The Villanova Wildcats will open the Myrtle Beach Invitational on Thursday afternoon against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Before you read any further, please take note that this game is at 11:30 a.m. Primetime.
The Myrtle Beach Invitational, entering its 2nd year, is a tournament played at the HTC Center, which is located on the campus of Coastal Carolina University. This year’s tournament will feature the Villanova Wildcats, the #24 Baylor Bears, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the Ohio Bobcats, the Tulane Green Wave, the Utah Utes, and the host team, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Facing the Wildcats in their first game of the tournament are the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee. Middle Tennessee, located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is out of Conference USA and led by second year coach Nick McDevitt.
Many of you will remember Middle Tennessee from its epic upset of the Michigan State Spartans in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. That season, the Spartans were the consensus #1 team in country before losing Denzel Valentine to injury, and ultimately dropping to the 2-line in the Big Dance. Regardless, the Spartans were Vegas’ favorite to cut down the nets in Houston before being bounced by the Blue Raiders.
(Trivia time: Which team cut down the nets in Houston?*)
Most of you will also recall that Middle Tennessee was knocked out in the second round by #11 Syracuse, a team that did not face a single-digit seed until outlasting #2 Virginia in the Elite Eight and joining the ‘Cats in the Final Four.
This year’s squad is unlikely to repeat that success just yet as the team is still in the middle of a transition. Two years ago, coach Kermit Davis left the program after nearly 15 years at the helm and was followed by significant losses both to graduation and attrition.
Since then, Nick McDevitt has slowly been leading the rebuild. Fun fact: Nick McDevitt, before coming to Middle Tennessee, was the head coach of UNC-Asheville, a team that made the above-referenced 2016 NCAA Tournament before being knocked out by the bluest of blue bloods.**
As for 2019, the Blue Raiders are 3-1 on the young season with their lone loss coming to host Coastal Carolina this past Monday. Middle Tennessee is ranked #182 in KenPom and hovers around that same ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Beyond that, the most glaring statistic for the Blue Raiders is their pace. Middle Tennessee likes to play fast...very fast. They run the 10th quickest offense in the country and are presently averaging 90 points per game. They appear to have little to no interest playing defense and, if tested, will concede easy baskets in favor of keeping their collective foot on the gas.
Terror from (the) Deep
However, Middle Tennessee, at least on paper, boasts two stats that could scare ‘Nova fans (but to which I am sure all posters here will react calmly and rationally). The Blue Raiders shoot a lot of threes (35th in the county)…and they make 43% of them (16th in the country). To put that in perspective, three point buckets make up 46% of Middle Tennessee’s offense…merely ten spots below Villanova on the “holy sh*^ we shoot a lot of threes” scale. R3sp3ct.
Guards on Guards on Guards
Middle Tennessee is led by the dynamic guard tandem of Antonio Green and C.J. Jones, collectively averaging 43.5 points per game. I’m sure everyone is loving where this preview is going.
Antonio Green, a 6’2 senior transfer from Texas Rio Grande Valley, is the team’s starting point guard and is averaging 23.5 points in over 32 minutes per game. He’s presently shooting 41% from three and tends to make his money beyond the arc, averaging over 9 attempts a game.
As for C.J. Jones, the 6’5 junior transfer from Arkansas is averaging 20 points a game at a 50% clip from the field and 60% from deep. Jones appears to have more a mid-range game than Green and the duo will undoubtedly test the defensive switches of the young Wildcats.
Beyond that leading guard tandem, there is…you guessed it…another guard, Jayce Johnson. Middle Tennessee starts three guards, all 6’5 and under, and their roster has just one contributor over 6’8. Johnson is chipping in 11 points per game but has attempted just 2 three point shots the entire season. He shot just 12% from deep last year and, unequivocally, looks to create inside in the arc. He’s young (only a sophomore) and extremely streaky, but will take defenders to the rim if he’s given the chance.
This game, and the fact that the Wildcats will be facing three starting guards who all appear to pose very different offensive threats, will surely test both Villanova’s scouting reports and the team’s ability to stay disciplined on defense.
As for Villanova’s offense, the defense of Middle Tennessee does not present any obvious challenges to the Wildcats. As noted above, the Blue Raiders lack size and rank sub-160 in both block and steal percentage. Middle Tennessee rarely generates turnovers and the team as a whole ranks in the bottom half of nearly every defensive category. The Blue Raiders want to make this a track meet and a chuckfest. Defense be damned.
As noted above, the game tips off at 11:30 a.m. on ESPN2.
2019 Myrtle Beach Invitational Bracket
** US AGAIN.