FACTS & STATS: Site: Summit Arena (6,200) -- Hot Springs, Arkansas. Television: Sun Belt Network, CSS. Home Record: Louisiana 10-5, MT 16-0. Away Record: Louisiana 2-14, MT 11-3. Neutral Record: Louisiana 1-0, MT 0-1. Conference Record: Louisiana 8-12, MT 19-1. Series Record: Middle Tennessee leads, 11-6.
GAME NOTES: The top-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders begin their quest for a conference championship on Saturday night, as they take on the eighth-seeded Louisiana Ragin Cajuns in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Awaiting the winner in the semifinals will be either FIU or Arkansas-Little Rock.
Louisiana underachieved this season, finishing 8-12 in the Sun Belt, but it has come on of late with back-to-back wins, including a convincing 74-55 triumph over North Texas in the first round on Friday night to improve to 13-19 overall.
Middle Tennessee won the SBC regular-season title for the second consecutive year in dominating fashion, going 19-1 in the league to set a conference record for most wins in a league season, and its 27 victories overall has matched last year's school-record total. The Blue Raiders are riding an incredible 16-game win streak, with their most recent triumph coming at Western Kentucky last Saturday, 70-62.
Middle Tennessee won both matchups with Louisiana this season by a combined 46 points. The Blue Raiders have now won eight in a row over the Cajuns and lead the all-time series, 11-6.
Although the Cajuns shot a modest 42.6 percent from the field in their first- round matchup, they held North Texas to an even worse 37.3 percent as they cruised to the 19-point victory. Pacing the strong effort was an outstanding all-around performance from Elfrid Payton, who tallied 20 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Bryant Mbamalu and Alan- Michael Thompson were also impressive with 16 points apiece, while Shawn Long notched a double-double with 12 points and 11 boards. Scoring points is rarely Louisiana's issue, as it pours in 71.0 ppg, but it has failed to join the upper-echelon in the conference this season in part because of a porous defense (72.9 ppg). Payton was an All-SBC First-Team selection with 15.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.5 apg and 2.4 spg, while Long (15.7 ppg, 10.3 ppg, 2.0 bpg) was named the league's Freshman of the Year. Mbamalu is an excellent third option, netting 13.8 ppg.
The Blue Raiders were far from their usual dominating selves the last time out, as they trailed WKU with under six minutes to play, but they caught fire down the stretch, ending the game on a 16-5 run to close out the regular season in style. They shot 48 percent from the field and 18-of-19 from the foul line, with JT Sulton's 17 points and seven rebounds leading the way. Bruce Massey added 11 points, and Shawn Jones chipped in 10 points to the winning effort. Middle Tennessee's statistical dominance is well-documented, as it ranks first in the SBC in scoring offense (71.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.465), 3-point percentage (.384), scoring defense (57.4 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.395) for a scoring margin (+14.0), more than twice that of the next-best team. Although All-SBC First Team selection Marcos Knight (12.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is the only player to average double figures on a nightly basis, conference Coach of the Year Kermit Davis employs a balanced and deep rotation, with seven others averaging at least 5.0 ppg. Leading the suffocating defensive attack is Massey, who was named the SBC Defensive Player of the Year.
Louisiana has a handful of playmakers, which make it a very dangerous team on any given night, but Middle Tennessee has been so dominant this season that it's hard to imagine it coming out flat in this one.