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November 21, 2008
The Volunteers are ranked No. 14 and are the favorite to win the SEC, while the Blue Raiders are the favorite to win the Sun Belt and believe they have their best team in more than a decade. For the first time in four years, Middle Tennessee's Murphy Center is sold out, and there's talk the game could draw the biggest crowd in school history.
But you won't catch Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis getting caught up the hype. In fact, Davis sounds as if he's trying to downplay the magnitude of the matchup.
That's largely because Middle Tennessee has a game looming with another SEC opponent 72 hours later. The Blue Raiders travel to nearby Vanderbilt (1-0) on Monday night.
"Anytime you can play a nationally ranked opponent it's a big game, and the fact that it's the University of Tennessee does add some significance," Davis said. "But this is not a make-or-break game by any means. If we beat Tennessee it would be a fantastic win and I'm sure it would help in March, but we've got to turn around and play another big game on Monday night. It's only November and there is so much basketball left. Remember, Gardner-Webb had an unbelievable win over Kentucky at this time last season and ended up finishing in a tie for fifth in the Atlantic Sun."
The fact Davis is even talking about beating Tennessee is stunning. The Vols rolled to a 109-40 victory over the Blue Raiders in Knoxville last season. The Vols were up 61-21 at the half and tied a school record with 16 3-pointers. It was the first time in Davis' seven seasons at MTSU that the Blue Raiders allowed more than 100 points.
But there are reasons to believe the rematch will be competitive, which is why it has been selected as Rivals.com's Game of the Week. OK, that and the fact some matchups have yet to be determined because of ongoing tournament play.
For starters, Middle Tennessee is much improved. The Blue Raiders won 10 of their last 14 games last season. Two of those wins came against a South Alabama team that earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
All five starters are back, giving Davis the most experienced team of his tenure at MTSU. The roster includes 12 juniors and seniors, eight of whom have experience.
The Vols don't have nearly as much experience. Veteran guards Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell, who combined for 15 of those 3-pointers and 58 points in the last meeting, are gone. They've been replaced in the starting lineup by three newcomers, including two true freshmen.
Still, the Vols remain extremely talented, as evidenced by blowout wins over Chattanooga (114-75) and Tennessee-Martin (91-64) in their first two games.
"They don't have as much experience, but they are more athletic and longer," Davis said. "This is the deepest and most athletic team [Tennessee coach] Bruce Pearl has had."
Middle Tennessee's Nigel Johnson vs. Tennessee's Bobby Maze
Middle Tennessee's Kevin Kanaskie vs. Tennessee's Scotty Hopson
Middle Tennessee's Demetrius Green vs. Tennessee's Renaldo Woolridge
Middle Tennessee's Calvin O'Neil vs. Tennessee's Tyler Smith
Middle Tennessee's Desmond Yates vs. Tennessee's Wayne Chism
Prediction: Tennessee 87, Middle Tennessee 71
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.