HUNTINGTON — Middle Tennessee’s men’s basketball team hasn’t had much to cheer about this season.
The Blue Raiders have struggled with COVID-19 and consistency, especially in Conference USA, where they had just one win in their first eight games.
That somewhat changed last weekend, however, as the Blue Raiders earned a sweep of Charlotte, earning a 66-65 win on Friday night before dominating early in a 73-60 win over the 49ers on Saturday.
“They’ve gotten better,” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni said of the Blue Raiders. “They started out and couldn’t make shots, but they’re starting to make some shots and won the last two, obviously. They’re still playing hard so they’re a dangerous team.”
While the sweep offered some needed medicine to Middle Tennessee (5-11, 3-7 C-USA), there was also some bad news to the weekend as leading scorer Dontrell Shuler was lost for the rest of the season following an injury on Friday night.
With Shuler out, leadership falls into the hands of guard Jordan Davis, who took it in stride last weekend.
Davis had a big 3-pointer late that led to the 66-65 win, then scored 17 points to lead the Blue Raiders on Saturday.
While Davis is going to be big, the key for the Blue Raiders’ success is going to be their zone defense, which kept Charlotte at bay.
With the zone defense active, Charlotte’s movement without the basketball was limited, which led to poor shooting opportunities.
Middle Tennessee also did a good job of taking away Charlotte’s best option, guard Jahmir Young, who is one of Conference USA’s top scorers.
Young was just 4 of 17 from the floor on Saturday night, which accented the troubles of the 49ers on the offensive end.
Everything for Charlotte was perimeter-based, which led to the struggles on the offensive end.
“Sometimes you start looking a little lethargic or a little slower because you’re not sure where you’re going and what you’re doing,” D’Antoni said. “I think with us, our offense is free-flow, so it works in zones or man.”
The good thing for Marshall (10-5, 4-4 C-USA) is how guard Taevion Kinsey — the second-leading scorer in Conference USA at 19.8 points per game — works into the high post, which creates a mismatch for the Herd.
Kinsey’s ability to catch in that position allows him to either shoot over the defense, attack the basket, or kick out to the open man as the defense converges on him.
“Obviously, they’ll have to adjust their zone, which I’m sure they’re looking at it right now,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got to expect that they are going to adjust a little bit and we’ll have to have a counter to it, which I think I’ve got in my head.”
In addition to Kinsey’s presence, D’Antoni said Marshall’s ability to move the ball quickly and shoot from the outside to extend the defense is crucial against the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee kept Charlotte to an 8-for-28 performance from 3-point range in the two games last weekend, but D’Antoni expects his team to test the Blue Raiders from the outside.
“We’ve got guys who can stretch zones way out there,” D’Antoni said. “Mikel Beyers, Jarrod [West], Jannson [Williams] — all those guys can shoot deep 3s. It forces the defense to open that middle up a little bit, soften it up to get Taevion up in there.”