All Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis wants for Christmas is a win over Vanderbilt.
He’ll get a chance to scratch off the top priority off his wish list when the programs meet at Bridgestone Arena on Friday (8 p.m., ESPNU).
Davis is 0-4 in the series and this might be his last shot at the Commodores for a while. The neutral-site showdown caps off the current five-game series. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said there aren’t any plans to continue the in-state rivalry next year.
“It is probably a time to give somebody else a shot,” Stallings said. “Nevertheless, it has been a good series. We have had some very, very competitive games. ... Any time we play an area team we realize it is their Super Bowl. It is a bigger opportunity for them than us. We’ve been very diligent and consistent in playing area teams. That comes with the territory.”
One of the tightest, back-and-forth affairs occurred last season when Vanderbilt edged MTSU 84-77 in a soldout Memorial Gymnasium that oozed with the feel of an NCAA Tournament game. It was the fifth straight win in the series for the Commodores, who own a 29-4 record all-time against the Blue Raiders.
But Vanderbilt’s big three of Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor are now in the NBA, leaving Stallings with one of his most inexperienced teams in his 14 years at the helm. Many see this as MTSU’s best chance to knock off the Commodores.
“We’re both hunting,” Vanderbilt forward Josh Henderson said. “We haven’t proven ourselves to be one of the big teams yet. So we’re just trying to go out there and make a little statement.”
Davis and the Blue Raiders might be catching the young Commodores at the wrong time. Vanderbilt brings its longest winning streak of the season into the contest.
The Commodores have rattled off three straight wins, which started with a surprising victory at Xavier, and received a boost this week when sophomore shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker returned from an eight-game suspension. With no seniors, Vanderbilt (5-4) has relied on guards Kedren Johnson (17.0 points per game) and Kyle Fuller (13.0).
“Maybe Kevin will give me one, right?” Davis joked earlier this week. “He’s had a couple Christmas presents from us. Vanderbilt is playing much, much better. I knew that would happen. He had a lot of new pieces and those pieces are starting to play. Kevin is such a good coach. It will be, hopefully, a really good college game.”
The Blue Raiders (8-3) return four starters and 11 lettermen from last year’s team, which won the Sun Belt Conference and reached the NIT quarterfinals. They knocked off Ole Miss two weeks ago before suffering an embarrassing road loss to Belmont. They regained some confidence with a lopsided win over Tennessee State on Tuesday.
Davis digs deep into his bench as 10 players average at least 12 minutes. Guard Marcos Knight (12.5 points per game) leads the Blue Raiders, who lead the Sun Belt in field goal percentage (43.8) and scoring defense (60.5 ppg).
Their interior play and ability to crash the boards concerns Stallings.
Shawn Jones, a 6-foot-8 forward, leads the Blue Raiders in the post with 10.0 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. Their depth down low could cause problems as Stallings searches for stronger efforts from his big men Henderson and Shelby Moats.
“It will be a very big challenge for our post players,” Stallings said. “Their guys are old and physical and big and athletic. So it will be an extremely big challenge; it will be a big challenge for our perimeter guys too. Middle just has a good team. They are well put together. They are well coached. ... They have a lot of areas where they present problems and present issues for any team they face and for us in particular. It is probably going to take our best game of the season if we’re going to win.”