Stephens: Blue Raiders as good as it gets in the Sun Belt

Brad Stephens

I almost spit up my Ale-8 when I saw Ray Harper’s quote about Middle Tennessee on Tuesday.

“I’d say the only team on our schedule that I’ve seen that’s better than them is Louisville,” WKU’s coach said. “I really believe if Middle and Louisville played tomorrow, it’d be a heck of a basketball game.”

Never mind that Harper said MTSU, which WKU plays in Murfreesboro on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN2), could hang with No. 5 U of L.

That quote also leads one to believe he thinks the Blue Raiders are better than No. 19 VCU — a team which ran roughshod over the Toppers 76-44 about a month ago.

Folks familiar with Sun Belt basketball also have preconceived notions about MTSU as a team that never lives up to its talent. That was never more evident than last year.

MTSU coach Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders walked through the 2011-12 regular with a 14-2 league record, only to choke and lose 64-61 to No. 9-seed Arkansas State in their first game at the Sun Belt Tournament.

With that kind of recent history, you can understand my skepticism over the Blue Raiders.

I got online and watched some of this year’s MTSU games to see if Harper’s compliments weren’t just him pumping up the opponent for his team.

It turns out he may be exactly right.

This year’s Blue Raiders look like the Sun Belt’s best team since WKU circa the Courtney Lee, Orlando Mendez-Valdez era.

MTSU’s biggest strength is its depth and experience. The Blue Raiders’ rotation goes about 10-deep, and a few of the guys coming off the bench would start at most schools in the league.

The Knight brothers, Marcos and Tweety, are a dynamic guard combination. Shawn Jones is a load in the post. Raymond Cintron is a dead-eye three-point shooter. Kerry Hammonds, Bruce Massey and J.T. Sulton are all solid veteran players.

Compare that rotation to a WKU squad hampered by injury (T.J. Price, Caden Dickerson, Jamal Crook), lack of production in the post, and a lack of dynamic players to turn to off the bench.

If it weren’t for junior college transfer Brandon Harris, the Toppers’ clear MVP thus far, they would probably be under .500.

MTSU will be the best team WKU has faced since a loss to U of L on Dec. 22. That’s not a good sign for a team that went into Thursday’s game against South Alabama losers of four of its last five.

Unless you’re an optimist, it’s hard to see the Toppers leaving the “Historic” (translation: old and decrepit) Murphy Center Saturday with a win.

But there is precedent for WKU pulling such an upset.

One year ago the Toppers started their end-of-the-year run with a 73-67 Senior Night win over a heavily-favored Blue Raiders squad in front of a frenzied Diddle Arena.

WKU fans may remember that night as the day where a red blazer-clad Harper took the mic and told the sold-out crowd his team had “only just begun.”

From there, the Toppers went on to a Sun Belt title and NCAA Tournament berth.

This year’s WKU squad has a chance to make another statement like that Saturday down the road in Murfreesboro.

But to do it, they’ll have to overcome a really good MTSU team — the best Sun Belt side they’ll face this year.