create easy baskets or crumble under the full-court pressure and cough up costly turnovers. The 6-foot-2 senior point guard may be the fastest player in the Sun Belt Conference and excels in the open court, but he also has a penchant for poor decision-making. That's got to be a concern for the Blue Raiders because the Vols have made plenty of good decision-makers look bad. The 6-2 Maze, a highly touted junior college transfer, was brought in to be the Vols' next point guard - and he looks like an ideal fit so far. Athletic and explosive, Maze has racked up 17 assists while committing just three turnovers. Maze played at Oklahoma two years ago, so going on the road and facing a hostile crowd shouldn't be a daunting task.

Middle Tennessee's Kevin Kanaskie vs. Tennessee's Scotty Hopson
This is a battle between the old, crafty veteran and the young, athletic phenom. Hopson, a true freshman, has all the makings of a future first-round draft pick. The 6-7 wing has great size, a quick first step and shooting range that extends well beyond the new 3-point line. He went 3-for-6 from beyond the arc in the Vols' season opener. Kanaskie, a 6-2 senior, lacks the size or speed to match up with Hopson for long stretches and probably will take turns guarding the future pro. But the Blue Raiders need big contributions from Kanaskie on offense to pull off an upset. Kanaskie is one of the top outside shooters in the Sun Belt. He knocked down all six attempts from 3-point range in MTSU's season opener. He also is the Blue Raiders' best passer and already has dished out 20 assists this season. Kanaskie is a reliable ballhandler and will be needed to help break Tennessee's press.

Middle Tennessee's Demetrius Green vs. Tennessee's Renaldo Woolridge
Green, a 6-4 senior wing, has yet to play this season due to a four-game academic suspension (two of the games missed were exhibitions), but he'll move right into the starting lineup. Green, who is best at attacking off the dribble, was the Blue Raiders' second-leading scorer (12.5 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (4.6 rpg) last season. Green also enters this game with something to prove. He had his worst game of last season at Tennessee, committing seven turnovers and scoring only two points. The 6-8 Woolridge (whose father, Orlando, played 13 seasons in the NBA) is a true freshman who, like Hopson, has also started the Vols' first two games. The former four-star recruit has mostly been a role player so far, but his size could create problems for the undersized Blue Raiders.

Middle Tennessee's Calvin O'Neil vs. Tennessee's Tyler Smith
The 6-4 O'Neil will draw the unenviable task of guarding the 6-7 Smith, the SEC's Preseason Player of the Year and a legitimate national player of the year candidate. Smith, a junior, has a good handle, can score inside and outside and rebounds well. Smith also has great vision and is a superb passer who won't hesitate to feed the ball to an open teammate. O'Neil, a fourth-year junior, took a medical redshirt last season. The veteran is a solid defender and can score around the basket, but the Blue Raiders might need his rebounding more than anything.

Middle Tennessee's Desmond Yates vs. Tennessee's Wayne Chism
Yates, the Sun Belt preseason player of the year, should be going head-to-head with Smith, but he has been forced to play down low due to an ankle injury to starting center Theryn Hudson. Davis said Hudson is a "game-time decision," but it's doubtful the big man will play heavy minutes. He didn't even dress for the first two games. That means the 6-6 Yates will have to guard the 6-9 Chism. Yates, an excellent finisher around the basket, is off to an impressive start. He has made 76 percent of his field goal attempts (16-of-21) and is averaging 19.5 points per game. Chism, who will step outside and fire 3-pointers, is also playing well. He has had double-doubles in each of the Vols' first two games (14 points and 13 rebounds versus UTC and 11 and 10 against UT-Martin).

This is the area of biggest disparity. The Vols have the potential to be one of the deeper teams in the nation. Three of their top four scorers come off the bench. That includes versatile guard J.P. Prince (12.5 ppg), the SEC's 2007-08 sixth man of the year, 6-10 center Brian Williams (13.5 ppg) and swingman Cameron Tatum (14.5 ppg). Williams scored a career-high 21 points and pulled down 12 boards versus UT-Martin while Tatum scored 19 points in 21 minutes versus Chattanooga. Middle Tennessee doesn't have that kind of firepower on its bench. It does have a solid group of guards to utilize, including junior-college transfer Eric Allen (10.0 ppg) - a dangerous 3-point shooter. If the 6-10 Hudson plays, he will come off the bench. The Blue Raiders badly need some quality minutes out of the big man. He is the only player on their roster capable of offering a legitimate inside presence.

When it comes to the top turnarounds in recent years, the one Bruce Pearl has pulled off at Tennessee may rank among the best. The Vols were coming off a losing season and hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in four years when Pearl showed up in 2005 with a frenetic style of play he likes to call "controlled chaos." The Vols shocked everyone by capturing a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in Pearl's first year. That was followed by back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16. Thanks to winning some big recruiting battles, Pearl has them positioned to go even further this year. Davis, whose teams are known for scrappy defense, has done a solid job since coming to MTSU in 2002 after a four-year stint as an assistant at LSU. Five of his six seasons with the Sun Belt program have produced winning records, and the Blue Raiders made a surprising run to the league tournament final last season. But he has yet to have what could be called a breakthrough year, and the Blue Raiders have not earned a postseason bid since 1989.

Bottom Line
There are some factors working in Middle Tennessee's favor here. Not only are the Blue Raiders more experienced and playing at home, but they also face the Vols at an opportune time. This will be only the third game together for the young backcourt of Maze and Hopson. It's only the third college game for Hopson and the two other true freshmen who play (Woolridge and power forward Emmanuel Negedu) and the first road trip for each. History is also on the Blue Raiders' side. Tennessee's only other trip to Murfreesboro resulted in a loss, with the Vols falling 85-80 in an NIT first-round matchup in 1988. Still, the Vols have a huge talent advantage. They also have a lot more size, especially if Hudson can't play. Ultimately, their athleticism, length, depth and their full-court pressure - probably the biggest hurdle for the Blue Raiders - will wear down yet another in-state opponent.

Prediction: Tennessee 87, Middle Tennessee 71

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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