The old adage is that practice makes perfect and Kermit Davis believes it is that simple when explaining the recent success of his Middle Tennessee State men’s basketball team.
The Blue Raiders’ veteran coach points to the work done before the games as to why MTSU has won five straight and seven of its last eight.
“We were a good practice team before but now we’ve really become a lot more diligent, more focused, more verbal in practice,” Davis, in his ninth year at the helm, said. “I think that carries over to games.”
It has made difference in the win-loss column for the Blue Raiders, who won a share of the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship last year. This year they have moved their way up the standings to second place in the Eastern Division. Middle Tennessee (14-12, 9-4) trails only Florida Atlantic (18-9, 10-3) in the conference race.
The play as of late has been welcoming for a Blue Raider squad that went 5-8 in non-conference play in November and December. But Davis points out they were close to making that record 10-3. Yes, they lost blowouts to Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Furman — which Davis called the low point — but they also lost five games by seven points or less to Alabama-Birmingham, Auburn, Belmont, Evansville and Campbell.
All of those losses came before the school's Christmas break. Since then the Blue Raiders, who play at Troy on Thursday, are 10-4.
“I think the break kind of did us good and we had really good practices right after Christmas and it just kind of led us to really improving,” Davis said. “I just think when you put the emphasis on practice and we kept grinding away. ... We have always been able to get our teams to play really well in February, ever since we have been here. That is just one of those things we kept pointing toward. Give our players a lot of credit. They hung right in there with some tough losses and kind of fought themselves out of it.”
Defense helped. In the last eight games, only twice has an opponent scored more than 63 points. In five of their non-conference setbacks, MTSU allowed more than 70 points.
The Blue Raiders have played more of a 1-3-1 zone trap along with their regular man-to-man scheme and it appears to have paid off.
They rank fifth in the conference in both scoring defense (68.4 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (44 percent). But perhaps the most telling number is that they are second in the league in steals with 221.
“I think right now we have become maybe the best defensive team in the league over the last three or four weeks,” Davis said. “[The steals] have really helped us offensively to get some easy baskets.”
Leading the way in that department is senior guard James Washington, whose 43 steals are tied for the third-most in the conference.
“He has gotten a lot better,” Davis said. “He has become a more determined defender, which has helped our team.”
Washington also leads the team in scoring with 14.2 points a game. UTEP transfer Jason Jones has also added a boost, with 13.3 points a game.
Davis, however, said getting consistent post production has been just as important. Though their stats might not pop out, the play of J.T. Sulton (8.1 ppg) and Trevor Ottley (5.7 ppg), along with guard James Gallman (7.8 ppg), has been extremely valuable to the Blue Raiders.
“The biggest key for us was one getting one or two of these inside guys to be able to score around the goal,” Davis said. “When we get one or two guys to do that, we become a really, really good team.”
• Four in a Rowe: Middle Tennessee State freshman Ebony Rowe nabbed her fourth Sun Belt Conference player of the week award, the league announced Monday.
Her fourth honor is the most by any Sun Belt freshman and she is just the sixth player in conference history to win at least four in the same season.
Rowe, a 6-foot-1 forward from Lexington, Ky., averaged 21.5 points and 13 rebounds in two wins last week for the Blue Raiders, who clinched the East Division title. On Wednesday against Western Kentucky, she scored 18 of her 21 points after halftime and grabbed 13 rebounds, nine of which came in the second half. On Saturday against Florida International, she had 22 points and 13 boards. For the week, she made 57.1 percent of her field goals and 73.3 percent of her free throws.
She now has 14 double-doubles and is averaging 17.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and a 59.9 field goal percentage which ranks second, first and second, respectively, in the league.
MTSU (21-5, 12-1), which has won four straight, plays at Troy (Ala.) on Thursday.
• Trevecca’s Tidwell is tops: Trevecca Nazarene junior outfielder Matt Tidwell was named the TranSouth Athletic Conference’s player of the week, the league announced Tuesday.
The Trojans went 4-1 during the first week of play as Tidwell is batting .500 with six RBIs, six runs scored, three doubles and three stolen bases. The Dickson native has a slugging percentage of .636 and a .542 on-base percentage.
• A-Sun baseball openers: Belmont and Lipscomb will open up their 2011 baseball seasons at home this weekend.
Belmont hosts Illinois State, which reached an NCAA regional last year, for a three-game series starting at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Shelby Field and running through Sunday. Lipscomb hosts Dayton at 3 p.m. Friday at Duggan Field. The Bisons then play a split doubleheader against Bradley and Dayton on Saturday and close out the weekend with a lone game against Bradley on Sunday.
Belmont was picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Sun Conference in a preseason coaches’ poll released last week. The Bruins, who were 27-27 and 13-13 in the A-Sun a year ago, placed three players on the preseason All-Atlantic Sun team. Designated hitter Nate Woods was a unanimous choice and relief pitcher Jon Ivie, a native of Summertown, Tenn., and outfielder Dylan Craig (a former Baylor School standout) were also all-conference selections.
Lipscomb went 19-36 and 9-17 in conference play last season and was picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll.
• Former MTSU standout nominated: Former Middle Tennessee State standout and two-time All-American Alysha Clark has been nominated for two awards to be presented at the 13th annual Pepsi Celebration of Champions, the Nashville Sports Council announced on Tuesday.
Clark, who starred at Mount Juliet High School, is one of five nominees for the Sports Person of the Year and the Ed Temple Female Amateur Athletics awards. The award ceremony will be held March 9 at the Grand Ole Opry House. Clark was a second-round pick by the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA and is currently playing professional basketball in Israel.
• Two straight for TSU’s Foster: Tennessee State forward Tayla Foster picked up her second straight Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the week award, the league announced Monday.
Foster, a 5-foot-10 native of Madisonville, Ky., scored a career-high 33 points to go along with 11 rebounds for her second double-double in the Lady Tigers’ 81-71 victory against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville last Tuesday. She followed that up with 16 points — all in the second half — and seven rebounds in a 74-66 loss to Austin Peay.
Heading into Thursday’s game at Tennessee Tech, Foster leads TSU (7-18, 4-11) in scoring with 12.5 points a game.
• MTSU tennis awards: Middle Tennessee State’s Yuiri Nomoto and Ben Davis were named Sun Belt Conference tennis players of the week, the league announced last week.
On the women’s side, Nomoto is the No. 1 singles player and is on the No. 1 doubles team, being paired with Carla Nava or Lisa Maas. Nomoto, a native of Japan, led the team with 14 singles wins last year, and started the season off 6-0, with three wins each in singles and doubles before Sunday’s match at No. 55 Marshall. There, Nomoto, a sophomore, lost her first singles and doubles matches of the year.
On the men’s side, Davis has won seven straight singles matches to open the spring season. He has won six of those from the No. 3 position. Davis, a freshman from London, is 4-3 in doubles play with Shaun Waters.