GAME NOTES: Two Sun Belt Conference squads heading in opposite directions are set to square off on Saturday afternoon, as the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders entertain the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at the Murphy Center.
WKU's season began promising enough, with the team logging a 10-5 record and recording wins in each of its first four Sun Belt bouts. But since the new year, it has been trending downward, losing five of its last six to fall to 11-10 overall and 5-5 in league play, most recently losing at South Alabama on Thursday in a 65-57 final.
Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee (17-4, 9-1 Sun Belt) has been able to sustain excellence throughout the season, although its best play has come in recent weeks with six straight wins, culminating in a 72-64 triumph over North Texas on Thursday. The Blue Raiders have been especially dominant at home, winning all 11 tilts at the Murphy Center this season, and they have won 22 consecutive regular season games in Murfreesboro.
Middle Tennessee won the latest matchup against Westner Kentucky, 73-67, on Feb. 25, 2012, but the Hilltoppers had won the previous five games and lead the all-time series, 92-35.
The Hilltoppers held a four-point lead over South Alabama early in the second half, but they could not hold on to that advantage down the stretch, as they finished the game shooting less than 37 percent from the field while committing 17 turnovers en route to the eight-point loss. Brandon Harris led the way with 14 points and seven rebounds, and while T.J. Price shot just 4- of-14 from the field, all of his makes came from 3-point range on his way to 13 points. Price's success from beyond the arc was no fluke, as he's drained 44-of-119 (.370) from long-range to help reach his team-leading 14.1 ppg. George Fant (11.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Harris (9.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg) both do a lot of dirty work in the paint. WKU, which ranks eighth in the league in scoring offense (66.3 ppg) and third in scoring defense (64.5 ppg), has been without point guard Jamal Crook (14.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) for the past 10 games as he nurses a foot injury.
Middle Tennessee proved its standing as the elite team in the Sun Belt on Thursday by going into Denton and handling North Texas, shooting better than 53 percent from the field in the eight-point win. Marcos Knight led the way with 15 points, five assists and three steals, while James Gallman (13 points), JT Sulton (11 points) and Neiko Hunter (10 points) rounded out the balanced attack. The Blue Raiders' bench outscored the Mean Green's reserves by an amazing 25-1 margin, which is a microcosm of their season as a whole. Instead of relying on a few star players, MT incorporates a large rotation, as eight players net at least 5.4 ppg and 11 different players have been mixed and matched for nearly a new starting lineup every night. Among the standout performers are Marcos Knight (12.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 spg), Shawn Jones (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 bpg) and Raymond Cintron (8.2 ppg). The well- rounded effort results in 69.5 ppg for the Blue Raiders, and no team in the league allows fewer points (58.3 ppg).
With WKU struggling and Middle Tennessee playing its best basketball of the season lately, this is an easy outcome to predict, especially considering the Blue Raiders prowess on their home floor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Middle Tennessee 71, Western Kentucky 60
01/26 10:37:08 ET
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